K-Pop: Parasocial Relationships

Fan photo of Jeong Yunho at a fan sign. I do not own this image, all credit goes to the original fan who took this photo and ATEEZ.

Hi! It’s Annie!

I think we can all agree that this past week in K-Pop has been an entire mess. More and more controversy came out by the day; some idols wrapped in controversy are more wrapped in questions now as people don’t know how to react to new evidence while others have been dismissed by the public. And as the K-Pop community got hit with problem after problem, I saw many people express their disappointment in some of their favorite idols. Which makes sense if it comes out that an idol may have done something potentially disappointing. But on top of these doubts, I also saw people wondering how much their favorite idols are hiding or even berating those who said they were disappointed in some of their idols. For years and years we’ve seen the reactions to the word parasocial be overwhelmingly negative. And every time a controversy along these lines comes out, the immediate reaction to parasocial relationships have been even more negative. Fans of groups like K-Pop boy or girl groups are often berated by society for being so attached or for singling out any celebrity to begin with. And the more controversy comes out, the more I severely question these ideas. So I’m going to take the biggest arguments against parasocial relationships and argue against (and sometimes for) them. Because I don’t think the wider view of parasocial relationships at all describes what they are actually like.

“You don’t really know them!”:

There’s a point to this that absolutely makes sense! The nature of a parasocial relationship is that you don’t know that person in your daily life. They are someone you are a fan of who you may see in concert or on a screen but you haven’t officially met them. And there is something to be said about that. If you haven’t met a person you can’t reasonably speak to what they might absolutely say or do. This is why it is utterly unacceptable to assume anything about the identity of an idol; such as what their sexuality might be. It is also completely irresponsible to dive into their personal lives, because they don’t present that information to the public for a reason. You are not part of their personal lives, so you should not look for that information. You are not entitled to it. However, people say the above statement a lot in other situations, such as when an idol does something reasonably bad or when a fan states that they have a crush on their favorite idol. This is where I stop agreeing with the above statement. It is entirely different to have a crush on someone and to reasonably believe that you will marry them. In fact, in our daily lives we all agree that there is a difference between these two. If you have a crush on someone you go to school with or work with, do you immediately believe that you will absolutely marry that person someday? No! It’s a crush. So why does this mindset suddenly not apply when it comes to idols? A lot of people will argue and say that you don’t know that much about them and definitely not enough to have a crush on them. But how much do we really know about the people we have crushes on in real life? If your crush on a person is not obsessive in nature (such as calling this person your husband or wife un-ironically), I really don’t see how this is harmful. You can have a crush on a person, want to date them, and still accept that you don’t know everything about them. We do all of this all the time in our daily lives. We often don’t see what people we work with daily are like at home, we only see the social side to them. I can’t see how idols are different. And while it is true that you are much less likely to date an idol than someone you see daily, that doesn’t mean that dating possibility has ever had anything to do with having a crush on someone. We don’t only have crushes on people we believe absolutely we will date. As long as you are not being harmful towards the idol or anyone else over your crush and you have acceptance over your chances, I can’t say why people think having a crush is wrong. Sometimes feelings are fickle. Do what makes you happy as long as you aren’t harming others. Let people fantasize if they want to! There’s nothing wrong with it!

“See, you can’t trust someone you don’t know!”:

This is my response to those who feel that disappointment after an idol does something wrong is unearned; or even for people who start questioning other idols after one goes down. Yes, you don’t know them in reality. But K-Pop specifically is in this weird niche where we actually see a lot of their lives off stage. This may not be a good thing, but it is the truth of the matter. We see them in variety shows where they play games or go out and do things that feel more personal than just answering simple interview questions. Idol groups are constantly posting content, including behind the scenes videos or lives where they simply go on camera to answer fan questions or hang out with their fans. With K-Pop idols, the relationships between celebrities and fans (for better or for worse) has never been closer. This is part of the reality we have to accept and that means changes to the parasocial norms society has known for so long. We see so much of these idols that not everything that we see can possibly be a lie. Even when an idol does something controversial and potentially awful, we have to accept through what we see that human beings are nuanced. There is not an entirely bad or an entirely good human being. That means we are seeing some of the real sides to our idols, even though we aren’t seeing every side of them. To be perfectly honest, we don’t see every side of most people. Only the people we are really really close to see all the sides of us. Even in daily life we are sometimes blindsided by people we formerly had good opinions of. This is not unique to celebrity interactions. Just like in daily life, sometimes you will be wrong about people. But, good news, sometimes you will also be right about people! Sometimes people are good people, and we can’t start questioning every idol because we were wrong about one. It’s part of life and it doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be able to trust again.

