On this episode of The Game of Nerds podcast, I’m sitting down with fellow fangirl and writer at TGON, Tara Jabbari. We first met through the podcast website matchmaker.FM and immediately hit it off. Since our first call, I always book at least two hours minimum to chat with Tara because we talk about everything and anything. She has her very own biographical podcast series about women in history called, Who Was She? Tara also has a Masters’s Degree in Communication Culture, and Technology. While finishing her degree, she looked into how we form relationships with media, more specifically television. She blew my mind with what I like to call “Fandom Science” when she explained an actual scientific term for what we like to call Fangirling, it’s called Parasocial Relationships.
It’s no secret. I like Sebastian Stan. It’s right up there with Bluey. As a kid, when I would get super into something or someone, my parents would just say, “Oh Shannon, you’re just obsessed.” It turns out I was experiencing parasocial relationships and didn’t even know it. A parasocial relationship is when someone has an intimate one-sided relationship that’s non-sexual with a media person or figure. This term was coined originally in 1956 after two scientists realized that people were getting attached to their local news anchors. Some people were going so far as to send soup when they hear their favorite weatherman was sick. This was a fairly new concept since television has just arrived at the beginning of the 1950s. Fast forward to the 2000s and the arrival of Facebook, Twitter, and various other social media, the term is still there but only bigger. This is where Tara says we may need to update the definition or come up with a new term altogether.
This obsession with celebrities or fictional characters isn’t new, but the digital age has caused it to grow. We have access to our favorite shows 24/7 and we can follow celebrities’ every move. Convention experiences have made it easier for us to get to meet and interact with our favorite celebrities. While we may believe that Aquaman looked at me a certain way. You can probably guess that he gave that same look to the thousands of other women who were in line that day. While it’s not diminishing the experience in any way, it just goes to show how one interaction can be interrupted in two different ways. With social media and the internet came almost instant access to things we love and obsess over. Tara’s example with Vanessa Hudgens being cornered by a mom to take a picture with her child in an airport brings up a great point. Children really don’t understand this concept and to a certain extent, it’s cute. We’ve heard countless stories of cosplayers or actors playing along to make a small child’s day. At some point though, we all learn the truth about whose behind Mickey Mouse and our favorite characters. But to the parents who have had to sit through countless hours watching and buying thousands of dollars in merchandise, it may seem like these actors or characters owe it to them to take a picture. Once again forgetting that they are even a real person with a plane to catch or a schedule not set by you.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has only made this situation worse. With everything shut down and everyone at home, we resorted to binge-watching series and revisiting our old favorites during the last year. The line between reality and fiction can get a bit blurry. There are really four levels to parasocial relationships.
- You feel empathy for the character. A great example is the famous romantic movie cliche of when the guy gets the girl at the movie’s end. The character and the viewer are both happy, and you feel like you “got the girl” too.
- You start sharing cognitive aspects. You start understanding the character’s reasoning and thought process. Someone may not understand why a 12-year-old has a kill list, but those who have watched the Game of Thrones series understand why Arya Stark was on a mission.
- You identify with this character. This part is prevalent with nerds. I often ask guests on the podcast what nerdy characters do they most identify with! In Tara and I’s case, we mix and pinch of lots of different characters we love. We also discussed how naming children after fandoms and characters would fit under this category too.
- You are absorbed in the character/fandom. This is where it can get dicey, and you should probably take steps to see a licensed doctor. Ingrid Goes West is a great film example of this with Audrey Plaza and Elisabeth Olsen. This can involve stalking, illegal activity, or grand delusions.
The Game of Nerds has always had the motto, “There is no shame in having an unhealthy obsession with a fandom.” For eight years, it’s been our tongue-in-cheek way of saying that it’s okay to really love the nerdy stuff without engaging in illegal activity or hurting others. This fourth level is where we see the craziness and fandom toxicity starts. Tara wrote a great article on the Demi Lovato YouTube series where she talks about how her friends were getting harassed online yet didn’t even know what was truly going on. An even more recent event is Henry Cavill posting a statement about leaving his girlfriend alone.
Parasocial relationship has come a long way since the 1950s, but it shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, it’s just gotten more ramped up due to social media. I mean, are the influencers you follow really your friends? If they follow you, does that automatically make them your friend now? It can get confusing. Tara compares it to the progression of cars and that we need to use social media as a tool. When cars were first introduced, it was a game-changer. They were a tool that we needed. Yet we still had car accidents and deaths, so we studied it some more and came up with seatbelts. We are now in the era of figuring out the seatbelt to Parasocial relationships. Only time will tell where that line will be drawn on what’s acceptable and what is not. This brings Tara back to the original statement at the beginning of the podcast. Do we need a whole new term for these new relationships, or do we need to redefine the old meaning of parasocial relationships? For right now, we will call it the Jabbari Effect until someone figures it out! 🙂