Parasocial Relationships: An interview with Gayle Stever

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Psychologist Gayle Stever is based at Empire State College / SUNY. Her current research explores the relationships between fandom and attachment. Inspired by childhood memories of Beatlemania, she began her work investigating fan communities back in the 1980s. Gayle has conducted empirical research with several fan communities, including those who support Michael Jackson, Star Trek, and Josh Groban. When I first encountered her work, I was struck by the way that she treated fans with dignity and respect.

Gayle contacted me after the publication of Understanding Fandom and we began a discussion about the nature of parasocial relations [PSR]. I was delighted when she agreed to an interview…
When we first made contact, you had some interesting things to say about conceptualizing the roles of academics that study fandom. How do you see your place as a music fan researcher? Are the concepts of aca-fan or fan-scholar too limited?

First of all, just to clarify, I am not a music fan researcher. I have looked at fans of musicians but also spent 10 years in Star Trek Deep Space Ninefandom, and also have looked at fans of other Science fiction and fantasy phenomena such as Lord of the Rings. I have not focused on one specific fandom but am a student of fan behavior of ALL types and am interested in how findings generalize from one fandom to another. Also the concept of an aca-fan as I understand it presumes that the academic person studies things of which he or she is already a fan. I don’t know if others have worked as I have, but I have not studied any fandoms of which I was already an active part (because, honestly, there weren’t any). I certainly have studied things that I knew I would be able to enjoy because I don’t think it’s realistic to think that you will be able to really participate in something if you hate it! For example, I probably would not be the person to do participant observer research with country and western fans….nothing bad to say about them but it’s just not my kind of music and it would be challenging to go to a lot of concerts for music I don’t enjoy. But having said that, I knew relatively little about Michael Jackson when going into that study. I had one album and I knew a few things about him, but really was much more interested in the fan behavior as depicted in the media as a case of “superstar fandom” than I was in him as an individual. When I finished studying his fans, I moved on and really know very little about his career post 1992. The same is true of Star Trek. While I watched the original show as a child, and enjoyed the newer shows, I don’t really qualify as a serious Star Trek fan on many levels; certainly not a hard core Star Trek fan. I participated in Lord of the Rings fandom and enjoyed the films, but had never read Tolkein until then. When we talked, the term I used, almost in jest was “meta-fan”; for those who get the joke, it really means “a fan of fans” and that is probably as accurate as I can get in describing my interest and passion concerning this topic.

What enlightening things have you learned from each of your empirical encounters with music fan communities?

A fan community is much like any other community. There are allegiances, there are rivalries and people who are great, people who don’t get along etc. There is an extent to which the fan group reflects the apparent values of the performer they are following. This is true in Star Trek as well so I don’t think it is unique to music fandoms. But what IS unique to music fandoms is that in addition to the potential to be attached to the artist, some fans are attached to the music itself. Music is a unique art form and it communicates in a way that other media do not. So people can be moved and will respond in a way that is deeper and richer than other fandoms. Remember that I DO have a bias here though as my undergraduate degree was in music and before I became a researcher, I was a music teacher for over ten years. So I think being a musician informs my opinion in this matter.
Fans sometimes talk of their communities as surrogate “families.” In your view is this something more than a convenient metaphor for close human communality?

It is a fact that in our society where people move from place to place, media fandom provides a stable social world where friendships are maintained via media (and this predates the Internet when the “media” were letters and telephone). For those who have no family, fandom becomes a self-selected family for LOTS of fans. I have seen this in every fandom I have studied. The Springsteen fans called it “Our own small town.” For Star Trek fans, it can be forming local fan communities and calling them “ships” and giving people “ranks” and going through the motions of being part of a Star Trek like community. Do these groups have the same dysfunctions as families? You bet they do! J

Your work brings together an awareness of psychology and fan studies. From one perspective, by rendering fan practices as personality traits, psychology might seem to generalize or even pathologize media fandom. Can the identity politics approach of fan studies and the clinical approach of psychology be bought together without conflict? What benefits and problems might arise?

