Human relationships are so intricate and involved, yet so natural, that it’s easy to live our lives without examining the operations therein. We talk to each other on the phone, over email, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, instant messenger, at work, clubs, and on and on. These are reciprocal two-way relationships.
In the 1950s, around the time of the explosion of the television set in American households, Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, two social scientists, coined a term for another group of relationships: parasocial relationships. This group doesn’t require a direct response from the other party.
It’s what we experience when we engage in sports, celebrity news, favorite television shows, and iconic characters. It’s why the eyes of women light up when Marc Lamont Hill graces the television screen; why the comments section regarding Fantasia Barrino exudes passion and armchair psychology. Why some people viscerally feel Bill O’Reilly is actually a bad guy; why LeBron James is called arrogant and can’t do right by many.
Parasocial relationships are what drive many television ratings, newspaper sales, and website views. Moving images on television facilitates the illusion of an actual relationship. Radio disc jockeys get many through their day, but it also throws many subconscious operating systems out of whack. People listen to the same radio shows everyday because they feel a communal association with the on-air personality.
But surely there’s no harm in latching on to a public figure or two for entertainment and escape, right? Mythology is a huge part of our history, from Isis to Mithra to Dionysus to Zeus to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Figures have always been made larger-than-life, and the public treats them as such.
Deities in religion, and celebrities, are the closest we have to modern-day mythology. No matter how pervasive the Internet is, people can’t seem to get enough of their heroes. Is this a necessary evil or a bad habit that we need to mitigate and possibly eliminate?
Are parasocial relationships inevitable?
There is perhaps no figure who latched on to a parasocial community more than Michael Jackson. Anybody within the hearing of any sound wave of any song with Michael Jackson in it had an opinion about him. Meeting him in the corporeal sense wasn’t necessary. When he died last year, many people cried harder for him than for the deaths of their own fathers. To this day, people who never met him are still crying about his death.
Tupac Shakur. Barack Obama. Oprah. They are a part of families, a vital part of the families’ existence. To some people, they are family. If this sounds outlandish, it’s probably because it is. Statements like, “Beyoncé doesn’t seem to be the type to take that,” or, “Michelle Obama is who I want to be,” isn’t thought of as odd, even though, in reality, we have no idea what Beyoncé would take and how Michelle O. acts in private.
Christopher Meloni (Detective Elliot Stabler of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”) is known to us as the imperious, line-toeing detective with a penchant for physical exertion and hard stances. We have seen over 100 shows of this. If a story were to come out tomorrow about, say, a brawl he was involved in, my guess is that few would be surprised. His passion and obsession exhibited in the show belies any perception of meekness.
There are women to this day who resent Lawrence Fishburne because of his chilling portrayal of Ike Turner. Reportedly, Fishburne was booed at the premiere of said movie. If “Sex and the City” fans were to take an Implicit Association Test, Kim Cattrall and nympho wouldn’t be too far apart. Fantasia Barrino faced widespread scrutiny because the baggage of her personal life resulted in a failed suicide attempt. Fair game. But much of the online scrutiny got frighteningly personal.
Event after event comes to the public’s consciousness that proves how people are human, despite the marketed image they portray. People express shock and awe, but still continue to fall into relationships—consciously and unconsciously—with people they’ll more than likely never meet.
This isn’t about protecting public figures from gratuitous attacks; after all, they should be aware of the ramifications of being in the public eye. This is about probing the excesses of the collective’s engagement in parasocial relationships. When developing minds (which is all of us, essentially) can’t talk about Denzel Washington or Bono without becoming too emotional, that may be a sign that the tentacles of the media are affecting our lives on dangerous levels.
Beyoncé’s “pregnancy” last week galvanized a sect of Knowles admirers, who feel it’s about time she has a baby. You know, because they were just over for food and margaritas last week. With the proliferation and permanency of digital social networks, it has never been easier to access our favorite personalities. At our best, we use public figures and their lives to carve meaning in our own lives. At our worse, we use public figures and their lives to carve meaning in our own lives.