Sarah Scales
Stories & Ideas

Tue 25 Oct 2022

Episode 11: Parasocial relationships, fans and celebrity with Sarah Scales – Inside ACMI X

ACMI X Industry Inside ACMI X podcast Interview
Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

Learn more about parasocial relationships and breakups, and the negotiation processes fans experience following a celebrity scandal.


Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, creative technology, and art with practitioners in Melbourne. Each episode, we interview a resident that works at ACMI X: ACMI's screen-focus coworking space. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator.

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, on whose land we record this podcast here in Melbourne, and I extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Peoples listening in.

Today we're gonna hear about the study of parasocial relationships. If you haven't heard of that term before, don't worry. Our guest, Sarah Scales, is here to explain her own research. She is currently a PhD candidate at Swinburne University, where she studies the theory of parasocial relationships and breakups and the negotiation process fans experience following a celebrity scandal. Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah Scales: Hi. Thank you for having me.

AG: Alright, so what is a parasocial relationship?

SS: A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship, typically with a public figure or a media figure. They are not reciprocal like personal relationships between say, you and me, where we both know each other and we can both ask each other questions, and grow a relationship. It is one-sided, so the celebrity or media figure doesn't know that the fan exists and they don't know anything about the fan's life. But the fan can develop and nurture a relationship with the celebrity. They're typically regular and planned encounters. So the relationship develops from interactions known as parasocial interactions that the person has with the celebrity and these interactions are planned and dependable, and that's what makes them gratifying because the person knows what they're getting.

AG: And "interactions" in this context, are fans interacting with content featuring the celebrity as opposed to (interacting with) the celebrity themselves?

SS: Yes. So we can have relationships with people that we admire and also people that we despise. We don't have to have positive relationships all the time. The relationships can also be used for different things. So we could lean on a celebrity in times of hardship. They can be a resource to help us get through a difficult time. They could be an easy friend to make, rather than having to make friends in our personal life. They can also be teachers. They can teach us about the ways of being human or how to go about the world.

AG: How might these relationships develop with people? Is it through Instagram interactions or is it physically seeing the celebrity on TV?

SS: It's all of those things combined. So every time you see the celebrity, (and) hear from the celebrity. Typically interactions that help the relationship progress further is eye contact, so if the celebrity's looking directly at the audience down the camera, or if they are disclosing personal information and stories about themselves and having a personal conversation, that's another type of interaction that increases the relationship.

When the theory was first introduced, they spoke about it with TV reporters. So every night people would tune into the news and see the same reporter, and every night that was another interaction and another interaction that build upon each other until they developed a relationship with that person because they were seeing them every night and getting to know them.

AG: And so the first time this theory was introduced was in the 1950s. How relevant does it seem today?

SS: Yeah, I think it's extremely relevant. I think it's quite funny because when it was introduced in the 1950s, no one talked about the theory at all. This article was released and one of the academics died before anyone even spoke about it. And then someone spoke about it in the 1980s - another article came out about the theory. And then it was relatively quiet until the early 2000s (when) people started to develop the theory and research more into it. And in recent years, it has just sort of blown up in literature. And I think that one of the reasons is because of social media, we have a greater chance to interact with celebrities and media figures because of social media and also influencer culture.

I think that YouTubers are quite popular for having parasocial relationships with because they do have that eye contact. They're telling you about their personal life through their vlog. The same with Instagram (and) Twitter; you're hearing people's thoughts and getting a much deeper understanding of who they are and what their motivations are. Also, people transition across different platforms and mediums. So you might have a celebrity who does a podcast or releases a book and then also has a TV show, so you have multiple ways of getting to know them across different platforms. I think that that helps with its relevance and people are realising that they are having these relationships.

AG: Is the reason it's blowing up in academia because it's becoming more prevalent in 2022?

SS: I don't know that it would become more prevalent because I think that people did still have relationships with media figures in the 1950s. But there are more celebrities and more non-traditional celebrities, so I think we have greater access and a greater ability to form more relationships. Maybe rather than just one person having five (parasocial relationships), now maybe they have 20.

