Parasocial Relationships and Wrestling: We Think We Know Them...
By Mikey Cash
We’ve all found ourselves in this situation: we follow someone on social media, or we’ve watched them in some form of TV/film and just thought “that person seems awesome.” Being a fan used to mean having their posters up all over your room and jumping at any chance you got to bring up their greatness in casual conversation. I know this because as my friends and family can attest that I never missed a chance to sing the praise of The Great One, The Rock. Even now, this obsession-like state leads to reading whatever Google throws at us about this figure and after a while of reading news clippings, biographies, and the like we feel so connected that they’re viewed like a dear friend. Only problem is, the relationship is one-sided and we’re devoted to a stranger.
Today’s two cents is about parasocial relationships-how we fall in love with and form unhealthy relationships with people we don’t actually know. Today we’ll look at how this idea is played out in the pro-wrestling world, how fans interact with wrestlers, invest in them, and at times fight one another for them. Before we dive in any further let’s take a look at the definition from Oxford Reference: “a kind of psychological relationship experienced by members of an audience in their mediated encounters with certain performers in the mass media, particularly on television. Regular viewers come to feel that they know familiar television personalities almost as friends. Parasocial relationships psychologically resemble those of face-to-face interaction but they are of course mediated and one-sided.”
This relates to pro-wrestling because building a connection with the audience is at the core of what makes pro-wrestling great. Because we connect with the wrestlers on TV and through their activity on social media we become more invested in the character. This is great when it leads to supporting those stars that we feel are under-appreciated in the world of pro-wrestling. When looking for an example, one can’t help but harken back to 2013-14 and the groundswell of fan support that propelled Daniel Bryan into the main event of Wrestlemania 30. This didn’t happen because fans simply disagreed with a storyline, it happened because they became invested in who they believed Daniel Bryan to be as a person. As if they were his friend. It was because of the intensity of the belief that we knew him that resulted in the movement to get him into what we all felt was his rightful spot in the company. We were supporting a friend to reach the pinnacle of his career. This is one example of how the parasocial interactions we have can blossom into a beautiful night and event we’ll long remember. Not all relationships end up this way; sometimes our devotions devolve from support to gatekeeping(mentality that promotes an us vs them dynamic) and obsession in the pro-wrestling world.
Looking closely into the Daniel Bryan 2014 run we can find examples where the devotion to one superstar correlated to the disdain for another. The reasons ranged from “he doesn’t deserve it” to “not what the fans want” to the “they’re holding him back if they put BLANK into the main event spot”. It’s perfectly acceptable to be unhappy with the direction a wrestler is being taken on TV. We’ve all been unhappy on plenty of occasions watching how the creative ideas for wrestlers aren’t very good or fit in line with how we would want them to be booked. This has been happening since pro-wrestling formed, but this isn’t the problem. The problem arises when this unhappiness begins to make way to vitriol towards others wrestlers, or fans of said wrestlers simply because the wrestler we’re attached to isn’t getting the push we want for them. Many times, this is brought on by the fanbase alone; other instances see the wrestler themselves air their gripe on social media. This ignites the fires of their fanbase, because as mentioned earlier we come to form bonds with these people-believing that they are a friend crying out for help rather than the stranger they are in reality. We also find examples of the devotion morphing into obsession with the wrestlers themselves with sometimes dangerous consequences.
What progresses from spirited debates among fans to an obsession with a particular wrestler all harkens back to this phenomenon of feeling we are personally connected with these figures. Looking at two instances in 2020 that occurred affecting Paige, and Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose we see examples of devotion taking a dangerous turn. The links to the articles are posted below. In them you can witness how these perpetrators became so obsessed with the object of their affection. We see that in the case of Paige the only recourse for the stalker was to arrive at her home and “save her”. I can’t imagine how scary this must’ve been for her. To take things a step further, the stalker of Sonya DeVille was awaiting her in true predatory fashion. The intent of this stalker’s obsession was to harm her and anyone else in the home. Luckily both Paige, Sonya and Mandy were unharmed physically from their experiences but I imagine the memories will leave a lasting impression. This is on the extreme side of the spectrum of how parasocial relationships can cause damage to our perception of reality, but nonetheless this is something to remain mindful of.
What happens when the objects of our affection turn out to be less than what we thought? How many examples of a wrestler being “canceled” have we seen after allegations of misconduct surface? In these instances, we find that the hatred spewed towards wrestlers from fans is often a result of a form of heartbreak on the part of the fans who devoted time and emotion to them. It’s similar to finding out someone you love wasn’t faithful-there’s heartbreak and embarrassment, and this often gets portrayed through anger. It’s normal to feel upset when you hear news that someone you admired did something awful-one example is many of the wrestlers accused of sexual misconduct last year. This provides us with yet another reason to be careful about our attachments to these strangers and remember that they are not our friends. This is often where a divide occurs. The fandom splits into camps-some are staunchly defending the wrestlers’ character, while the others vehemently #Cancel them.
The point of these instances being brought up is not say that all fans will develop such strong connections that they will all become obsessed and later become stalkers. The point is to draw awareness to how involved we allow ourselves to get emotionally. It’s a great lesson in boundary-setting for our fandom of the pro-wrestlers we love so much. The heart of pro-wrestling will always be about eliciting emotion from the audience and drawing us in. In 2021 that’s done by TV and social media, providing reach beyond anything possible even 15 years ago. It’s okay to believe strongly that the wrestler you like deserves a title match. It’s okay to experience a sense of community with those who feel similarly about a particular wrestler. It’s okay to feel a sense of joy when, on occasion, the wrestler reacts to you on social media or at an autograph signing, or at a live event (remember those?). The lesson is to be careful that this devotion doesn’t devolve into “us vs them”, gatekeeping, or to the dangerous actions mentioned above. No matter the number of likes, retweets or shout outs on Twitch/Cameo/IG/Twitter-we need to remember these wrestlers are not our friends, and it is important to recognize and respect that distinction. Like MTV Diary used to tell us “You think you know, but you have no idea”.