First of all, the assumption that personality psychology involves an assessment of “abnormality” is a misconception. The only personality theory I have used as a fan studies scholar is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. MBTI defines behavior in terms of normalcy. Jung believed that ALL types were good…just different. So by saying one person is an extrovert and another is an introvert, we are not making any kind of judgment, but rather are just being descriptive. In early research that I did in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I found that fan groups were made up of a disproportionate number of Introverted Intuitive personality types. If you look at the theory, this actually makes a great deal of sense. Introverted people are deeply introspective and reflective and take things from the outside world and consider them deeply before communicating with others about those things. Intuitive people think in terms of possibility, what could be, what the future might bring, and in an abstract rather than concrete way. In Star Trek fandom, this was the appeal of an ideal future for humankind where problems had been solved and we had figured out how to move ahead as one planet. In, for example, Bruce Springsteen fandom, this involved the themes of Bruce’s songs as a representation of the working man’s ideals, something with which those fans identified. Idealism in a song, or idealism in a possible future world would both be the realms of the IN personality. By saying that, we have not said anything that pathologizes anyone, in fact just the opposite. We are saying a person’s fandom is an outgrowth of their natural tendencies to see the world a certain way, in this case tendencies that were described by Carl Jung and others. Jung parted company with Freud because Freud insisted on seeing the world as pathological. I think Jung would like the way I used his theory, as a lens into NORMAL thinking about, in this case, mediated messages.

I would also say that seeing psychology and fan studies as two different things is to miss what many of us do. I am a fan studies scholar who uses psychology as a tool to understand the fan or audience member. That is no different to using communication theory in the same way. We are ALL fan studies scholars….we just come at it from differing theoretical perspectives. I would also say that I am a developmental psychologist and not a clinical psychologist. Developmental theories, such as attachment theory, look at human behavior in the context of normal development. I very rarely study pathology and am greatly bothered that so many psychologists who study fan behavior can’t get past such a perspective. I do agree that many psychologists who look at fans DO look at them through a lens of pathology. But they do not represent everyone, and certainly not me!

Is loss and distance from one’s celebrity hero an inevitable and innate part of the psychology of music fandom or a product of affect of particular regimes of media?

Loss and distance are a part of life…of any kind of relationship? Do fans sometimes “miss” their favorite singer? I guess they can. I see this particularly when a tour comes to an end and the fan who has been to multiple concerts “misses” the chance to see the person live. They look forward to the next tour, as much to see their friends as to see the star in many cases. The fan who stays home and never meets the celebrity doesn’t usually feel a sense of “loss” because they can’t miss what they haven’t had? So I guess I mainly would see this in fans who go out and travel….a significant subgroup, but only a subgroup (less than 5%?).

Aren’t stars and fans simply using Twitter to represent more traditional show business relationships?

I think a lot about Twitter and how to address those issues. One thing I want to point out is that Twitter is SO new that the methodology to study it is still formulating. I have tried different things to try to collect “data” from Twitter rather than taking it at face value and I feel like I’m still at the drawing board.

The short answer would be that every person uses Twitter in a different way so no one answer could possibly generalize to them all. Some celebrities are using it to exploit and some genuinely want to dialogue with fans in a connected way. Twitter is just a tool. Like a hammer, it can be used to build or to tear down….so to say it’s all one thing would be inaccurate. The main point I think that can be made conclusively at this point is that the celebrities on Twitter are as varied and individual as any other group of people. Some are genuinely interested in connecting with fans and really do care about them as a group of people. Others see Twitter as yet one more way to “market” a career and products. You can’t paint them as a homogenous group with one broad brushstroke.

It’s like Daniel J. Boorstin alleging that “celebrities are well known for being well known” and that NONE of them are heroes. My answer to that way back in 1990 (when I wrote my master’s thesis) was that hero is in the eye of the beholder. I stand by that statement today. I have seen or heard about individual celebrities doing some pretty amazing things that could qualify as “heroic.” But back to Twitter….the celebrities that we chose to follow and about whom we recorded data were very individual and all over the place in terms of how they used the medium.

Your work covers a wide range of fan-celebrity relationships: PSR, PSI, PSA [parasocial relationships, interactions, attachments], directed mediated relationships, identification / task attraction / role modeling… To help readers, can you briefly define and distinguish some of these?