AG: Your focus is specifically on film fans. Why might those parasocial relationships develop?

SS: That is something that I am trying to figure out (laughs). I think that with TV in particular, it is something that's in people's homes, it's something that they consume when they're comfortable and with their family, maybe their friends or roommates. It's something that they can return to every week. Film stars have interviews and where they talk about their projects, they're also interviewed in magazines. So there are different ways that people can discover more about who they are.

AG: Once the relationship is established, there can be considered a kind of break-up stage. What does that break-up stage look like?

SS: In the existing literature so far, they perceived a breakup as when a show or something is cancelled or a character dies or an actor dies, and so that person is taken away. It is thought of similarly to a breakup in real life. Just as in a personal relationship; if you have a breakup you might feel some level of distress or heartbreak or sadness, or you might miss the person. Those feelings all can happen in a parasocial relationship as well. So that is why it's termed a break-up if you feel like you've lost that character or the person, because they're no longer in your life. But what my research is looking at is what happens if that break-up is due to a scandal? What happens if the celebrity is still there, but something happens to disrupt your like for them and your admiration for them?

Scandals vary from general misdemeanours to irredeemable crimes. A scandal is something that goes against the status quo, our code of conduct, and what we believe to be acceptable behaviour. They can kind of be broken down into three different categories. There's trust violations, which is when you deceive someone or act inauthentically or you betray their confidence. There could be moral violations, so that's shoplifting or drunk driving or things that we view as behaviour that's unacceptable. And there's also social violations. So that would be making offensive or inappropriate comments - not acting polite. So if someone goes against those expectations that we have set up as a society, that would be considered a scandal.

AG: So once a scandal breaks in the news, does your research explore if it's a conscious decision by fans to break-up? What happens there with the fan or the audience?

SS: So this is when the negotiation process comes in. It's known that fans go through a negotiation because they do have a previous admiration for the star, but they might also condemn the scandal. So then they're caught in this dissonance of; "what do I do? How do I progress forward with this relationship that I have? Do I break-up with them? Is there some way where I can move forward that I'm not completely separated?" It depends on the fan, it depends on their relationship and their expectations of that celebrity. Something that is known about the negotiation process is that it can differ from your external self to your internal self. So you might publicly say; "this person's wrong, what they did is wrong. I don't like them anymore." But then within yourself, it might be a bit harder to come to that conclusion because they are so connected to your identity and it's a person that you liked or you saw as a person you could turn to in comfort. So it can be quite hard to untangle all of those things, especially within yourself. It might be a bit easier to publicly say,; "no, I hate this person now." (Laughs)

AG: Yeah, on Twitter or something.

SS: Yeah, if you feel that like peer pressure.

AG: So what case studies are you researching?

SS: Each chapter of my thesis focuses on a different case study. So when talking about tabloid culture and celebrity news magazines, I'm focusing on Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and the affair that they had and how people picked sides between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. (I'm) looking at the tensions there and the parasocial relationships there, (asking questions such as) who was more strongly aligned with Jennifer Aniston or who was more strongly aligned with Angelina Jolie? How did that affect how they viewed the other person? I think that is quite interesting. In that, we often pick sides and say; "oh no, I'm gonna stick with this person and prefer this person."

I have a chapter looking at how the celebrity responds, and whether they apologise for the scandal, whether they deny the scandal, what they say in response. And for that, I'm looking at Hugh Grant and James Franco. I'm comparing their apologies. Hugh Grant's apology is quite famous because he just said; "I did a bad thing and that's it." And then he very successfully turned his career around and he altered his persona to fit the scandal.

AG: So sometimes the apology can work in favour of the celebrity's overall image.

SS: Yes. Sometimes it can rectify their image. That also goes back to the expectations that we hold for them based on their persona. We hold different expectations for different celebrities. So, for someone who has the image of a bad boy, we might expect them to be involved in some sort of scandal, so it might be a bit easier to forgive them. Whereas, for someone who we perceive to be a saint; it might be a bit harder to forgive them or harder to perceive that they could be involved in such bad behaviour.

AG: Right. So are you saying that the audience kind of expects celebrities to apologise in a way?