“You’re giving the corporations what they want!”:

It is true that boy and girl groups often market themselves as attractive and boyfriend or girlfriend material in order to draw in more fans and have more loyal fans. This is part of the marketing of groups like this and I’m not going to lie and say that it isn’t. But there are two things that come to mind when people say this. Firstly, if this is part of the marketing why are people surprised and fans berated when fans say they have crushes on these idols? Doesn’t that just mean that the marketing is working? On the other hand, marketing is involved with every product. It is part of every industry and, yes, can sometimes feel a little slimy. But does the marketing somehow make the product bad? No! While it is true that idols are being marketed this way, that doesn’t mean that the idols are bad or are hiding everything from the public because they are being marketed. Marketing itself is just a means to get people to connect with a product, and while on the outside it can look bad, it can also do things like create a community. Marketing is needed to get good things out to the greater public. Idols are not tricking their fans for being marketed this way. Again, we are in a unique position to see a lot of their lives and some idols don’t even respond to being flirted with by fans. Because that’s their personality and it really is up to them. But I don’t understand why marketing is being held against idols and their fans. If you buy a box of Oreos because you saw them in your favorite television show and got a craving, you have also just given the corporation what they wanted. Does the Oreo now taste worse because of this? No! This is not a line that needs to be drawn to push down fans. In fact, it’s pretty nonsensical.

“You can’t put them up on a pedestal!”:

This one I don’t have an argument against because I completely agree with it. All too often people forget that idols are human beings. We shame idols for making mistakes or swear them off after a story blows up. And if they’ve done something particularly awful, then it makes sense. But sometimes it’s a slip of the tongue or a fan going to talk to them on an off day for them personally. We have to acknowledge that these are not fictional characters that we are supporting that we can write fan fiction about and freely believe whatever we like about their lives. Just like all of us, these are actual human beings that are absolutely going to make mistakes. These are human beings who have mental and physical health issues they are also going through. These are human beings who cannot work themselves into the ground and absolutely need breaks sometimes. So, yes, you need to remember that your idol would not be the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend. Because just like any human being, they are not a perfect person. But we also need to put behind us this idea that every fan sees an idol as perfect or that the only reason they have a crush on them is because they feel they would be perfect. Everyone views their crush, celebrity or otherwise, with rose colored glasses. Does that mean we see them as perfect? Absolutely not. But we all view them how anyone would view their crush or their partner in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. It’s another completely human thing that we do. If you are absolutely shattered when your idol makes any sort of mistake or constantly saying that your idol would never argue with anyone or would never do something you consider to be a faux pas; maybe reevaluate your relationship to your idol. But if you accept that your idol is probably flawed and understand that your idol is going to have bad days, then congratulations you’re probably ok.

What I’m trying to say here is that parasocial relationships are not and have never been inherently bad. It’s ok to be disappointed at idols sometimes or to feel close to an idol or even to have a crush on an idol. Parasocial relationships are called relationships because they are a type of relationship that most everyone will have in their life. And these relationships are now more common than ever with how popular social media is. If you believe your idol can do no wrong, that they would be the perfect partner to you, fully believe that your idol belongs to you, or dive into their personal lives, then you need to reevaluate. But if you support your favorite idols because you believe what they stand for, feel close to them because their music and videos were there during a time where you needed them, or start developing a crush on an idol, then I don’t see an issue here. Feel free to tell those who tell you that you are in a toxic parasocial relationship to knock it off! I see so many people dance around this issue because they have a crush on an idol and don’t want to admit it to people who will call them toxic. Or don’t fully address parasocial relationships because of the negative connotations. Be self aware, but you don’t have to doubt yourself. Parasocial relationships can be immensely good things. It can make people feel less alone, give people hope, and build up communities. And your favorite idols want to have relationships with you too. Part of the reason people are creative (and the reason behind social media) is because they want to connect with other people. We as idol fans are those people! And we are doing ok; but we would be doing much better without the public constantly questioning us.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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