I think it’s important to understand that I see all of these topics as one thing…a way to try to understand the motivations behind fan activity and involvement. So with a focus on motivation, I have looked at each of these things for what it could tell me about what motivates a fan to…be a fan. Beyond that it’s all pretty much jargon. I started out as a symbolic interactionist and the core of that methodology is to understand “participant meanings.” So if I am a Josh Groban fan, what does that mean to me as a participant? Do I engage in a parasocial relationship with him? Have I reached out to him through various means and gotten to know him as a real person (which is much more reasonable and attainable and not at all a crazy notion than many people think)? Do I identify with him? Have I engaged with him through social media? Or do I simply see him as an outstanding singer/songwriter/actor (task attraction)? The thing is, in my years of studying his fans, I have met all of the above! So no one thing (or theory) explains the phenomenon that is the Grobanites (or the Trekkers or the Ringers or the Gyllanhaalics or any other group with which I have engaged). You have to look at it all, and while that is a daunting task, theoretically, I have done my best to try to do just that! It means you read everything in every discipline that you can find….which is a LOT of stuff!

Parasocial relationship [PSR] could be seen as an idea about audience cognition that has been taken as an empirical reality (which has then been modified / obliterated by Twitter), and its status as a an interpretation actually forgotten. Can we conclusively test for a PSR when it is, essentially, a theoretical heirloom of the mass culture critique?

When I extend my interest in a celebrity or character beyond consumption of that media, I have engaged in a parasocial relationship, or as anthropologist John Caughey referred to it, an Imaginary Social Relationship. It is vicarious or imaginary because it involves….my imagination! To the extent that we engage in a creative interaction with the persona with whom we have interest, we have a PSR. Do we need to “test” for it? Not sure why….I think everyone does this on some level, but certainly some more than others. And the Introverted Intuitive engages everything in life this way so for that person, this doesn’t even seem very strange. As you may have guessed, I am an Introverted Intuitive myself and I understand deep reflection concerning something I want to understand or engage, or connect to….which is why I see fan behavior and PSR as a very normal process. How is it really very different to reading books? When I read fiction, I become vicariously involved in an imaginary universe…I may even imagine myself as one of the characters. I may find myself, when reading, to feel romantic attraction to a character, or to identify with a character, or with a situation. These are all things people do when they engage in PSR….as I said, normal stuff.

You are saying that we have reified a construct by testing for it and then saying it’s “real” because our tests confirm it. It’s a similar argument to those who say “extroversion” doesn’t really exist but is just something we created a test for and then reified with results of that test. In both cases, I would argue that if the construct is useful in describing and predicting behavior, then does this really matter? I know some would argue that it does and I respect that, but I have found both constructs to be useful and as part of a theory that would have practical application, if it works, then keep it?

One thing I want to say here, and I run into this all the time as a psychologist doing research in an area primarily populated by communication scholars is that I am not as conversant in the communication version of theories as I am with the psychologists’ version of the same theories. I have had it happen more than once that I have submitted papers to ICA or other similar organizations and been told that while my work is interesting, there is some key theory or approach that is standard in the communication literature that I have missed. Because my research is driven by different theoretical paradigms than those that drive the communication research, I sometimes find myself a bit out of step with the mainstream of research in parasocial theory. Trying to keep up with the research in multiple disciplines is a real challenge for anyone in this area of study!

Because, at worst, the idea behind the term parasocial relationship [PSR] suggests that fans are deluded into thinking that they have reciprocal relationships with broadcast celebrities, the idea has sometimes been contested in cultural studies. In psychology, meanwhile, it has been further refined. One of my concerns is that the idea misunderstands fans perceptions (rather than being deluded, they know that celebrities are real people at a distance) and ignores concepts like social status (stars as important people). Why might it be worth keeping?

Parasocial is defined as “nonreciprocal” so why would we think fans are deluded? I have yet to run into the fan (absent of verifiable mental illness) who thinks this way. See my discussion above. Why is having fantasy interaction with either a celebrity or a fictional character strange at all? It’s actually the most normal thing for people to do. My definition of PSR is simply….extending the interaction beyond the media into a “relationship” that serves a purpose beyond the actual media consumption. So if I put up a poster of an attractive media person and use them as an ideal in my quest for romantic fulfillment, even if I fantasize about meeting them and falling in love, almost every fan I have interviewed can tell me this probably won’t happen but it still fulfills a purpose of giving them something to idealize and dream about. There is an entire literature in developmental psychology about how this becomes useful “practice” for the adolescent by fantasizing about a romantic object who will make no demands (because they haven’t met the person).

