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'Fan Girl' and the Dangers of Parasocial Relationship Dreams Coming True

By A. L. Sarino

Fan Girl, as a film, presents a vivid depiction of the allure and perils of parasocial relationships and extreme fandom.

We build up celebrities easily here. They tower above us on the public screens: huge and terrifying and out of our reach.

James W. Bodden, The Red Light Princess

In the digital era, where information about celebrities is readily accessible to fans, the phenomenon of parasocial relationships has become increasingly pronounced. Coined by Horton and Wohl in 1959, a parasocial relationship refers to the perception of a media performer as an intimate conversational partner by the audience. While initially observed in the context of early television and radio, this concept now extends to various forms of media, with social media emerging as a primary platform for such interactions, especially among adolescents regarding their celebrity idols. However, amidst this proliferation, questions arise regarding the nature of parasocial relationships in the modern age. Do they mirror those of past generations? And what are the potential risks associated with this type of connection?

Parasocial relationships, as conceptualized by Horton and Wohl, delineate a unique dynamic between a spectator and a performer, wherein both individuals remain unaware of each other's existence in real life. While initially characterized by terms such as spectator and performer, the terminology has evolved in the digital age, with fanatic and entertainer commonly used to describe the parties involved. These relationships are typically initiated by the fanatic, who engages in a quasi-interactive experience wherein their perceived interactions with the entertainer contribute to the semblance of a genuine relationship. Consequently, the fanatic may develop emotional attachments and dependencies on the entertainer, often without the latter's awareness. In the contemporary landscape, such relationships primarily manifest as digital connections, facilitated by social media platforms. Here, the entertainer's sharing of personal experiences can be construed by the fanatic as intimate revelations, further reinforcing the perceived intimacy of the relationship. However, it prompts critical questions regarding the boundaries between genuine connection and mere celebrity worship. Can a conventional celebrity-fan dynamic truly parallel the complexities of a parasocial relationship? Exploring these nuances unveils the intricate interplay between media consumption, celebrity culture, and interpersonal connections in the digital scene.

Antoinette Jadaone's 2020 film, Fan Girl, centers on Jane, a high school student captivated by the on-screen chemistry of actors Paulo Avelino and Bea Alonzo, both played by their real selves. Jane's adoration for Paulo Avelino is palpable in her room, adorned with posters and memorabilia dedicated to the actor. While her connection with Paulo may extend beyond the digital realm, Jane's intense infatuation can be attributed to the parasocial relationship she has constructed in her mind through her fanatic behavior. This relationship transcends mere fandom, manifesting in physical forms such as posters and merchandise that serve as tangible expressions of her devotion. These items represent a tangible connection to her idol, allowing her to enact her fantasies and desires in the real world.

After a fan event, Jane follows Paulo and successfully rides behind his car back to his supposed home. She manages to go unnoticed until Paulo arrives at his place, where he questions her about her behavior. In his occupation as an actor, Paulo plays a character. A character's "personae" play a significant role in the parasocial concept of a parasocial relationship. It's the personae, or the fictional identities portrayed by actors, that audiences form parasocial connections with. These personae, essentially fictional characters, are crafted into distinct personalities, often evolving into celebrities. Typically, these "personalities" remain confined to the realm of media and aren't prominent figures in social circles beyond entertainment. They exist solely within the parasocial relationship established with their audience (Horton and Wohl, 1959). In a private setting, Jane witnesses a side of Paulo that diverges from the polished image she had imagined, igniting a sense of confusion and intrigue within her. She is confronted with Paulo's vices, such as smoking and alcohol, which forcefully disrupt the persona she had constructed for him in her mind. However, rather than diminishing her desire to engage with her idol, this revelation only serves to strengthen it, especially as she becomes acquainted with Paulo's final vice: sex. Witnessing her idol indulging in such behaviors fuels her desire to establish a closer connection with him. In a bold move, she positions herself on the floor, hoping to partake in the same experience, only to be met with rejection from a laughing Paulo. Despite this, Jane remains determined, seizing every opportunity to cultivate a relationship with Paulo, as in such arrangements, individuals react as if their connection with the media figure is genuine (Giles, 2002).

As Jane's stay with Paulo lengthens due to circumstantial setbacks, he initiates a more intimate relationship with Jane that no celebrity-fan dynamic would allow. He lets her kiss him and tends to a wound of hers, making their physical contact more palpable to the adolescent. Paulo inquires about Jane's age, to which she asserts her maturity. This marks the beginning of the dissolution of their initial parasocial relationship, as Paulo begins to heed Jane's desires in the context of real-life interactions. However, it should be noted that a parasocial relationship that transcends the boundaries of objective reality is regarded as pathological (Horton and Wohl, 1959). Despite the pressure to appear polished like his actor counterpart, Paulo reveals his ragged self to the young girl, who accepts him wholeheartedly. However, their interactions are soon complicated when Paulo's partner enters the scene. Despite Jane's passive role and mere inquiries to Paulo, he reluctantly engages with her .

Following a moment of alcohol-induced vulnerability, Paulo succumbs to interacting intimately with Jane, leaving the young girl to grapple with the aftermath. Conner (2021) states that parasocial relationships, if extended to a real-life encounter, may contribute to grooming. The following day, Paulo invites Jane for a seemingly tranquil car ride, but their journey takes a tumultuous turn when Paulo's panic is triggered by the sight of a nipa hut. Jane attempts to calm him down, leading to the revelation that the child whom she saw is his own. Empathizing with Paulo, Jane joins him in taking the child, despite the inherent danger. However, the weight of their impulsive actions proves too much for Jane's psyche. She ultimately halts the car and falls to the ground along with the child. Uttering curses at Paulo for his transgressions, Jane is left stranded on the road.

We observe the turbulent dynamic between Jane and her parents as she emerges wounded from her experience. Rather than offering concern and solace to the adolescent, she is subjected to sermons and verbal abuse. Upon returning home, she is only confronted with her own self, processing the disillusionment and predation she has succumbed to at the hands of her idol. As the film ends outside of her house, Jane lights up a cigarette and smokes, a habit she has learned from Paulo himself. The abusive nature of her relationship with her parents contributes to Jane's vulnerability to parasocial relationships, as individuals who feel lonely and isolated are more inclined to seek solace in such connections (Giles, 2002). To mitigate the risk of individuals excessively relying on parasocial relationships to navigate everyday life, it is essential to foster healthy, real-life connections for them to thrive.

Fan Girl, as a film, presents a vivid depiction of the allure and perils of parasocial relationships and extreme fandom. While seemingly hyperbolic in nature, its cautionary tale underscores the need to recognize the inherent one-sidedness and digital nature of such connections. As we navigate the digital landscape where parasocial relationships thrive, it is crucial to safeguard ourselves from the pitfalls of over-reliance and dependency. When navigating parasocial relationships online, individuals ought to evaluate their genuine connections to understand the underlying reasons for seeking substitutes in such interactions. Through awareness and acknowledgment, we can strive for a healthier balance between our virtual and real-life relationships, ensuring our well-being in an increasingly digitalized world.


About the Writer

A. L. Sarino is an emerging writer hailing from the Philippines. Aside from reading as a daily ritual, they take an interest in discussing prevailing social structures and injustices through literary film analysis. They study Creative Writing at the Philippine High School for the Arts and serve as a general editor at The Trailblazer Literary Magazine. Sa Ngalan ng Gula-gulanit na Gunita is their first published book. They can be found on Instagram at @a.l.sarino.


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