SS: I don't think all of the time they expect celebrities to apologise, but I think it is a part of the cycle of a scandal; that the celebrity will come out and make a statement whether that's an apology or not. When a celebrity apologises, often they say; "I'm sorry to this person that I hurt specifically and my friends and family and anyone else I've offended." And it's sort of like a catchall because people who look up to the celebrity can feel as though they were vicariously wronged because they had this expectation and the celebrity didn't hold up to that expectation. So they know that they possibly could have offended them and that's why they sort of use that catchall phrasing.

AG: Interesting.

SS: It's just become so ingrained as part of the cycle. You screw up and then you say sorry. That's what happens in personal relationships, so it kind of makes sense that it would happen on this much larger scale as well.

AG: Do celebrities know that people are having these parasocial relationships with them?

SS: I mean, I don't think they necessarily know the term, but if you think about a sports star or a musician, they look out into the crowd and they know that; "all these people are here for me." And if they look at their social media account, they know; "I have X amount of followers who are interested in me and my life and my films or whatever work I'm producing." But they don't know all of the fans on a personal level, the way that the fans know them. So I think to some extent they would know that fans have a relationship with them because they know the information that they're disclosing in interviews, and they know that their fans would be keeping track of that and have that knowledge of their life, but they don't have that same knowledge back.

AG: What interests you specifically in this type of research?

SS: Well, in film and TV and screen culture, I've always gravitated towards why we watch the things we watch and how we watch them. I think that that easily translates across to why we like the celebrities we do and how we engage with them. I have always loved pop culture and celebrity culture and fandoms. They are theories that have always really fascinated me. I started down this research path... I knew that I wanted to do a PhD, and so I was kind of tossing up different research ideas.

I was having a conversation with one of my friends and she mentioned that she read an interview with Richard Linklater, and because of the interview, she didn't wanna watch his movies anymore. I thought that that's so weird that we can have the same values, but because I'm a fan, I don't wanna let go of his films, I wanna continue watching them. But because she isn't a fan, she's happy to just let them go. And then I started thinking about other people. There's Woody Allen and there's Kevin Spacey, and there's all these people that we know of that have fan groups or that used to be fans that have said; "I no longer wanna be associated with that person anymore because of what they've done." And it just sort of snowballed from there. And I realised that there's a lot in this.

Studying the research, I think I've realized that I'm probably using it to sort out my own negotiations. When Kevin Spacey had his scandal, I was in the middle of watching House of Cards and I didn't know what to do. Do I keep watching this series that I'm enjoying? Do I immediately stop and just forget about this storyline? How do I respond and how do I deal with this and move forward as, I wouldn't say that I'm a Kevin Spacey fan, but how do I move forward with this relationship that I have with him as an actor and as a character in this show that I'm loving? So yeah, I think it is sort of helping me to figure out my own negotiation process for each of the celebrities and how we respond and move forward in our relationships with them and if we just leave them in the dust and break up with them (laughs). And whether that leaves us heartbroken or how that makes us feel.

AG: Yeah, it's really interesting. What was your path to finding out what this term was?

SS: The first couple of months I was just reading everything that I could possibly read. So I read heaps of books and journal articles on celebrity studies and fan studies. I think somewhere along the way I just found this term and I thought; "oh, that's an interesting term." It really stuck and I thought it was really fascinating. I feel like it explains our relationship to celebrities more. We are connected to them and we do know them. I think celebrity studies... some people view it as trivial because it's just like pop culture - it's whatever. But they really teach us about the social world and parasocial relationships improve empathy and they create a holistic relational environment for us. So we have acquaintances and we have friends, and we also know celebrities. Everyone knows someone who is a public figure, so the fact that there's this theory that backs up that relationship is quite cool.

AG: Totally. Because you're a film fan - what are you watching at the moment?

SS: TV shows. I'm watching Heartbreak High and She-Hulk. (Those are) two that I'm loving at the moment.

AG: Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah.

SS: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.

AG: Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. If you would like to find out about ACMI X and keep up-to-date with the next episode, follow us on Twitter at @acmiXstudio.

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