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Sex & Love Parasocially breaking up is hard to do

Nov. 18, 2020
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I must confess, I can’t stand Ben Affleck. I don’t know him personally—in fact, I don’t know much about him at all—but I know he cheated on Jennifer Garner and that’s all I needed to solidify my resentment. He just seems like a bad guy, and no amount of photos of him and Ana de Armas gallivanting around with their Dunkin Donuts coffee will rehabilitate that. 

I’m not alone in harboring palpable resentment toward celebrities. Our ability to form connections with public personas, while natural, has been harnessed and manufactured by the media, driving some fans and foes to extremes. These one-sided or “parasocial” relationships, as coined by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, are crucial to maintaining the cult of celebrity—superficial relationships wherein we’re free to assume, idealize, and project our own desires without consequence or complication. 

Artists today are forced to feign intimacy with total strangers because it translates into views, endorsements, and ultimately, dollars. With social media giving us 24/7 access to their worlds, intermingled with those of our friends and families, the intimacy feels even greater. Considering the factors at play, It’s completely reasonable to become invested in a celebrity’s happiness—and what are relationships if not the most public display of happiness?

Even in our current hellscape, celebrities coming out as coupled has the power to take over a news cycle, especially when it’s a pairing of which fans don’t approve. “I just really loved Jake Gyllenhaal, and now he dates 22-year-old models and it’s very disappointing. He used to date interesting women like Kirsten Dunst and Reese Witherspoon,” said Emma Hamilton, a film publicist with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. 

“I guess a part of me as a 13-year-old reading about them could see myself in that relationship. I just really loved them,” Emma explained. “You build up in your head, ‘I think I know them,’ so when they [go on to] date people you don’t like, it reveals that you don’t know them at all. I think some people don’t take that well.”

On the flip side, when we become invested in a celebrity pairing, we also become invested in its success. In these three-ways, even though our connection to them is totally delusional, the feelings are real. When they break up, as celebrities often do, some of us can actually experience parasocial grief; it’s similar to the feeling we get when our favorite TV character dies.

Studies show that subjects find parasocial relationships appealing because there’s less risk of rejection—but I beg to differ. If parasocial relationships are based on perceived connection, we can just as easily read inconsequential actions as personal slights. Here’s my working theory: we begin to see ourselves reflected in our favorite celebrity, so when someone rejects them, it feels like they’re rejecting us. And if that's the case, fuck them, right? While the exes have access to closure, we’re left with tabloids, social media speculation, and, if we’re lucky, albums alluding to the whole mess. Nobody really mourns with us, and maybe that’s how resentment takes hold. 

Recently, a Zoom table read of Fast Times at Ridgemont High brought Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston back together and social media was buzzing about it. Back in the day, fans held out hope of reconciliation long after the two of them had moved on. “That’s what I noticed with the celebrity polls I’ve been doing on Instagram,” said Emma. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she started asking her followers to vote for their favorite celebs Versuz style; she showed me her master spreadsheet detailing the results. “Jennifer Aniston wins over Angelina by huge percentages. People really hate her for breaking them up.” Jennifer Aniston has stayed true to her girl-next-door persona throughout her career, and some people can’t help but feel a sense of kinship. It’s natural to pick sides when people we know, even parasocially, go through a messy breakup. For some, Brad might be the object of their scorn—but thanks in part to misogyny, Angelina bears the brunt.

Some fans feel the need to move their anger online, sending vitriolic tweets to celebrity exes. It’s become so common that celebrities have taken to co-authoring carefully crafted Notes app announcements requesting fans be kind and give them privacy during this difficult time. “Instagram has cultivated this thing feel owed that explanation,” said Emma. Personally, I’m not seeking an explanation from Bennifer, because at the end of the day, it’s not actually about them; it’s about the meaning I’ve ascribed to the downfall of their relationship. 

While parasocial relationships are a natural intersection of celebrity and the internet, they can be hurtful and dangerous if we act on them. Overzealous fans have been known to dox critics, send threatening messages to romantic partners, and even stalk public figures. At their best, parasocial relationships can be empathetic, inspiring experiences. Like all relationships, most of our parasocial ones fall somewhere in between. Personally, I prefer to spend my time engaging with celebrity content that skews closer to the latter, but no matter how much I claim to be the “bigger person,” I can’t pretend watching Twitter dunk on Ben doesn’t brighten my day.