But what about the person who holds the celebrity as an ideal because what they really want to do is work with that person and do work like that person does? The celebrity becomes an inspiration for the work they do (either real or imagined). Ask Star Trek actors how many times they have been told that their character inspired the fan to be a doctor or an engineer etc.? Mae Jamison reported that Nichelle Nichols had inspired her to become an astronaut…because there was a Black woman in space! As part of that process, did she carry on imaginary conversations with either the actress or the character? I would imagine she probably did. Normal stuff! And yes…a PSR!

I’m particularly interested in your use of the term “proximity seeking” to describe fan behaviour. What do you think motivates the very widespread tendency amongst fans to get closer to their heroes?

First of all understand that proximity seeking can be psychological. I remember being a teenager and loving certain TV shows and “proximity” meant watching that show faithfully and sometimes more than once! But it is a natural human tendency to want to be close to those to whom we are attracted, is it not? Again, normal stuff! If I like you, I want to be near you. Or maybe I am curious about you. Are you as great in person as you seem to be on TV? Or in movies? Or in concert? For the subset of fans who go the distance to actually meet the star, they are certainly motivated by normal things like attraction, curiosity, identification etc.

If I like a sports team, why would I go see them play in person? Can’t I see things better on TV? But people who are fans still go to the games! They want to experience the entire event, not just see the play by play on TV! If I like a singer, I could just listen to their CD, but if I go to a concert, I can see them in real life and experience a unique live performance. This is another form of proximity seeking.

I have spent literally hundreds of hours sitting next to stars in autograph lines (Alexander Siddig, Rene Auberjonois, Nana Visitor, John Rhys Davies etc.) and watched fans as they had their moment to meet the celebrity. For those who really like an actor, it is their chance to make eye contact, shake a hand, say hello, ask a question etc. The actors vary in significance to each fan…for some they are meeting their favorite of all time, and for others it’s simply a chance to get one more autograph for the collection. So the motivations are as varied as the fans.

In one place in your research you mentioned a fan of Josh Groban who used a recording of his song ‘Believe’ as a source of empowerment when she underwent chemotherapy. I was fascinated that you said “the song created proximity to Groban.” Does this mean that the empowering capability of popular music is really about creating greater intimacy with desirable figures?

I suppose it could but what it also can mean (if you know that particular song) is that the message of the song helps the person psychologically to be transported or motivated or to maintain a certain mindset in the face of adversity. Many of us have put motivating songs on our headsets in order to spur on our exercise. If we listen to Eye of the Tiger, will we run faster or longer? Music can also be a distraction from pain. Or it can make us feel less alone because the person singing the song “gets” what we are going through in some sense. Why are songs about loneliness and pain and breakups so popular? Because when we go through these things ourselves, it helps to know that someone else (presumably the one singing and/or who wrote the song) “gets” it? Remember that “proximity” can be psychological as well as physical, and this isn’t just about the PSR.

When I first moved across country to New York in 2009, my husband’s job kept him from following me for 8 months. During those 8 months, I found ways to be “close” to him, like putting up family photos, playing music we both enjoy, or simply calling him on the phone. Thinking about someone as you drift off to sleep at night or upon waking….these are all forms of psychological proximity seeking, so why is having that with someone you don’t know in real life such a strange thing?

I had a student who told me that, after his divorce, watching reruns of old Andy Griffith programs (about life in rural America) transported him mentally back to the time when he was part of a family like the one on the show. Watching the show made him nostalgic for his childhood and his nuclear family. This was a man in his 50’s. He told me he watched these at night during dinner in order to not feel so alone. In this case, he was seeking proximity to an ideal and a childhood he had enjoyed.

Your work includes a commonly found distinction between normal and extreme fandom. In your view, is there anything about pursuing fan dedication that can make otherwise sane individuals go pathological? Or is it simply that case that extreme fandom has become a discursive resource: a socially acceptable alibi for people who already have deep psychological issues?

