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The Official Student News Site of Parkway West High

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The Official Student News Site of Parkway West High

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A paradox of parasociality

Our idols aren’t our friends — so why do we treat them like they are?
Celebrities+are+inescapable+in+our+day-to-day+lives%2C+constantly+reminding+us+of+whatever+is+newest+in+their+lives.+And+for+us+on+the+receiving+end%2C+we+find+ourselves+devoting+time+and+effort+to+vie+for+just+the+tiniest+sliver+of+their+attention.+%E2%80%9C%5BTaylor+Swift%5D+is+my+favorite+celebrity%2C+and+to+me+she+means+someone+who+is+kind%2C+smart+and+caring%2C%E2%80%9D+junior+Swati+Kumar+said.+%E2%80%9CI+feel+connected+to+her+and+her+music%3B+I+listen+to+her+everyday+and+I+find+%5Bher%5D+very+relatable.%E2%80%9D+
Samir Shaik
Celebrities are inescapable in our day-to-day lives, constantly reminding us of whatever is newest in their lives. And for us on the receiving end, we find ourselves devoting time and effort to vie for just the tiniest sliver of their attention. “[Taylor Swift] is my favorite celebrity, and to me she means someone who is kind, smart and caring,” junior Swati Kumar said. “I feel connected to her and her music; I listen to her everyday and I find [her] very relatable.”

Artfully posed on magazine covers lining the checkout aisles at grocery stores, splashed on the top headlines of every major news site and posting daily to their swarms of devoted fans on social media — celebrities are everywhere. They constantly reach down to us from their pedestal of elevated status and their piles of cash, spanning across the great divide of the velvet rope to give us small peeks into their lives that we, on the other side, are quick to consume. Their permanence is baked into the culture of our current world, constantly taking up large parts of our minds. And, whether we like it or not, they’re here to stay. 

Celebrities are people of high status and fame typically known for a given craft or specific niche, like a singer, actor or athlete. Their prominence in the media and our lives isn’t anything particularly new. Revered stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, born in 1844, is widely considered to be the first modern celebrity because of her groundbreaking and boundary-pushing work in the field of performance art. But a lot of time has passed since Bernhardt first graced the stage, and celebrity culture is changing, more particularly due to the rise of social media usage. 

Prior to social media’s conception, celebrities who had large, diasporic fan bases had no easy way to interact with all of them at once. But now they can respond to individual comments and post videos to everyone who follows them every time they open their phones. Oftentimes, celebrities’ public relations teams ask them to create accounts on social media, especially when they are publicizing their recent projects — like new albums or a starring role in a big movie. While regularly posting might seem like a chore to some celebrities, within those 15 seconds or 280 characters, there is enough content to send their most devoted fans into a frenzy, which has both positive and negative effects. 

On one hand, social media can be an outlet for celebrities to create a real, tangible influence in the world because they can utilize their respective fanbases as a means of achieving a certain task. An example of this is singer-songwriter Taylor Swift and her regular posts encouraging her fans to vote around the time of a major election, which created a surge in voter registration immediately after they were posted. Swift benefits from having an incredibly large audience who supports her and, upon seeing the ideals she endorses through social media, is more likely to mimic those same ideals. Junior Brooke Hoenecke, a self-proclaimed ‘Swiftie,’ uses social media — specifically Instagram — as a way of keeping up with the superstar and interacting with fellow fans.

“I like to research fan theories about when her next album might come out and I get a lot of [Taylor Swift related] content recommended to me on Instagram, which I love,” Hoenecke said. “I don’t normally stop by her Instagram or read up on her personal life willingly, but if it gets recommended to me [then] I’ll definitely take a look at it.”

Senior Swati Kumar also uses social media for this purpose.

“I think that I’m an easily influenced person,” Kumar said. “I don’t consistently spend a lot of money on [Swift,] but if I see something related to her, I want it.”

Besides Swift, Kumar admires and has looked up to prominent Bollywood movie star Shah Rukh Khan for most of her life. 

