Source: Rachel Tunstall
Escaping Reality is Fun
It has been really easy lately to give in to the pull of distraction. Things in ‘real-life’ seem especially hard to focus on, and I don’t know about you, but personally, the reality in my daydreams is far more interesting and far less sad than our world right now. There are a lot of ways we can distract ourselves. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, and I admit- I love dreaming. One way that some of us do this is by involving ourselves in the lives of public figures or creatives who we admire and whose art we connect with. However, involving ourselves in the careers of people who will likely never know we exist has a significant cost. So, I wanted to write about fandoms and parasocial relationships because of how much they rob us (women, specifically), of our time.
Let’s start by understanding what parasocial relationships are. By definition, a parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship with a public figure (sports player, musician, actor, a character from a show, etc.) who you do not know personally. It’s easy to get caught up in these kinds of fixations with figures with a cult of personality, or influencers whose brands you really resonate with. You don’t speak to each other, there is no reciprocal admiration or investment, and according to researchers Donald Horton and Richard Wohl (they coined the term!) the relationship is “controlled by the performer.” Fandoms (a community or subculture of people who love the same thing), are spaces where these kinds of relationships can thrive.
I understand that it can feel exciting to surround yourself with people who are just as interested in a particular pop-culture niche as you are, or how comforting it is to meet someone with whom you can share your thoughts on new controversies or stories emerging from your fav musician’s life. It feels good to belong to something. You can build community, and you can even mobilize. See, for example, how BTS fans raised one million dollars for the Black Lives Matter movement in 24 hours in 2020. Nevertheless, fandoms idealize relationships with people who we have never met. While the carefully curated ‘informality’ and intimacy of celeb social media accounts seem to close the gap between their lives and ours, the dysfunction that comes from divesting from our immediate relationships into fictional ones is real.
Investing ourselves in celebrity culture broadly is almost an entirely one-sided transaction. We become simultaneously passive observers and increasingly active consumers in a social media landscape that makes the lives of celebrities easy to watch, and their products easy to purchase. They don’t know who we are, but we think we know who they are very well. Well enough to justify significant emotional and financial investment in their careers. Sometimes this can be fun (in moderation). Hearing the backstory behind the artist of your favourite album, or knowing the life story of a particular actor in your favourite film can help us understand their art, and be better entertained by their work. Still, I think we give too much of ourselves to celebrity culture and receive too little in return.
Fandoms and Misogyny
To start, fandoms are also not entirely safe spaces. With the emergence of fandoms and the corresponding fan labour involved in parasocial relationships that supports the glamorous lives of celebrities, comes a unique gendered phenomenon where women, in particular, are trivialized for what they enjoy.
Generally, female fans are understood as “hysterical and obsessive” when they display the same behaviour of fandoms largely consisting of men. Their knowledge and enjoyment of a certain activity or art form/genre are undermined in various ways. This can include responding to their interest in something by saying that they are only ‘doing it to look cool,’ or positioning men as the arbiters of whether or not a woman ‘knows enough’ about an artist or subject to be ‘qualified’ to like it. This can feel marginalizing and puts women in a position where they are constantly asked to ‘prove’ that they like something.
The use of the term “fangirl,” for example, is a good example of what it means to exist as a woman with a particular interest in something. Typically, it is levied against women as a way to dismiss their passion for something by describing their investment as ‘overly-emotional’ or ‘irrational’ behaviour. Sometimes, their interests are dismissed by attributing it to an entertainer’s good looks, and other times, their investment is not seen as legitimate simply because they are both young and a woman. Still, female fans are the driving demographic behind some of the largest fandoms in the world, and in many ways, they make pop culture, and decide what’s cool. This means that they are also a really valuable target audience for advertisers, and their commitment becomes a source of profit for celebrities and their brands. Female fans are great marketers, and skilled at directing the attention of the masses towards particular people or products.
As articulated by blogger Lucy Blakiston in writing about how valuable female fans are to pop culture, “teenage girls form a market share worth its weight in gold.”
Clearly, our attention matters. Our commitment matters. Our energy matters. Knowing this, I think we should think critically about where we put them.
Time as Currency
We can like what we like and still ground ourselves in our real relationships and current environments. The fact that fandom spaces are not necessarily welcoming for women, coupled with the amount of dedication and investment that celebrities and their brands receive from us means that being a ‘fan’ demands a lot of time and energy. This isn’t inherently bad. I’m a fan of a lot of things, and I make the conscious decision to give my time to certain kinds of art or entertainment because it brings me joy.
However, I have found it too easy to get over-invested in the seemingly perfect, always-interesting, aesthetically pleasing careers and lifestyles of artists that I love. I want to clarify that I am not making the point that we should separate the art from the artist to avoid being too invested in their art or personal lives while still consuming their work. What I am trying to say is that over-investment in anything can be harmful when it starts to take our energy and attention away from how we experience our surroundings, relationships, and selves. I want to love something someone makes because it brings me joy, brightens my life, and makes me more attentive to and appreciative of the added beauty it creates in my environment. Not because I am looking to distract myself by dreaming of an alternative reality, and definitely not because I am emotionally and financially invested in people and situations that I have no business knowing about in the first place.
In a world of celebrities and fandoms, our time and attention are like money that we spend, and we should spend wisely.
Clearly, fandoms have their benefits, but they also have some significant drawbacks. It’s a lot of work to invest ourselves in the lives of people who do not do the same for us, and we would probably save a lot of time and money if we sorted out the reasons why we feel so invested in something or someone at all. It’s good to love nice things and people that make cool stuff, but I think we should put more time and energy into loving the things and people that love us back.
November 6, 2021
Abby (she/her) is a first-generation Ethiopian-Eritrean student in her last year of a degree in Political Science and Economics where she is researching the intersection of international migrant rights, border studies, and climate displacement. A community organizer and lifelong writer, Abby is especially passionate about making creative space for marginalized folks where they feel safe and seen. Abby loves looking at mountains, eating literally anything mango flavoured (debatably in excess), and adding to reading lists she will never get to the bottom of.