Mad About Keanu? You're Not Alone...But Is It Good for You?
Understanding the perks and perils of "parasocial" romance
Posted Jan 06, 2020
“I have a friend who is super obsessed with him,” I explained sheepishly to the cashier at Barnes and Noble, as I handed her the hot pink book (by Marisa Polansky) titled What If Keanu Were Your Boyfriend: The man, the myth, the whoa!
“Who isn’t?” she replied cheerily.
Touché. Keanu’s enigmatic appeal is now so universally accepted that he has begun to gamely parody himself as a heartthrob in mainstream movies (Always Be My Maybe). Keanu is not alone, of course; he is a case study in a much more ubiquitous phenomenon—as silly or superficial as they might seem, celebrity crushes are a natural extension of our evolving media landscape.
Anthropologist John Caughey (1984) pointed out that we are “…Regularly transported into the midst of dramatic social situations involving intimate face-to-face contact with the most glamorous people of [our] time... Given their intimate, seductive appearance, it would be peculiar if the audience did not respond in kind” (p. 57, emphasis mine). Such fantasy attachments also happen to fit snugly into our own evolved need to belong and to feel positively connected to others. If that other is widely-known and admired, we may be all the more motivated to engage in “parasocial interaction” (the phrase coined over a half century ago to describe the imagined friendship we develop with media persona as we “get to know them” over time, Horton & Wohl, 1956). Much in the way that we may aspire to gain access to the popular crowd in middle or high school, celebrities provide the ultimate ingroup who confer social status by fantasy association.
This begs the question: Do such normative attachments provide benign, even aspirational, surrogates for intimacy? Or do they perpetuate unrealistic and/or problematic expectations for romance? The answer as it tends to be: It depends, and, both.
But first, what draws us to particular media figures and characters? It almost goes without saying that they are typically more conventionally beautiful than the rest of us, and finding them attractive is certainly a big part of their allure (more on that in a bit), but that’s not the whole story. In her playful text, Polansky writes, “When we consider his excellent career, well-reported good deeds, and decades of interviews brimming with quirky gems, all evidence suggests that Keanu is kindhearted, humble, thoughtful, and determined. In short, Keanu is the perfect boyfriend.”
He has the qualities we tend to seek in actual mates. A recent cross-cultural investigation of how much individuals would “budget” for specific qualities in a long-term partner showed that kindness topped the charts, in addition to physical attractiveness and good financial prospects. This dovetails with my early research; when I asked undergraduate participants to describe why they liked their favorite media figures (at the time, Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt were among the most popular choices), at the top of the list were the perceptions that a given celebrity was a good person (kind, other-oriented) and down-to-earth (genuine, humble, and relatable). Our celebrity attractions are less superficial than we might think.
**My own first claim to parasocial romantic attachment occurred in middle school when I felt compelled to write an essay about how Christopher Reeve (may he rest in peace) was my personal hero because you could just tell that in real life he was as wonderful as his warm-hearted, man-of-steel persona (he played Superman, for anyone under the age of 40). My English teacher at the time generously wrote at the bottom of my paper, “I’m sure he is everything you say he is, Dara.”**
Is there social psychological value to these kinds of pseudo-romances? There seems to be. For example, celebrity crushes may offer safe surrogates for romance among adolescents, in particular, who are navigating their own fledgling hopes and preferences for as yet unrealized relationships. Further, my own research has found that single undergraduates with various relational vulnerabilities (attachment anxiety, heightened need to belong) are more likely to form intense imaginary attachments to opposite gender media figures (among a heterosexual sample).
In the short term, this may be benign compensatory strategy for perceived emotional or social deficits. In high school, alongside real world crushes, I enjoyed the “company” of an eclectic assortment of male celebrities whose images covered my closet door (from Christian Slater to Hugh Grant). Such imaginary bonds seemed preferable to the stress of attempting to date an actual male peer.