“Ever since I was little, I watched him on TV. I really care about him; I think he’s so charismatic and kind on-screen and off,” Kumar said. 

However, usage of social media isn’t all positives, because the lives that many celebrities seemingly live online are frequently edited, falsified and exaggerated to look a certain way. Due to their constant overexposure in the media cultural prevalence, unhealthy comparisons begin forming between fans and celebrities, with social media only exacerbating the issue. Many celebrities unconsciously can stir up body image issues among their fans through social media posting. It’s unfair for fans to compare their reality to the fictive, unobtainable level of reality on which celebrities seem to live, which even though it isn’t directly any celebrity’s fault, it is a real consequence of continuous conscious exposure to their lives.

“It is very easy to compare yourself to celebrities, especially when it seems like their lives are 100 percent awesome,” junior Shirah Ramaji said. “But it’s also important to remember that [social media] is 0.1 percent of what their lives are really like, and no one’s life is that perfect.” 

Another more unanticipated effect of social media on celebrity culture is the rise of the modern “influencer,” or a person that gains popularity and traction primarily through the use of social platforms. Because of the differences in the beginnings of their career, many influencers aren’t known for any specific talent in the same way that traditional celebrities are. Most of the time, they are simply known for their “hype,” or the amount of followers they have and interactions they participate in. Because of influencers’ apparent lack of niche, there is debate on whether or not they should even be considered under the celebrity umbrella. 

Recently, however, it’s become harder and harder to discern where the line between celebrity and influencer actually is. Influencers are appearing on talk shows, starring in movies, making music and even attending the Met Gala, all activities that were traditionally only performed by celebrities. Has the bar lowered, or have times just changed?

The rising prevalence of influencers in modern society has sparked discourse on celebrity culture. Critics often argue that influencers and celebrities are still both “overrated” and “talentless,” which makes them undeserving of their wealth and fame. Simultaneously as those critics complain everywhere from online forums to organized newspapers, they also fault the fanbases of the celebrities themselves, saying that there is no point in devoting so much time and attention to a person who doesn’t even know you exist.

“I feel like I know a lot about Taylor Swift, or at least definitely more than the average person,” Hoenecke said. “I listen to her music every day, and I know about her discography as a whole.” 

In some ways, the critics’ arguments are true. Why do some of us find so much joy in the lives of the rich and famous? Why are we more inclined to buy products that they make or endorse? It’s more than just an interest in whatever they’re known for, be it music, sports or something else entirely. The true reason for why we make these elite few into something above what we are and why we are so susceptible to their marketing ploys comes from deep within our own psychology and the inner workings of our brain.  

This kind of relationship that most fans who haven’t been lucky enough to meet their idols have with them is known as a parasocial relationship, a specific type of one-sided relationship where one party spends time, effort and emotion while the other party remains blissfully unaware they exist. In the past, parasocial relationships most commonly occurred between regular people and celebrities, with the tabloid and paparazzi-focused culture of the early 2000s dominating pop culture. Celebrities’ lives were more visible and readable than ever before. In comparison, now when social media is the standard way for celebrities to interact with fans — and a very large outlet for fans to form parasocial connections — people can form parasocial connections with any fictional character, sports team or online content creator that they take interest in simply based off of what they post.

“I spend a lot of time on Instagram, and I follow a lot of my favorite basketball team, the Warriors [on it,]” Ramaji said. “I love them, and I watch their games whenever I can. They just mean so much to me.”

The nature of why we engage in such relations stems from many different mindsets. A desire for social connection and a sense of community — humans are inherently social creatures, and the idea of being in a relationship with someone who you admire — even when they don’t know you exist — is just one reason why a relationship with a celebrity appeals to many. Another tendency associated with parasocial relationships is escapism, or the act of distracting yourself from the mundane tasks of everyday life with fantasies of something exciting. The thought of parading around with the who’s who of fame and fortune as your best friends while avoiding the need to trudge through the despondency of reality entices and leads us to form such connections.

