May 05, 2022

The fall of celebrities: buying fake friends

Have we ever questioned how parasocial relationships with media figures affect our daily lives privately, but they also shape popular culture crucially? We tend to believe that the relationships created between fans and celebrities are limited to cases of teenagers (mostly girls) that idolize the new heartbreaker to an extreme, creating erotic scenarios with him. Overlooking this sexist approach, it’s socially acceptable that parasocial relationships affect anyone in contact with the modern media sphere and consume its content to a higher or lower degree.

By the mid- 20th century, with the rise of TV series and the prominent presence of cinema, the creation of one-sided relationships between viewers and media personalities is observed. In 1956, the term “parasocial relationship” was coined by Wohl and Horton to describe this type of relationship that started preoccupying the scientific fields of social psychology and sociology. According to them, “parasocial relationships are manifested when people are repeatedly exposed to a media persona, and they develop a sense of intimacy, perceptible friendship and identification with the celebrity.”

Usually, media figures choose to employ a specially fabricated persona, which might be based on their personality. Their look, their moves, their behaviour, the timbre of their voice and their moral values are carefully crafted, composing a persona that works as a mask, which the viewer observes passively. But passivity can easily be lost if the viewer chooses to identify with the persona’s various aspects and assume a more active role in their relationship. Thus, a relationship in which the viewer actively participates is created, resulting in a constant friendship with the media figure. Besides, according to Wohl and Horton, “fans live with the persona that shares small episodes of their public life. A story and a compilation of common experiences that bring extra meaning are required.” The consumer-fan learns to live in an illusion of a friendship in which they believe they know the celebrity. It’s a one-sided sense that is constantly confirmed by the celebrity through phrases like “I love my fans”, “they know the real me” and “I wouldn’t be here without my fans.”

The celebrity’s values, appearance and behaviour constantly need to be checked according to each era’s pop culture premises. Through media development, the landscape is changing. Social media algorithms give out chances to new personalities. The rise of influencers is a distinctive case since they’re not people limited by Hollywood’s dogmatic pressure. They seem like the people next door, and they represent the viewer. They can create their own narrative through their platform. The influencer can communicate directly with their audience, resulting in creating much more intense illusions of friendship. The viewers consider the influencers to be people close to them and identifying with them is easier. The fan now becomes a consumer. The ads promoted by the influencer combine perfectly with parasocial relationships, as no fan-consumer would like to miss the latest product praised and promoted by their “beloved friend”.

Popular culture facilitates the promotion of consumer goods and lifestyle, as the past obstacles are now surmounted through the use of the internet. Even though we’re not talking about bottom-line advertisements towards an easily influenced audience, convincing them is easier as the fan-consumer identifies with the celebrity. The celebrity, through their authority, is able to reproduce and maintain their own narratives, which influence the pop culture situation. Nonetheless, pop culture remains “an arena of consent and resistance in the battle of cultural meanings” according to Hall. The fan-consumer is even able to choose which narratives to accept from their celebrity-friend. Parasocial relationships are however able to cloud their judgement and work as a fail-safe device in the hegemony conservation of pop culture.

This kind of gossip journalism has the power to destroy the narrative built by the celebrity’s public relations teams. The rise of gossip bloggers and paparazzi seems to have appeared during the 2000s when we all witnessed the complete frenzy that ruled in the press. Pregnancy reveals, the coverage of public mental breakdowns and other celebrity personal moments that haunt them up to this day played an essential part in the shaping of parasocial relationships between the viewer and the celebrity-gossip victim. Gossip articles that namedrop celebrities, or blind items that leave room for theories demolish the façade created by the celebrities of the time. The friendship between fan and celebrity is toppled, and doubts enter the fan’s mind. Virtual friendships can collapse or be reinforced, as the fan is put in a defence and threat position where they need to protect their beloved friend. An important example is the “Free Britney” movement, where public opinion seemed to shift from the side of outcry against the singer to that of sympathy.

Even if the parasocial relationship can seem like the malaise of a pop culture obsessed with celebrity lifestyle, we need to acknowledge the compassion felt within it. The company offered by a distant figure might seem “weird” to an outside observer, but a fan is able to distance their feelings of loneliness and develop a sense of identification and friendship that helps them in their everyday lives. The social impact created though should not be overlooked, as parasocial relationships shape popular culture, preserve its hegemony, and are more than just its offspring.

Photography by the Photography Team of TEDxAUTH 2022

Traianos Kouvatsis

He studies Journalism in AUTH and he is part of the Blog team (not a cliché at all). Constantly anxious and addicted to coffee (that’s to blame), he spends his time watching reruns of Arrested Development, listening to irrelevant podcasts and avoiding the urban transport of Thessaloniki. His music varies from Biggie to Sondheim and everything in between. Call him “Try” next time you’ll meet him, although he won’t listen to you due to his headphones.

Kiriaki Arnaouti (she/they)

Born a Drama queen, both literally and figuratively. Her mind is constantly switching back and forth between Greek, English and Spanish but her heart is set on two things only; iced coffee and books. Her Sagittarius nature convinces her that she’s the funniest person alive, but that’s for you to discover!

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