I have never depicted the extremely devoted fan as not “normal” unless they actually exhibited signs of mental illness (and we can’t deny that some people do in any social setting). In my original dissertation, I differentiated “Intense-pathological” from “Intense-nonpathological,” meaning you could be an intense fan and still be perfectly “normal” (if there is such a thing). I prefer the term “average” vs. devoted etc. But to answer your question, it’s the old “is celebrity worship a slippery slope to pathology” question and my emphatic answer since I first saw that in writing is “absolutely not!” I have studied thousands of fans over more than 25 years now, and I have never seen it happen that way, not once. Mentally ill people were already that way before they became fans. As for the second part of your question, I am not sure I’ve seen that….using fandom as an alibi for psychological problems? No case comes to mind readily unless I misunderstand what you ask?

… A classic example that I can think of is the much circulated case from Fred Vermorel’s book Starlust (1985) where one Barry Manilow fan said that she would not sleep with her own husband because anyone except Barry was, in her eyes, unclean. Surely, she was primarily afraid of intimacy and using extreme fandom as a kind of socially recognized alibi?

Yes that sounds like a good analysis of that case. Fan behavior (like any other individual’s behavior) can be a manifestation of symptoms of some mental illness. In my experience, the mental illness was already there and the fan’s behavior is the result of that illness and not of being a fan per se. The most common mental illness found in fandoms is erotomanic schizophrenia (the delusional belief that a person of higher status is in love with you). The “Letterman Stalker,” for example, was clearly an erotomanic, but one problem in our culture is that we approach these cases with a criminal justice model rather than with a mental health model. That woman was put in jail, restraining orders were issued and she was treated like a criminal rather than as a person with a mental illness. And like so many female erotomanics, I understand she ended up committing suicide.

The other thing that strikes me is that so many times the “fan” relationship is given precedence over other relationships that fan has with the celebrity. There was a famous case of a woman who was running the fan club for a celebrity and she shot and killed her. But in that particular case, the woman was more an employee than just a “fan” and as such it was more like a disgruntled employee case than a “fan” case.

I haven’t really run into so many fans who use their fandom as an excuse for bad behavior though. I am sure there are enough isolated cases for this to always be possible, but most of the fans in the various groups with whom I’ve interacted are pretty mainstream average people who don’t need to do that.

Sometimes when a fan has an unrealistic idea about where their relationship with a celebrity is going to go, meeting them is a reality check that puts them back on the right path. I knew a woman in the late 80’s who was a very serious Michael Jackson fan. She told me that when she started following him (literally around the world), she thought that if she could just meet him, he would look into her eyes and know she was “the one.” Now it would be easy to write that fan off as a bit crazy. However, she told me that when she finally did meet him, and did look into his eyes and he looked into hers, she walked away and sort of “self-corrected.” She told me she realized that she had been unrealistic in her expectations and from that point on behaved more like an average fan. She eventually stopped following him and went home and resumed her normal life. Given that she was a teenager when she started out, and was in her twenties when she became more realistic, I have always taken this particular case as the normal development of someone who started out a bit deluded but was healthy enough to recognize her own delusion and correct it. But this is the problem with collecting data in a one-time situation. Someone like this who appears to not be very high functioning at first glance actually turns out to be all right. This points to the value of participant-observer research over a period of time with the ability to track certain cases and see where people end up. This particular case wasn’t “formal” data collection but just a case I happened to know about and a person I encountered along the way multiple times. But she does inform the larger question quite well.  And she was far from the only person I’ve met in 25 years who fit this pattern. A person who was truly delusional (i.e. mentally ill) wouldn’t have given up her delusion so easily.

And then there are the cases where a person meets his or her favorite celebrity and ends up marrying the person (enough cases of this out there to acknowledge that it CAN happen). I’m thinking specifically of a particular Star Trek actor in this context but I’m sure there are many other cases of this. So what does that mean? If a person is attracted to someone famous and sets out to have a relationship with that person (romantic or otherwise) and succeeds, what does this do to the perception we have of all the other cases where the person doesn’t succeed. I’m afraid I’m answering questions with more questions here, but it is a complex topic of multiple outcomes and lots of unique individuals.

To close I would just point out that while sociology is the study of people in groups, psychology is the study of the individual. I think that probably comes out in my answers here. While I do look for patterns of behavior, I also recognize that each individual case has its own elements that could be unique. And that is the emphasis in psychology over other social sciences.