Part of what makes film, television, and theatre uniquely compelling mediums is intimacy. The bond an actor creates with their audience makes or breaks the effectiveness of a performance. What hasn’t always been around is any form of closeness between the viewers and the actors outside of their roles.
A parasocial relationship, as defined by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, is a phenomenon where an audience creates a fictitious personal bond with a performer they’ve never personally interacted with. Talk shows introduced the concept of intimacy with performers – celebrities got to be a little casual and joke around for television viewers giving them a taste of what it would be like to befriend their favourite actor or musician. Reality television upped the ante when suddenly television viewers saw the lives of the rich and (sometimes) famous in real-time. Now with the rise of YouTube and TikTok, people curate massive audiences from producing daily video blogs showcasing even the most intimate details of their lives for public consumption. This level of fascination makes any perceived diversions from the curated image jarring to the audience to the point of causing volatile emotional reactions. The line between personal life and entertainment is blurred for both the audience and creators.
Perfect Blue (directed by Satashi Kohn) is the first film to truly tackle the phenomenon of parasocial relationships in its modern form. Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) made her mark as the lead singer of J-pop group CHAM! – she’s able to separate her personal life from her clean teen pop persona, but her fans only see her as the idol. This becomes an issue when she gracefully chooses to leave CHAM! in favor of pursuing an acting career in a very adult television drama. The backlash she receives from her once loyal fan base ranges from general disdain to a particularly obsessive stalker referred to as “Me-Mania” (Masaaki Ōkura).Between the increasingly dangerous activities of her stalkers and the increasing pressure of her television presence, Mima begins to falter in distinguishing what’s real and what’s Mima-Chan.
The obsession and subsequent berating of an idol acting out of their perceived continues now in eerily similar manners; there was a whole send-up over a few members of K-Pop groups ShinEe and E.X.O caught smoking weed where their teenage fans publicly berated them. Kon encapsulates how the idea of a celebrity’s presence in the minds of an audience, both from a distance and even those close to her, feel as if they are so intimate with the idol they love that they can provide any form of input – no matter how callous.
Media revolving around superheroes provides portrayals of large scale obsessions just barely separated from how celebrities are treated in the real world. In the flashback sequences of The Incredibles (directed by Brad Bird) the way superheroes are treated is very similar to the celebrities of the early talk show era: enough to provide adequate information for audiences to feel close to the celebrity being interviewed, but still with an allowance for privacy not as present today. Of course, the slightly greater distance between the audience and the celebrity doesn’t mean a parasocial relationship can’t form. When the collateral damage from crime fighting becomes too extensive, public opinion shifts and superheroes are effectively “cancelled”.
The worst case of a broken parasocial bond stems from emotional fallout rather than physical: enter Buddy Pine – alias Syndrome (Jason Lee). Back in the heyday of superheroes, Buddy became so attached to Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) that he tracked him down mid-mission to declare that he should be taken on as a protege: he even came up with the title IncrediBoy to prove his semi-adopted status. However, after Mr. Incredible spurns him, his grounding “relationship” with Mr. Incredible shatters causing him to snap and create his supervillain persona. The general shift in public opinion alongside Syndrome’s creation are examples of parasocial bonds destroyed from the line between character and person being breeched.
Ingrid Goes West (directed by Matt Spicer) demonstrates how Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are simply easy ways to create an easily-commodifiable, flawless persona to amass large fanbases of devoted followers, and how harmful fixating on these people is. Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is a terminally online twentysomething so ill-equipped to deal with real life that she thrusts herself into emulating the “perfect” lives of Instagram darlings. Her latest obsession is Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen): an amalgam of artsy, laid back, borderline cultural appropriator influencer like Chrissy Teigen, meets anyone that’s ever live-streamed Coachella. Through some shady means, Ingrid finally achieves the impossible dream of befriending the object of her obsession.
But not all that glitters is gold. Ingrid learns Taylor treats people as if they’re disposable, she secretly despises her husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) for his choice to stay offline which hinders selling his art, and her entire online persona is stolen bits from other people. Despite people with huge online presences being exposing so much of their lives, what’s on their profiles doesn’t match up with their actual lives. If people attempt to call this disparity out like Ingrid attempts to, especially in relation to an influencer doing something less than savoury, it goes one of two ways. Sometimes, like in the case of Jake and Logan Paul, it results in a mass switch of public opinion. More often than not, the criticism amounts to nothing and the celebrity’s growth continues.
All of the examples above are instances of a parasocial relationship where the celebrity is held in high regard, but sometimes the performer is a universal punching bag. Such is the case with Paris Hilton’s 2020 documentary This is Paris. While there is a lot of criticism about Paris that is incredibly warranted, it was Hilton’s blonde bimbo facade alongside her reputation for being a promiscuous party girl is what garnered the most scorn. And while her persona earned her a lot of money and fame, the misogynistic hate thrust upon her messed with her already unstable mental health. Her plethora of abusive relationships and proclivity towards drugs and partying were simply coping mechanisms to deal with childhood trauma. Of course, the people watching her on The Simple Life only saw her being obtuse towards working class Americans and assumed that was exactly who she was. Paris Hilton is a paramount example of the blurred line between person and persona and the questionable results of the confusion between the two.
For better or worse relationships with media and creators are changing. Performers are under a microscope to keep up their guise out of protection – either that or pull a Corpse Husband or J.D. Salinger and make a gimmick out of never showing their face. Consequently, audiences devoting time to a fake bond is emotionally distressing when their idols inevitably screw up. The fading distance between audience and performer creates an incredibly toxic relationship with media consumption.