McKissick: Stan culture is toxic and unhealthy

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(Graphic Illustration by Falyn Sebastian | The Collegian)

Nathaniel McKissick, Collegian Columnist

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven us into the throes of the inside world, so it should come as no surprise that people are increasingly using the internet to engage with others and foster interpersonal relationships.

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A certain type of relationship, however — that of the parasocial variety — has created a culture that promotes obsession and delusion. I’m referring to relationships between influencers or celebrities and their stans.

A parasocial relationship, a term coined by sociologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton in 1956, describes an “illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer” that occurs for spectators — the fans. Essentially, it’s a one-sided relationship.

Parasocial relationships aren’t inherently unhealthy. According to Psychology Today, parasocial relationships can add to the enjoyment of media consumption, at least when it comes to fictional characters. Watching a character with a persona similar to that of someone we love or admire adds to the watching experience.

However, in the real world, the idolization of celebrities and entertainers can be a bit more nefarious. Idealization of real, living people is unhealthy, and the act of ascribing and projecting traits onto them is downright delusional.

Someone who is obsessed with a celebrity or content creator is commonly referred to as a stan. The word, a portmanteau of the words “stalker” and “fan,” actually finds its origins in rapper Eminem’s playbook. He released a song in 2000 titled “Stan” describing a fictional obsessive super-fan who kills his pregnant girlfriend after Eminem doesn’t write him back.

Stans are oftentimes infatuated with celebrities and use their time running accounts dedicated to them, replying obsessively to their chosen celebrity or influencer’s social media posts and taking up arms for their object of affection against other celebrities’ stans. Check under any of your favorite celebrity’s posts; the comment section is full of adoring stans.

“Celebrities are not our friends. Are they talented, interesting people? Sometimes, sure. But they are real people, and they are — just like everyone else on this planet — deeply flawed in some way and should not be idealized.”

These people typically feel entitled to the personal knowledge of their idol’s life. Celebrities divulging personal parts of their lives creates a sense of intimacy stans crave. Stans exonerate and place these people on pedestals and make a public show of instances in which their celebrity or content creator interacted with them in some way, be it through a like, response or retweet. They genuinely believe they know these people on personal levels.

In fact, a study performed by psychologists at Wellesley College found that some adolescent female respondents viewed their idols as they would a friend, despite an age difference so staggering they could be the idol’s child.

In 2015, a 19-year-old fan broke into Lana Del Rey’s Malibu mansion and stole several of her belongings. Police discovered notes that he left behind, and they said he felt he had a “spiritual connection” with the singer.

Cases like these are not uncommon. Obsessed fans create a fantasy of a connection in their head and show up to a celebrity’s private home in hopes of bridging that connection. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift have all had similarly unsettling experiences with obsessive fans.

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The truth of the matter, however, is that celebrities are total strangers to us all. When Bill Cosby, a once-venerable and widely loved actor who played the kind, sweater-wearing dad in “The Cosby Show,” was sentenced to prison for sexual assault, the world let out a collective gasp — but why? Why did we assume to know this man based on his behavior in interviews, red carpet events and, most of all, as the fictional characters he played?

Celebrities are not our friends. Are they talented, interesting people? Sometimes, sure. But they are real people, and they are — just like everyone else on this planet — deeply flawed in some way and should not be idealized.

Reach Nathaniel McKissick at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @NateMcKissick.