In my last post I discussed the nature of parasocial relationships- what they are, how they form, and how they contrast (or indeed align) with the standard relationships we build offline. I did a quick Google search to see how others have defined the phenomenon, and the one I like best comes from the website findapsychologist.org:
“Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence.”
It’s that simple. As I said in the previous post, this term predates the internet, and goes back to the rise of mass media consumption that occurred in the 20th century. The most obvious example, to my mind, is the unprecedented popularity of Elvis Presley in the 1950s. Aside from transgressing cultural norms in a way that resonated specifically with young people, his rise to fame coincided with the decade in which the TV came to dominate American domestic life. It was against this backdrop- with every house including a TV set showing Elvis gyrating hips- that psychologists first began to use the term “parasocial” to refer to one-way emotional investment.
In Part One I explored parasocial relationships through the lens of ASMR, because I think it makes for an interesting case study. As a genre of online content, it’s a particularly hot topic at the moment, especially when thinking about how the parasocial relationship can turn unhealthy. The way a person might idealize, fall in love with, or obsess over an ASMRtist reminds me a lot of a phenomenon referred to in psychoanalysis as Transference. This is when a patient projects the feelings they have for a former authority figure onto their therapist. It’s not necessarily sexual- a patient might transfer their anger toward someone else onto their therapist, or their dependence. Often, the therapist inherits unexpressed feelings the patient feels toward a significant figure from their childhood.
There’s an episode of The Sopranos where Tony tells his therapist, Melfi, that he’s in love with her. He goes into a speech about how gentle and kind she is, how he can’t stop thinking about her, and how he can’t get aroused by other women. Melfi then delicately tries to explain to Tony that he isn’t really in love with her, because he doesn’t actually know her outside of the professional role she maintains in their sessions. She says:
“I’ve been gentle…that’s my job. I listen…that’s what I do best. I’ve been a broad, generic, sympathetic woman to you because that’s what this work calls for. You’ve made me all of the things you feel are missing in your wife…and in your mother.”
I feel like Melfi’s words here are eerily relevant to the way someone might become overly attached to an ASMRtist, especially since the whole purpose of ASMR is to be a soothing, comforting presence. Just as therapists conform to professional standards, so too do ASMRtists conform to their established brand image. Although their real-life personality might trickle in here and there, they are nonetheless playing a curated role for their audiences. All you have to do is check Gibi or Glow’s ASMR content against their gaming content. ASMR involves being so consistent in your calming, therapeutic persona, that when viewers see them outside that capacity, they feel the kinda shock you might feel seeing one of your schoolteachers on a night out. At first, it’s disorientating. You can’t imagine your math teacher slamming shots at the bar or playing Overwatch in their boxers, because you’ve never conceived of them being anything other than a math teacher.
I’ve focused largely on parasocial relationships between male internet users and female ASMRtists for this post. While obsession is obviously by no means limited to this dynamic, it’s the one I’ve chosen to examine because of the way it sheds light on other issues such as toxic masculinity, the objectification of women in our culture, and the general plague of online misogyny that feels particularly relevant at the moment. It’s here that I want to explore the unhealthy side of parasocial relationships a little further. Unless you’ve been living in a cave the past few years, you’ve no doubt grudgingly added simping, shilling, and stanning to your vocabulary. Simping is sexual in nature, shilling is consumerist, and stanning refers to obsessive fandom. But they’re all branches of the same tree, whose trunk denotes a basic admonishment for perceived sycophantic behavior. I don’t especially like these terms- not because they’re not useful- but because they’re often used as a cudgel to bully or shame someone in online chatrooms. If the purest definition of a simp is a person who is excessively complimentary, sympathetic, or generous towards someone that either doesn’t know they exist or at the very least doesn’t reciprocate their feelings, then of course those people do exist. While the term might be new, the practice of being overly-nice is not. It’s a pretty normal phenomenon, and I’ll bet it’s one that many of us have been guilty of at some stage in our lives. I know that I’ve said and done some stupid things throughout my life in the hope of impressing a girl I’m attracted to that clearly doesn’t feel the same way. It’s all pretty textbook stuff though, and can easily be attributed to low self-esteem- a fear that the other person won’t like me for my authentic self. So even though I shudder with embarrassment at those memories, I also realize that my behavior was by no means perverse or abnormal. They’re resources for personal growth, if you have the right mindset.
So while I agree that simping over an online personality is obviously unhealthy, insofar as it’s a symptom of a lack of self-confidence, I don’t think that it is, by definition, toxic to others. It all depends on how the behavior is expressed of course. A content creator might feel weird or embarrassed if you compliment them effusively, or donate too much money, but if that’s the extent of the simping then it’s clearly not the same as abusing them. So long as a stan or simp isn’t inflicting genuine harm on others, then they’re not worth worrying about. To me, the act of shaming others as “simps” reveals a much deeper insecurity. It’s reflective of a pervasive resentment toward female content creators that’s characterized by a fear of the patriarchy being reversed. To them, there is nothing worse than being submissive towards women- not because it’s unhealthy to become excessively invested in a parasocial relationship, but because they aspire to the opposite dynamic- to be a dominant alpha male. We know this from the way the word simp is often used interchangeably with slurs such as “softboi”, “cuck”, “beta male”, and “soy boy”, which are focused on the paranoia of emasculation rather than compassion for someone with low self-esteem. The fact that the tone of the language is condemnatory suggests a fear of the status quo being turned on its head. It reminds me of reactionary aphorisms such as “Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” and “Nice guys finish last”. It evokes the simplistic rhetoric of pseudo-intellectuals like Jordan Peterson that “we need men to be men”, a fearful pushback against new ideas about gender.
