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Dissecting parasocial relationships between fans, celebrities

The 2010s saw the rise of fandom culture, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the global popularization of K-pop. Fandoms took over the internet by bringing attention to their favorite celebrities on social media through fanart, fan theories and fan fiction. While fans being passionate about entertainment is not uncommon, some have taken their attachment too far.

Parasocial relationships describe a one-sided relationship where an individual develops a strong sense of intimacy, connection or familiarity with someone they don’t know. Celebrities and media personalities are most likely to be on the receiving end of this relationship. 

While there is no real understanding of why parasocial relationships begin, many scientists believe it is caused by the brain's developmental need to be social. With most people’s time spent online or in front of a screen, the faces one sees regularly become familiar and spark positive feelings between both.

Others believe loneliness causes these relationships. Research has shown lonelier individuals often seek online connections. On the flip side, highly social individuals are more likely to have a parasocial relationship, according to Psychology Today.

In an article from Forbes Health, social-emotional needs, escapism, media exposure and perceived friendships are listed as some of the top factors that create parasocial relationships. Angela Amias, a licensed social worker and clinical director of the Institute for Trauma Informed Relationships, told Forbes the lack of actual emotional risk in parasocial relationships appears safer than building a real one. It does not allow people to gain the health benefits of true relationships. 

While parasocial relationships can be positive, celebrities have spoken out about the downside of these relationships. 

Rapper Eminem came out with “Stan,” a song detailing the spiral of a fan turned stalker, in 2000. “Stan” talks about mental health, fans’ obsessiveness and the public figure’s responsibility to their fans. Eminem conveys how Stan found comfort in the situations the rapper portrayed in his songs.

The last verse of the track sees Eminem responding to Stan’s letter, not knowing his fan is dead. He pleads for Stan to get help because he is scared Stan may hurt himself or others. In the end, the song became an influential piece of media publicizing the dangers of fan mentality.

A research article from fan studies scholar Rivkah Groszman combatted the ideology of parasocial relationships being innately negative.

“The one-sided nature of parasocial relationships and the resulting uneven dynamic between fan and persona may seem psychologically unhealthy,” Groszman wrote. “However, this view might change if we think of celebrities as service providers.”

Grozsman’s article compared a barista remembering a customer’s “overly complicated order” to BTS member Jungkook quickly holding a fan’s hand. While she argued Jungkook is “just hoping they'll buy BTS' next album,” she said, “Neither one of these interactions, while one-sided, denotes delusion, so why is the second one frowned upon while the first one isn't?”

The article highlights a unique view of the relationship between fans and a celebrity. Fans are going to see their favorite celebrities’ body of work, but they are not owed anything more.  

Recently, the term “fan service” has gained prominence. It is often used in anime, cartoons and manga when a story arc or decision is made to appease fans. However, the K-pop “idol system” also includes fan service by these idols.

Idols, or South Korean K-pop celebrities, are told to play into their fans’ desires to gain popularity, and most of the idols’ success depends on their fandoms. In a 2019 livestream on the now defunct V Live site, BTS leader RM called his fans his “lovers.” While the term became a running joke among BTS fans, the lighthearted banter formed a parasocial relationship between RM and his fans.

In 2022, Nigerian author Otegha Uwagba recounted a scary experience with a fan for The Guardian. She spoke about how following a fan back on social media cascaded into love bombing and a “suffocating” amount of unwanted contact.

“I began receiving emails, and the notifications and messages spread to Instagram,” Uwagba said. “Then they grew more frequent, uncomfortably so. She wanted things from me: to work for me, to meet up with me, to know how my weekend had gone, to tell me how hers had gone, to tell me about the job she disliked, for me to help her with a project she was launching.”

While she experienced an ordeal with a fan, other experiences between celebrities and their fans resulted in death. John Lennon, Christina Grimmie and Selena Quintanilla-Pérez were all celebrities who lost their lives due to obsessive parasocial relationships. 

Parasocial relationships are an unfortunate result of the entertainment industry, and it causes personal boundaries to be crossed. The lives of public figures may also be in danger from these one-sided connections. Instead of forming parasocial bonds, fans could create healthy boundaries with other fans or individuals outside their fan circles.


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