But parasociality is nothing if not nuanced, and each individual person can form parasocial relationships in different ways, some more likely than others. The environment that we were exposed to and matured in during our youth is largely responsible for how we form interpersonal — and parasocial — relationships now. Modern psychology outlines four attachment styles that determine the way we interact with others, each with its own nuances and characteristic traits: anxious, avoidant, disorganized and secure. Interestingly, the two styles that most frequently exhibit parasociality — avoidant and anxious — are on opposite ends of the spectrum. 

Avoidant attachment styles, characterized by a lack of attention from caretakers through childhood and a tendency to reject emotional connections throughout adulthood are more likely to express parasocial tendencies specifically through television. Because of the lack of relationship exposure they received throughout their formative years, avoidant attachment-type individuals turn to the characters inside shows and movies for their social interaction and often are inclined to behave in the same manner as them. 

On the flip side, anxious attachment styles may be characterized by inconsistent parents relationships throughout one’s youth. An individual who has an anxious attachment style might have had parents who were supportive and emotionally intelligent one some occasions, but distant and uncaring on others. This leads to the forming obsessive tendencies in relationships and a strong fear of abandonment during adulthood. These individuals attach themselves, almost parasitically, to parasocial relationships because of their strong desire to feel connected to someone. They also are more likely to hyperfixate on certain celebrities that they particularly enjoy at a given moment in time. However, a person with an anxious attachment style’s hyperfixation’s window of time is quite short, and anxious attachment individuals often find themselves hopping between parasocial relationships like flipping between channels on a TV.

Upon taking an attachment style quiz, Ramaji discovered that she has a secure attachment style, the most common attachment style in the world, and also the benchmark for all the others. Characteristics of secure attachment style include a healthy relationship with your caretaker throughout adolescence and adequately getting your emotional needs met throughout childhood. In comparison with avoidant and anxious attachment styles in the context of forming parasocial relationships, secure attachment falls in the middle of the spectrum.

“I’m not surprised by the results I got because I was raised in an environment where my parents were always physically there, emotionally there and open-minded,” Ramaji said. “I never felt a lack of affection from them.”

While everyone is able to create a parasocial bond, the nuances within that bond can be traced back to not just their attachment style, but also their level of attachment. In 2006, professors David Giles and John Maltby from the University of Winchester and the University of Leicester, respectively, standardized three levels of parasocial relationships based on intensity, ranging from casual entertainment value to dangerous, obsessive behaviors. These levels can help uncover the actual minutiae of parasociality and its true, dangerous potential.

“It’s fine to have a favorite celebrity, and I think most of my peers have someone like that [that] they look up to. It becomes a problem when you think they’re the only person who understands you, even though they have no idea who you are,” Kumar said. 

Stories of parasocial relationships gone awry have unfortunately become more and more common in our increasingly digital world, especially among fans and the aforementioned “influencers.” Recently, American internet personality Colleen Ballinger — known best for her online role of Miranda Sings, a satirical alter ego and internet character — was subject to serious allegations about her supposed inappropriate interactions with some of her underage fans. Ballinger isn’t the only one who fell victim to such claims, though. Fellow influencer and self-proclaimed “beauty guruJames Charles also faced — and even admitted to — claims regarding his messaging and flirting with underage fans, similar to Ballinger. Inappropriate interactions such as these are known as grooming, a type of abusive relationship where someone builds a connection and trust in order to exploit and manipulate them, and, sadly, it’s a real possibility in parasocial relationships.
“Sometimes I catch myself reading too much into [Swift’s] life, and I have to stop myself,” Kumar said. “I spend a lot of time devoted to her each day.” 

It would be reductive to assume that partaking in any kind of parasocial relationship — especially something on the “entertainment-social” level — is dangerous. On the contrary, there is evidence that parasocial relationships can actually be helpful. A 2017 study done by the National Library of Medicine found that using parasocial relationships as an emotional outlet is a great way for adolescents to learn more about themselves and become comfortable in their own skin. There is a certain comfort in being able to confide in someone who doesn’t know who you are, because you know that no matter what you say, they’ll still be there for you. 

