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Inside Beat

Celebrities don't owe us parasocial relationships

The internet discourse surrounding Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber is an example of how dangerous parasocial relationships can be. – Photo by selenagomez & haileybieber / Instagram

We’re all a fan of something. Whether it’s the hottest new TV show, your favorite movie of all time or a sports team you’re a lifelong fan of, each and every one of us has something we hold dear to us — though, technically, it sometimes holds little bearing on our personal lives. But what about holding dear someone that doesn’t even know you exist?

When fan energy gets turned toward the people behind projects instead of what they do or create, things can get a little messy. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with liking a singer’s persona instead of just their latest album drop or following one actor from project to project.

But there’s a point of no return where that love becomes obsessive, the devotion a little too strong — and it’s happening to more and more celebrities, with more and more alarming dynamics.

Parasocial relationships are defined as one-sided relationships where one party puts forth time, effort, energy, affection and even money toward a figure or group who doesn’t even know they exist.

With the rise of the internet and the celebrity oversaturation on social media, it’s become increasingly easy for fans, young and old, to find themselves in these obsessive quasi-relationships: If celebrities post and talk and act just like your friends, who says they can’t be?

This creates an entitlement that, if left unchecked, can fester into something terrible. A notable recent example is the drama surrounding Phoebe Bridgers' split from former partner Paul Mescal and her friend, and rumored new flame, Bo Burnham.

It started at the tail end of last year, coming to a head in January amidst widespread social media support for Mescal after unsubstantiated reports came out saying Bridgers had cheated on him.

People cited past relationships of Bridgers' — even ones in which she was a victim of abuse — as reasons she was likely at fault for the split, feeding into misogynistic and biphobic narratives.

On January 3, Bridgers announced on Instagram that her father had passed away. Days later, she was photographed at Los Angeles International Airport with Burnham, and speculation started: Had she cheated on Mescal with him? Had Burnham cheated on his ex with Bridgers?

Fans and detractors alike lamented and mourned over relationships that had nothing to do with them, while Bridgers was publicly mourning a death in her own personal life.

In an interview with the publication Them, along with her bandmates Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, Bridgers called out her fans directly, something few artists do for fear of retaliation: "People with my picture as their Twitter picture, who claim to like my music, fucking bullied me at the airport on the way to my father's funeral this year," she said.

Bridgers also said that she, and other celebrities, shouldn’t have to be grateful to fans for their fame and accept "dehumanizing abuse" as part of the job. And she’s right: You aren't entitled or owed anything from a celebrity by virtue of liking them or their work.

All too often, celebrities —  often women — are branded as rude, impolite or ungrateful for not being beacons of light for every person who wants to take a photo after spotting them at Starbucks or responding graciously to every Twitter rumor.

Earlier this year, actress Rachel Zegler was called out on TikTok over a situation where she refused to take a photo with a fan on a red carpet when she was on her break. The fan said how her assistant told him not to take photos of the star after he was told no.

The expectations parasocial fans hold for celebrities to behave appropriately (and by appropriately, I mean without stepping a toe out of their fan-drawn line) at all times are invasive, unfair and dangerous.

They’re also, more often than not, linked to instances of bigotry, like the biphobia and misogyny toward Bridgers and the torrents of abuse women in the lives of fan-favorite "internet boyfriends" get.

Individuals who form parasocial relationships with primarily white male celebrities like Tom Hiddleston, Robert Pattinson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harry Styles, Chris Evans and Adam Driver create conspiracy theories that babies and marriages with other women are just PR stunts.

They'll also make up lies to discredit their partners and, most sickeningly, launch racial abuse at any non-white girlfriends of these white stars, most especially when they're Black women — just ask FKA Twigs and Zawe Ashton.

The recent Hailey Bieber scandal rings true of parasocial misogyny too. Fans of Selena Gomez use convoluted social media narratives filled with maybe-shades and assumptions to harass Hailey Bieber (and anyone who got in the crosshairs) up to the point of chanting "f*ck Hailey Bieber" at a Don Toliver and Justin Bieber show at Rolling Loud California 2023.

These fans of Gomez reminisce about Justin Bieber and Gomez's past relationship, finding a way to shift blame onto Hailey Bieber for its demise. They accuse Hailey Bieber of being a "mean girl" but hardly say anything about Justin Bieber's problematic behavior.

Gomez herself fueled the flames of this fan harassment before attempting to extinguish them. In the same vein, many other celebrities stay silent as some of their fans, partners and co-stars are all abused by their fan bases, either out of a lack of care or of fear of fan retribution.

This kind of behavior from fans is inexcusable, and so are the ways misogyny and other forms of bigotry inform narratives surrounding celebrities.

When they're able to, celebrities should call out these fans directly. And when they’re not able, their more powerful partners and friends should do it for them — instead of ignoring this issue for the sake of ticket sales and Twitter followers.

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