However, celebrity crushes may also provide too safe a space for intimacy—with none of the anxieties, mundane conflicts, and/or compromises that characterize real-life partnerships. They may keep us from venturing outside of our comfort zone and keep would-be relationship partners from passing unrealistic muster. Indeed, some work finds that increased exposure to romantic-themed programming in the media is linked to idealized perceptions of romantic love—from the notion that “love conquers all” and “soulmates” to the idea that one’s partner would be able to perfectly intuit all of one’s thoughts and feelings. Some cultivated ideals may be more specific: For example, I also thought that my future partner had to be a good dancer at a minimum, owing to umpteen viewing sessions of movies like Footloose, Grease, and Dirty Dancing.
Some research is a bit more bleak—recent work by Erickson and Dal Cin (2018) asked female participants to retrospectively report on a celebrity crush in adolescence, in concert with current attitudes and experiences. In addition to documenting the widespread phenomenon of romantic attachments to celebrities—a whopping 93 percent of their sample had an adolescent crush (23 percent of whom still felt attached in adulthood), results showed an association between increased intensity of “romantic parasocial attachment” (including items such as “I imagined what it would be like to marry [this person]”) and a variety of problematic outcomes in adulthood. These included: deriving self-worth and mood from one’s relational ups and downs, having more embarrassing or regretful sexual experiences, and endorsing a more heterosexist script for romance (believing that a woman must be attractive to be romantically appealing). Although longitudinal research is needed, and we cannot rule out the possibility that existing relational anxieties may explain both media fantasies and more negative lived experiences, these findings suggest that para-social romances may be a liability when it comes to real life relational contexts.
Even more problematic are media portrayals that trivialize sexual coercion or stalking (re-watch Season 3 episode 9 of Sex and the City). Research by Lippman (2015) has shown that romantic comedies that make light of stalking behaviors increase "stalking myth acceptance" among young female viewers ("a person who is willing to go to the extremes of stalking must really be in love”) among those who feel more immersed in the story. The #metoo movement has thankfully been increasing both accountability and awareness of disturbing behavior both on and off screen.
Finally, as noted earlier, idealized media-derived standards of attractiveness may be problematic for those who like to fantasize about a would-be celebrity love interest. I have found that wishfully identifying with a favorite female media figure as well as feeling romantically attached to a favorite male media figure both predicted heightened body anxieties among young women (as is unfortunately typical in this area of research, I did not survey young men, nor did I make comparisons across sexual orientation, limitations that require remedy in the future). Body conscious young women may thus be more likely to attune to and internalize media standards of physical appearance, comparing themselves not only to female media figures but to the implied glamorous partners of their crushes.
Interestingly, Polansky assuages such comparative concerns in her book, noting that Keanu has “been reported to get down with the non-famous folk, too—which bodes well for you.” Much has also been made of Keanu’s latest girlfriend who is lauded for being refreshingly “age-appropriate” at 46.
What’s the take home? Enjoy that fun-loving little book and Keanu all you want. Just keep in mind that he is “perfect” by both design and motivated imagination. As the back cover suggests, “We can dream, right?” Yep. Just don’t forget to wake up [insert clever Matrix analogy here].
Caughey, J. L. (1984). Imaginary social worlds: A cultural approach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Erickson, S. E., & Dal Cin, S. (2018). Romantic parasocial attachments and the development of romantic scripts, schemas and beliefs among adolescents. Media Psychology, 21(1), 111-136. doi:10.1080/15213269.2017.1305281
Greenwood, D. (2009). Idealized TV friends and young women's body concerns. Body Image, 6(2), 97-104. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2008.12.001
Greenwood, D. N., & Long, C. R. (2011). Attachment, belongingness needs, and relationship status predict imagined intimacy with media figures. Communication Research, 38(2), 278-297.
Hefner, V., & Wilson, B. J. (2013). From love at first sight to soul mate: The influence of romantic ideals in popular films on young people's beliefs about relationships. Communication Monographs, 80(2), 150-175. doi:10.1080/03637751.2013.776697
Lippman, J. R. (2018). I did it because I never stopped loving you: The effects of media portrayals of persistent pursuit on beliefs about stalking. Communication Research, 45(3), 394-421. doi:10.1177/0093650215570653