When I said earlier that this was a hot topic at the moment, I was referring to the recent controversy surrounding the Twitch streamer Amouranth. In case you didn’t know already, she was banned from Twitch for an ASMR stream in which she made some sexually-suggestive poses while dressed in tight-fitting clothing. It’s created a lively debate that touches on several of the things I’ve discussed in this blog series, and I have to admit I find it quite intriguing. The prevailing attitude, from both Twitch users and several prominent streamers, was that Amouranth went too far; that she was making a mockery of the platform, of ASMR in general, and that her actions were damaging toward children that might be watching. I find it interesting that somewhere, there’s a bunch of suits on a Zoom call trying to debate where to draw the line when it comes to ethical content guidelines. I’d like to be a fly-on-the-wall to that conversation. Personally, I don’t buy the whole “corrupting the innocent” argument, since Twitch streams are full of violence and swearing in far greater degrees, and no one ever clutches their pearls at that. It only seems to be a problem when successful women with a platform are involved. While it might be cynical to attract viewers by performing Downward Dog with your bum in the camera, I don’t personally see it as harmful or worthy of de-platforming. I guess the argument would be that she’s enticing vulnerable people into throwing money at her and forming obsessive, mentally-damaging parasocial relationships. But this view that female streamers are cunning sirens and young men are passive sailors being lured into shipwrecks is one that places the blame on women for other people finding them attractive. It reminds me of an amusing scandal that actually happened at my old high school circa 2009. In short, our headteacher tried to ban girls from wearing tight, elasticated trousers on the basis that they were too revealing. This was met with an angry pushback from both parents and students, who argued that it wasn’t the girls’ fault if boys- or indeed the teachers themselves- found them distracting. They argued that there were multiple reasons someone might want this brand of trousers- everyone has a different body type and different needs. For some girls, it was the only trousers that suited their shape. Others just felt comfortable or confident in them. At that age everyone is trying out personal styles, and even within the confines of a dress code, young people will get creative. This was true for the boys too, and I remember following certain styles in order to fit in, such as: don’t wear your backpack too high, don’t show your ankles, don’t button-up your polo, and never, under any circumstances, tuck your shirt in. Every institution, whether it’s my old school going through the process of gentrifying itself into a blazer-and-tie-wearing academy or a website like Twitch that’s trying to placate its creators, users, and advertisers, has boundaries it wants to set. And as in any institution, those within it will push up against and test those boundaries. The difference, it could be argued, with Amouranth, is that she’s deliberately sexualizing herself for marketing purposes, but unless she’s showing nudity or actually performing sex acts, I don’t see how it’s provably harmful. And it certainly doesn’t warrant sexist abuse. The real problem, as the prominent streamer Pokimane put it, lies within the lack of clear guidelines and the inconsistent enforcement of those standards.
As I was editing my previous post in this series, I decided to check out Amouranth’s stream to better understand the controversy. It so happened that I caught what I think was her first stream back after her ban. She was doing something I’ve seen a lot of Twitch streamers do, which is read out appeals from people who have been banned from her stream. It wasn’t pretty. A lot of the insults sent her way were the types of messages I’ve seen leveled against all kinds of female content creators, many of them far less provocative. What struck me was that the language was reminiscent of that directed at sex workers. If I had seen these messages and didn’t know the context, I would assume they were being directed at a prostitute in order to shame them. The typical insult seemed to be “How does it feel to have no talent or life skills?” which I found quite upsetting. Perhaps it’s just me, but anything that deliberately aims to foster self-hatred really gets to me. I can’t put my finger on why this bothers me so much, but it always has for some reason. It just seems like any female content creator that’s successful has her success attributed to her anatomy, and is deemed to be taking the place of a male that’s supposedly more deserving. But if you look at the statistics regarding the number of followers, subs, and views on Twitch, then you’ll realize that for every Pokimane there’s a dozen skinny white guys playing Fortnite. It seems to me that any increase in the number of women in public spaces- be it in political office, in board rooms, on TV, or indeed in online platforms- gets treated as undeserving, which is to tacitly imply that men are inherently more capable.
Personally, I didn’t vibe with Amouranth’s content, and moved on once I felt like I had a good enough impression for my blog post. I didn’t think she was harmful or offensive or anything like that, I just get really freaked out by people dressing up in animal costumes. As soon as she put on this pigeon mask and started dancing about, I swiftly closed the tab. I shuddered and moved on with my day. Which I guess is kinda my point: it’s that easy.
But what do you think about all of this? I’m not an authority on any of these subjects; I just find them interesting. When I write these types of posts I’m doing so as much to learn as I am to spotlight something. If you have any comments on the nature of parasocial relationships, on Twitch, gender roles, online misogyny, obsession, or where and how the line should be drawn in the content guidelines debate, then please post them below or DM me, especially if you have further reading you want to suggest to help me better understand these issues.