Parasocial relationships play an ever-increasing role in our world. Whereas these sorts of relationships have always existed to some degree, the advent of social media, which allows direct communication and further personal insight, means that more people feel a deeper sense of connection in one-sided relationships.
I am no expert in this field and have had some trouble even educating myself. The truth, as with most things, is somewhere in the grey area between those that think parasocial relationships are unhealthy and those that see benefit to them. Personally, I believe they do offer benefit provided that 1) the individual recognises it as a parasocial relationship and 2) it does not become unhealthy in a traditional relationship way (such as obsessive).
Most of mine are musicians: Lorde, Sara Bareilles. I think when you’re a fan of an artist that puts much of themselves into the work it’s hard not to develop a sense that you know them. It’s a keyhole version of the person rather than a complete picture, but it’s enough of a picture that one becomes invested in what they have to say. I look forward to their projects without even knowing what the project is because I have enough “sense of who they are” to care about what they have to say.
The most pronounced example of this in my life is Emma Watson, and I have a hard time gauging whether that is a surprise to people or not. It’s one of those things that is so true that I imagine is shows through regardless, but for reasons I will discuss here I tend to bite my tongue about it. I only mention it here because of the mental health piece of the equation.
Building the Parasocial Relationship
The first Harry Potter book arrived on shelves in 1997 when I was only 11 years old. Other than the Goosebumps series (on which I relied to assist with school book reports because), I did not engage with many new books. I preferred classics and Harry Potter was a popular fad, so not something I wanted. It would not be until 2004’s “Prisoner of Azakban” film, which I sought out to see Gary Oldman’s performance, that I had my first experience with the franchise.
Now, I have no problem with Harry. He’s a good literary hero. He’s also a straightforward literary hero (not a slight – history’s best heroes happen to share a lot of characteristics). I am simply not that guy. I do not identify with the Harry Potters and Luke Skywalkers of the world. I’m more inclined to identify personally with heroes like Newt Scamander.
So, what grabbed my attention in the film was bookish March sister who applied intellect, hard work, and a little cunning to situations. It goes back to some of the writings I have shared about my love for Alcott’s “Little Women.” Growing up I was Laurie, staring out my window with curiosity at the bookish neighbour. Hermione struck me that sort of character. I wanted to be best friends with Hermione.
It was enough to hook me into the series, and with that came all of the peripheral Harry Potter extravaganza. Through interviews with the cast, it was clear (especially as she explicitly said as much) that there was a lot of Hermione in Emma Watson. As Harry Potter drew to a close, I had enough interest to begin following Watson’s career the way I mentioned before – you start seeking out projects because of their involvement rather than simply seeing projects that happen to involve them.
My Week with Marilyn, The Bling Ring, Regression, Colonia, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – the latter striking me again because of the strong literary connection (Stephen Chbosky’s popular novel). More interviews, the Our Shared Shelf initiative on Goodreads, her environmental awareness, and her feminist advocacy (and the HeForShe campaign) moved her towards the top of my “celebrities to follow” list. The sense of shared values paired with her celebrity access meant that she was constantly sharing things of interest and often providing new avenues to explore through her partnerships.
What set Emma Watson apart from the other parasocial relationships was, I think, the one-two punch that followed. In 2015, just after my birthday, Disney announced a live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (my favourite Disney film and one of my all-time favourite films), and that it would star Emma in the lead role. Belle was my original Hermione – the bookish girl from the small town. I had a huge crush on Belle as a child and also wanted to be her best friend. Now, Emma Watson, Hermione, would be bringing it to life.
While that was unfolding, rumours were already circulating on the Internet about a new Little Women adaptation. I can’t remember the exact timeline for that, except general awareness that Robin Swicord (who was behind the Ryder/Bale 1994 version) was involved, then that Amy Pascal got involved, and then that Greta Gerwig would be writing and directing. That alone excited me (a new adaptation of my favourite novel by Greta Gerwig!), and then came the news that Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, and Laura Dern would be starring (I did not know much about Florence Pugh at the time).
Originally, Emma Stone was set to star as Meg, which I did enjoy. But then came the news that scheduling conflicts forced her to back out – and Emma Watson was in. Belle/Hermione would be appearing in the adaptation of my favourite novel.
A similar phenomenon occurred with Sara Bareilles in 2011. I was a big fan of both her and Ingrid Michaelson, so when they announced a collaboration on “Winter Song” it creates a strong sense of community. Neither of them knows I exist, but as a fan looking in at their work, having a sense of their thoughts and feelings from previous releases, seeing them agree to partner provides a sense of, “They see it, too. Bareilles likes the same things about Michaelson I do, and Michaelson likes the same things about Bareilles. That’s why they wanted to do this project.”
That Hermione, Belle, Meg March, feminism, and environmental consciousness would attract Emma Watson created a parasocial relationship in which I feel a sense of emotional investment despite her not knowing I even exist.
Even a parasocial relationship has two perspectives – outward and inward. The outward portion of this particular parasocial relationship always felt healthy to me. I do not obsess, and I have no delusions. I’m cognizant of the fact that what I admire is my perception of her public persona. The benefit, I find, is that it provides a point of reference in an uncertain world. It keeps me grounded and, more importantly, empathetic.
In situations, a general, “What would Emma/Hermione/Belle/Meg think of this?” does not necessarily dictate how I react, but it forces me to pause for a moment and consider the situation from a different perspective.
Imagine doing something, then having one of your beloved fictional characters like Belle find out and admonish you. “You should learn to control your temper!”
The problem is with the other perspective – inward. I have social anxiety and self-esteem issues related to my obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (most notably the perfectionism aspect). I am aware of my faults, which include cosmetic ones. There are things about my appearance that I do not like and feel there is little I can do to change it. Despite regular reassurance from my wife, I often worry about my mere presence being offensive (I think a lot of that has to do with a proclivity to sweat because my anxiety spikes – and sometimes that worry alone is enough to trigger anxiety and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy).
The social anxiety invariably leads to thoughts of, “It’s a good thing they do not know you exist. They would not want to be involved in your life anyway.” And it’s a self-containing idea – part of the admiration for Emma Watson and those fictional characters is that they often display grace and compassion. That means, as it does in my actual relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours, that any assurance that I’m a great person (or even just “fine”) is just the other person being nice. It’s a lie to preserve my feelings because they are a decent person, not because it’s the truth.
In pronounced cases, I find myself overcoming tremendous anxiety for simple things. I have friends who have written books, for example. Sometimes I find myself battling anxiety to write a review or even to read their book because of the thought, “They don’t want you engaged with this.”
In a realistic example, imagine you wrote a novel and someone you strongly dislike mentioned being a huge fan. It’s nice that someone liked your novel, but “Ew, not that person,” right?
We can sit down in the evening and my wife will suggest something like, “Let’s watch ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ tonight” and I find myself getting anxious, as though I’m unprepared for it. Emma Watson doesn’t know who I am, but if she did, she would be thinking, “Please don’t watch my movies.” She’d never say that, but she would think it because she’s all of these things you admire in a person, and you are this guy with a laundry list of faults.