However, examples like the accusations against Ballinger and Charles are reminders of the dangers of devoting too much time towards celebrities. What’s worse, celebrities are often able to evade the consequences of their actions because their diehard fans idolize them to such an extent that the fans blur their own moral compasses when they do something wrong. How often does a celebrity make a questionable post on social media, contribute to global issues or even do something illegal? There might be backlash immediately after, but somehow they still manage to make a return to form. 

For example, American rapper Doja Cat recently faced backlash because of tweets that she made about her disdain for her fans. In response to this, her fans vowed not to stream her music because she didn’t appreciate the effort and love they gave her. However, as she continued the rollout of her newest album “Scarlet,” she attained record-breaking levels of streaming and even a No. 1 single. She then set out on tour across the country in sold-out venues with thousands of screaming fans. Suffice to say, it didn’t take long for her career to rebound after what, at the time, seemed like a career-ending event. If a celebrity’s reputation can survive their entire fanbase turning against them, what can’t they survive?

A problem arises when we justify the questionable actions that celebrities make because of our parasocial connections with them. Due to the deep, emotional bonds that we create with celebrities, we often find it difficult to fully shut them out of our lives when they’ve done something wrong. This is why many find an issue with “cancel culture” — or the purposeful boycotting of an individual primarily on social media because of their actions — because of its impermanence. Most times a celebrity is “canceled,” their consequences are not proportionate to their actions. They might lose some followers here and there and they possibly have to make a public apology, but most of the time they can get right back on their feet.

The nature of parasocial relationships is quite odd in the context of greater human interactions. Why do we as humans, who have lived all of our lives talking to real people in the world around us, connect so deeply to those who don’t even know of our existence? Why do we let them have autonomy over us and have such a heavy hand in our lives when all that they choose to show us online is a small part of their otherwise-unknown personalities? 

The truth is, when the lines of fame and fortune are blurred and when the red carpets and expensive outfits are folded up and put away, we see ourselves in our favorite celebrities. And if that’s true, we need to hold them accountable to the same level we hold ourselves. Celebrities are people, just like us, and no matter how much American celebrity culture wants to misconstrue that fact, the truth cannot be denied. 

Parasociality, like many other things, has good and bad counterparts. While they can be helpful ways to unwind and strengthen our self-perception, they can also distract us from our own lives. And a life lived in pursuit of someone else is not a life worth having. Connect with your favorite celebrities. Indulge yourself a bit on what goes on behind the scenes, behind the screen. But don’t give them all of your time, and don’t let them take over your life. Because when all is said and done, know the velvet rope that separates our world from the high-fi land of the rich and popular is all but fictional, an illusion. Because wealth, fame and awards don’t make anyone less human.

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About the Contributor
Samir Shaik, Multimedia/Sports Editor
Pronouns: he/him Grade: 11 Years on staff: 3 What is your favorite piece of literature? "The Rainbow Fish." Who is your hero? My mom. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? Peaches.
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  • W

    Will Gonsior.Jan 27, 2024 at 3:02 pm

    this is an amazing article Samir. but just to set the record straight, I check the Ohio State fan website daily, own OSU merchandise, and let my feelings fluctuate due to the athletic performance of young men and women because it’s the right thing to do, not because I have any sort of unhealthy relationship with a school I have no plans to attend. Definitely.

    Reply
    • A

      Audrey GhoshFeb 1, 2024 at 11:45 am

      You never know, Will, maybe OSU checks up on your articles on the Pathfinder too!

      Reply
  • E

    Emily EarlyJan 26, 2024 at 10:39 am

    Killing it with the graphics/interactives as per usual. Amazing story, Samir!

    Reply
  • L

    Lauren HolcombJan 26, 2024 at 9:10 am

    this is such a good article. but just to set the record, I DO understand jacob elordi on a deep and personal level and he IS my BEST friend

    Reply