Last week, my conversations with friends were full of inquiries regarding the relationship status of celebrity couple Megan Fox and Colson Baker or, as he is more widely known, Machine Gun Kelly. Rumors of MGK cheating on Fox with his guitarist Sophie Lloyd plagued the Internet after Fox posted a series of pictures of herself on Instagram with a caption from Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade: “You can taste the dishonesty / it’s all over your breath.” The rumors even led Fox to deactivate her Instagram, at least temporarily. My friends and I kept questioning whether MGK had actually cheated on Fox and wondering when we would get a concrete answer.
The fact that we were so invested in MGK and Fox’s volatile relationship status led me to ponder why we were even concerned with their potential breakup to begin with. None of us are particularly invested in their careers. We’re not fans of Fox’s movies, nor do we like MGK’s music. And yet, the situation consumed our innermost thoughts for well over a week, and I’m sure it ran laps around the minds of many other consumers of modern media and celebrity gossip. What does this say about our societal tendency to obsess over people we don’t even know personally, and the extension of that obsession to their romantic relationships? Are we so deprived of genuine connection that we seek to live vicariously through others who have seemingly attained it?
Society’s obsession with celebrity couples has begun to cross the line from simply admiring renowned figures to borderline stalker behavior. Our obsession with celebrities’ romantic lives is made possible largely by exploitative pictures of these couples going about their daily lives, provided to us by the paparazzi. The fact that these pictures even exist brings the ethics of the situation into question as well. These “freelance celebrity photographers” go to the lengths of scoping out where these societal icons live to take pictures of them at their most vulnerable, all for public enjoyment, and we seem to ignore the immorality behind this phenomenon and instead deem it completely normal.
Worse than the twisted morality behind paparazzi pictures, true chaos ensues when society’s one-true-pair breaks up. The existing paparazzi pictures of any loved celebrity couple are used as proof by the couple’s fans that their relationship was the utmost representation of true love and that, now that they’ve broken up, love is presumably dead. Trust me, I get it. The pictures of cute celebrity couples that circle online also make me gush over their relationship and sadden me when I find out that the once happy couple is no more. But the most worrisome part of this phenomenon is its perceived normality.
We treat celebrity couples, relationships between real people who happen to be famous, like we treat fictional couples. The internet is riddled with articles about the best fictional couples that made us believe in love, and articles of the same nature that talk about celebrity couples exist on our webpages. This dehumanizes celebrities. Fictional couples represent idealized versions of humans, but celebrity couples are actual human beings, and constant attention to their private lives is invasive.
This isn’t to say that celebrities don’t benefit from this societal obsession. Using Fox and MGK as an example, whether he actually cheated on her doesn’t really matter when it comes down to publicity and marketing strategies. These rumors serve to get the couple trending on headlines, which can help to promote upcoming projects or even to reinvent their image. As a result, society’s routine stalking of celebrity couples becomes a transactional business process for the couple. Society experiences euphoria and fulfillment at receiving new behind-the-scenes content of their favorite celebrity couples, while the celebrities who make up the pairing benefit from making headlines and having everyone’s eyes on them. Nonetheless, even though they do benefit from the attention their names get online, it doesn’t mean that the normalization of this phenomenon isn’t immoral.
Our obsession with celebrity couples is a testament to the parasocial relationship we’ve created with celebrities. Parasocial relationships are known to be one-sided bonds where one counterpart is entirely dedicated to fostering the relationship while the other is unaware of their existence. In terms of celebrities, getting access to intimate pictures of them gives us a complex insight into their daily lives. At first glance, having access to these photographs allows us to view them as “regular” people, which is the basis of any parasocial relationship. However, it’s unsettling to think that every time they go out in public, they have to be wary of being caught in compromising situations. If you think about it, celebrities are never really done playing a part.
Some celebrities have even gone as far as to express this feeling to their audiences. Taylor Swift, for example, included notes on this in her most recent album Midnights. In the album’s lead-single “Anti-Hero,” she grapples with the insecurities she’s developed as a result of living under the public eye, one of these being that, at times, she struggles with feeling like a real person because of the unmanageable size of her daily life. Swift, and many other celebrities, grapple with the incommodious reality of being so detached from the world but still feeling like they have to live up to a certain societally constructed image of themselves.
The epitome of this societal obsession finds a homebase in what is popularly known as Stan Twitter. It is literally defined as a hub for cult-like celebrity fandoms. Members of this social media phenomenon are known as “stans,” a term that seemingly combines the words “stalker” and “fan” and finds its origin in a song by Eminem about a fan-turned-dangerous-obsessive named Stan. These stans go above and beyond to defend the celebrity they idolize, fostering a toxic online community that lives off of unhealthy levels of obsession. Although Stan Twitter can serve to create a popular media image for a celebrated personality, it is also home to a toxic fanbase that is dedicated to knowing and defending a celebrity’s every move, and reaches a certain level of stalking.
While forming a parasocial bond with a celebrity may lead us to feel like we know them personally, it also leads us to overstep boundaries. Reasons for seeking these far-reaching bonds vary, from our instinct as humans to engage in social interaction to looking for ways to appease our loneliness and raise our self-esteem levels. Applying that to the relationships celebrities form romantically, the perceived connection between celebrities and their fans blurs the line between genuine romantic connection and this parasocial relationship. This can lead to people aiming to form a romantic relationship for themselves similar to the parasocial relationship they feel for a celebrity. A feeling of protectiveness over their celebrity icon may even arise, as occurred when Olivia Rodrigo fans found out about her rumored relationship with Zack Bia, Madison Beer’s allegedly toxic ex-boyfriend.
As a fangirl myself, I understand how society members may feel drawn to celebrities and, subsequently, invest themselves in their romantic relationships. However, the extent these supposed connections have reached is a level beyond what is healthy for both common folk and celebrities alike.
Graciela Batlle Cestero is an Opinion Columnist writing about popular culture and its social consequences. She can be reached at email@example.com.