First, what is a parasocial relationship?
It is a one-sided relationship typically between a media user to the media persona.
So think the listener has a parasocial relationship with the musician. The musician does not know the listener but the listener knows a lot about the musician via their music. Also, the listener knows more through their interviews and now, through social media. In the 1950s-1990s, the audience could get to know the media persona through interviews, public appearances, their actual media, and even paparazzi. Today though, we can get to know them a lot more intimately. Not only that, we can contact them more directly.
I spoke on The Game of Nerds podcast about this about my graduate research on updating the theory. But now, I’d like to share some examples where films portrayed parasocial relationships:
Juliet, Naked (2018): Rose Byrne’s boyfriend has a deep obsession with the reclusive semi-retired musician, played by Ethan Hawke. When Byrne starts a correspondence with Hawke, her boyfriend (Chris O’Dowd) has a hard time adjusting to meeting his favorite media persona in person. It’s a sweet rom-com but for me, it was also a worst-case scenario. If I was O’Dowd, I would be heartbroken if my favorite media persona preferred my significant other and made me feel like an obsessed freak!
Sex & Lucia (2001): A woman (Paz Vega) decides to move to Madrid in hopes to meet her favorite writer (Tristan Ulloa). Not only does she meet him, but they also become boyfriend and girlfriend and she helps him as he writes his next novel. Living the dream for any big fan! But be careful what you wish for. As the film progresses, the audience along with Ulloa’s character can’t figure out what is fiction and what is reality. This leads to some deadly consequences for his relationships (or was it just a book within the movie?). It portrays why sometimes our favorite artists are also not right in the head. I had to watch it a few times to get what parts were in his book and what was actually happening to the main characters! Still one of my favorite love stories and a cautionary tale of when parasocial moves onto an actual relationship.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985): An unhappily married woman (Mia Farrow) escapes to the theater to watch her favorite movie. All of a sudden, the lead actor in the film turns to her (played by Jeff Daniels) and literally steps out of the screen, and wants to be with her in the real world. But the happy couple has to face some real realities including an angry studio, her marriage, and their own expectations of love and happiness.
There are other films that portray the more upsetting consequences of parasocial relationships. I will share those in a later post so stay tuned!
*All images from IMDb.com