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The unique dangers of parasocial relationships in the wrestling world

Looking up to and interacting with wrestlers is part of the fun of being a fan, but we have to be careful.

Warning: This article discusses topics of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault.

This past week or so, we have heard a lot of extremely disconcerting, troubling, and horrific stories regarding the wrestling world. This is not novel to the entertainment industry, and its not novel to wrestling. But the sheer number of stories has forced the wrestling community to face a very troubling issue throughout the business.

It’s more important now than ever that we believe victims and be vigilant for future abuse. I believe one way to do that is to take a step back and look at the dynamic between fans and celebrities within that fandom.

It’s not uncommon for people to find themselves emotionally attached to a person they have never met. It’s most likely happened to you at some point, and is called a “parasocial relationship”, which is defined as the following:

“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.”

This kind of relationship can occur when a celebrity shares intimate (or seemingly intimate) information, when they display emotion, or in general offer ways for a fan to interact and relate to them. It is the same reason why we may get emotionally connected with YouTubers, podcasters, or celebrities. Because as we spend more and more time listening to/watching them present what appears to be a certain level of intimacy and real emotions, we begin to relate to them and sympathize with them. We start to have a certain perceived relationship with them. It’s not a personal relationship, but it still feels very much like one.

Wrestling fan shocked at The Undertaker's loss at WrestleMania XXX
“Undertaker guy” when The Streak was broken is a perfect example of how our relationships with wrestlers can create emotional and memorable moments and improve our wrestling experience. WWE

I know I always get a little thrill when someone from an NPR podcast I listen to gives me a like on Twitter. Or when Brian Cage commented on one of my tweets (I was extremely ecstatic that whole day). This is because they are essentially reaffirming this perceived relationship I have with them. This parasocial relationship can even grow to the point of the individual starting to develop an identity surrounding the person in question.

This sort of feeling can even be true for fictional characters, I’m sure all of us here reading AIPT have felt closely connected with a movie, book, comic, TV show, or some other character more than once. A lot of the time, depending on the character, developing these sorts of relationships are healthy ways of working through our own issues and provide a safe space that encourages positive growth.

And while parasocial relationships can be unhealthy at times, they have more benefits as well. Multiple studies have shown that these sorts of relationships can help people with low self-esteem. They can also give someone a good role model and something stable in their life (depending on the individual of course).

Parasocial relationships with wrestlers live at an interesting crossroads, where the fictional and the real blend together (as most things in wrestling do). Fans may look at wrestlers not just as a celebrity who they have a strong attachment to, but also a fictional character at the same time. Wrestlers are some of the only people where the Venn Diagram of the fictional parasocial relationship and real parasocial relationship is almost a circle. After all, it’s common to say that wrestlers’ characters are simply “their personalities dialed up to 11”.

The unique dangers of parasocial relationships in the wrestling world
In light of all the recent events, Joey Ryan definitely seems to fit the ‘living the gimmick’ mantra people say about wrestlers.

This sort of fan relationship can make wrestling so much better and more engaging; however, it is easily manipulated. A person in a parasocial relationship is, understandably, going to want to show that wrestler that they can be friends and may be much more willing to go along with something they otherwise wouldn’t. It can and does leave fans open to manipulation, to be tricked or forced (physically or socially) into unwanted situations.

Something that they may normally recognize as bad, in the moment they may wonder if maybe in this situation it’s OK. Or they may recognize it for what it is but be unwilling to call out someone they respect so they go along with it.

I want to be clear I am in no way dismissing any victims and chalking up their experience to “simply being too emotionally invested”. The whole point and joy of wrestling is being emotionally invested, and for many, a large part of wrestling is being able to geek out over meeting wrestlers. The point is to create that relationship in the first place. You should be able to approach someone you watch and have a safe and fun interaction with them and/or their character. You should be able to do all this and not have to worry every second if you may be sexually harassed or assaulted.

In this way, parasocial relationships in wrestling is very much a double edge sword. While it can create amazing emotional moments while watching, it can easily be manipulated by the individual with the social power in that relationship.

This issue with parasocial relationships also can very well be extended to not just wrestlers, but why fans themselves may be hesitant to call something out or even to defend someone. Alysia Stevenson wrote for the website Femestella last year about the time she discussed Melanie Martinez’s sexual assault allegations. She was bombarded by Martinez’s fans defending her tooth and nail. James Houran spoke to the Washington Post about this phenomena:

“There are certain levels of celebrity worship, where people start to feel attached to celebrities — they feel so attached that their own personal identities start meshing with that of their favorite celebrity. So what that means is when something good or bad happens to their favorite celebrity they feel as if it happens to them.” 

In the same way, wrestling fans who are so wrapped up in a wrestler are often ready to ignore any questionable actions by them or defend them against accusations. And it makes sense — if you have developed a faux relationship with someone and have made that person a part of who you are, if your identity has become wrapped up explicitly with a single person, any attack on that person, even if it is justified, may be perceived as an attack on yourself.

This is where the parasocial relationship itself (and not just the manipulation of it) can become extremely negative. This is also reinforced by the fact that we never truly see everything about a wrestler. It is almost always an idealized view of them — whatever they choose to present on Instagram, or whatever was written for them by their producers.

But what we as fans need to to be aware of is how that perceived relationship can blind us, or make us not want to acknowledge very real and very prevalent problems a wrestler may have. We should not be so caught up with someone that we either outright reject the fact that a wrestler behaved inappropriately or sweep it under the rug.

The unique dangers of parasocial relationships in the wrestling world
Meet and greets with wrestlers are amazingly fun. They should be a safe environment for fans and wrestlers (and Pharaoh) alike.

Because meeting someone you look up to can be a vulnerable moment. In that moment, it is not on the fan whatsoever to prevent themselves from being sexually harassed; it should never be the victim’s responsibility to not get harassed. It’s on the wrestler, or whoever it is that holds the social power in that moment.

A fan should be able to be as excited and geek out as much as they want to when meeting a wrestler and still feel safe. Any sort of parasocial relationship they have with someone should not in any way be used to manipulate. However, fans should not be blinded by their own love of a perception of someone that they are unwilling to support someone who was a victim, or be unwilling to speak out in support of any victims. That is just one way we as fans can do to better understand our role to help those who need it.

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