Ahead of the May 19 nuptials of Prince Harry and his fiancée, actress Meghan Markle, America has officially gotten a serious case of royal fever. Every tiny little detail leaking about the wedding—and the engagements leading up to it—is devoured, pored over, and endlessly discussed: lemon-elderflower cake to uproot the traditional stodgy fruitcake, every chic outfit analyzed down to (the lack of) pantyhose, every royal interaction cut with sighs, giggles, and the like.
It’s almost as if we know Harry and Meghan, so intimately aware of them they feel like friends or family. The reality is that our invites aren’t in the mail for the wedding because, well, we’re not friends or family, just normals peeping in through our screens.
But what makes for that intense feeling of knowingness fans of not just the royal couple but of celebrity couples experience, and that becomes even more common and intense when that couple breaks up?
One could argue the people who find these relationships as real as their real-world ones are weird, vacuous humans who use celebrity relationships to fill a void in their own lives, a bizarre consequence of modernity and social media. But psychologists have been pointing to a concept called parasocial relationships dating back to the dawn of the silver screen.
In 1956, at the dawn of modern media, kids were listening to music their parents disapproved of, sneaking off to watch movies, and magically flipped a switch on a black box at home that streamed newscasts and shows. It was the era that launched modern fandom, and two psychologists—Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl—noticed that people (both children and adults) were developing oddly intimate relationships with people they probably would never even meet. These relationships, they wrote in a landmark paper that appeared that year in the journal Interpersonal and Biological Processes, were parasocial: existing on the periphery of real and imagined, not quite real but not quite unreal, and importantly, one-sided.
The paper eerily foreshadows how social media and 24-hour news access would further redefine our relationships with celebrities, with a subtitle of “Observations on intimacy at a distance,” explaining how the relationship was one that was enamored, considered close, brought about intense emotional experiences, and was always one-sided.
They “know” such a persona in somewhat the same way they know their chosen friends: through direct observation and interpretation of his appearance, his gestures and voice, his conversation and conduct in a variety of situations. Indeed, those who make up his audience are invited, by designed informality, to make precisely these evaluations—to consider that they are involved in a face-to-face exchange rather than in passive observation. When the television camera pans down on a performer, the illusion is strong that he is enhancing the presumed intimacy by literally coming closer. But the persona’s image, while partial, contrived, and penetrated by illusion, is no fantasy or dream; his performance is an objectively perceptible action in which the viewer is implicated imaginatively, but which he does not imagine.
That the 1950s saw the dawn of these sorts of fan-celebrity relationships makes sense, Susan Boon, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, said. “That was the age when we had newscasters,” she pointed out.
“At that point, the persona of newscasters was carefully crafted, [especially] how they look at you,” she told The Daily Beast. “This argument that the media carefully crafts personas that might not reflect actuality, it’s been recognized in literature for decades.”
It makes sense, when you think about it: A person you see through your screen every night, delivering the news, staring intently at you (well, sort of), creates a sense of intimacy. You probably don’t engage in a direct conversation or have any interaction at all, but there’s a sense that you know this person who visits your living room and reassures you about the state of the world.
The idea of forming a connection with the person on your screen is a subject that was touched upon again around 1978, when anthropologist John Caughey wrote about the concept of artificial social worlds.
“The artificial social world is much larger than our real world,” Boon said. “It’s who we run around with every day, but it’s also other people in the culture: celebrities, politicians, authors, actors, royal figureheads, any body on the news, even fictional characters.”
These connections, in turn, can often turn familial, maybe even romantic. A study in 1990 found that 30 percent of adolescents wanted to be in a romantic relationship with a celebrity (PDF).
In 2001, Boon wrote a modern update on the celebrity-fan relationship and how it translates into what she described as an “admirer-celebrity relationship.” At 17 years old, it might seem dated given it came before a time of live-Tweeting, Instagram, and the heyday of YouTube vlogging, but Boon’s paper is remarkably prescient in previewing the stan phenomenon.
Boon’s study surveyed 75 young adults and found that 90 percent were strongly attracted to a celebrity during at least one point in their lives; 75 percent had “strong attachments” to more than one celebrity.
This, despite the fact that, more likely than not, these celebrities didn’t know of these people’s existence or engage with them in any way to create any sense of a relationship. And it’s not a fluke: Boon’s study echoed her predecessors’ studies.
But what is it about staring at a screen and feeling some sort of connection with a celebrity or character and find solace and perhaps not a sense of romance so much as friendship? Boon said that it could be the fairytale quality of the story that is hinged on everyday accessibility: Girl meets boy, they fall in love, and happily ever after. That the girl is a successful actress and the boy is a literal prince just makes the story more magical for some, allowing viewers to adopt the couple as their own and live out their own identities with someone they admire and find a connection with. “It’s a way to expand ourselves,” Boon said. “We can vicariously enjoy their wedding and relationship”—even if we don’t have one ourselves.
Boon said the advent of social media has further blurred the lines between fan and celebrity, with the ability to get insight into the everyday trivialities that make celebrities almost seem neighborly and approachable.
And as a lot of media coverage has indicated, there’s something about Harry and Meghan. One thing that has endeared them to the public at large is the fact that they aren’t as stiff as Prince William and Kate, who nearly never hold hands and are a bit more stoic in their public interactions—understandable, given they’re the ones that will have to ascend the throne. Harry and Meghan, on the other hand, are more touchy-feely, gazing into each others eyes, shyly giggling about their attempt to cook roast chicken, living heart eye emojis that aren’t as robotic or distant as William and Kate.
Markle, in particular, is someone fans have especially latched on to. There are a couple factors at play here: She’s American, and the idea that an otherwise normal girl from America can one day become a royal princess has a Cinderella element to it. She’s also biracial, an African-American woman whose rise to princesshood is symbolic of not only a family but a country and society that is increasingly open to interracial relationships. And she’s gently but significantly broken with traditional royal protocol, which makes her seem more accessible.
Boon emphasized that parasocial relationships shouldn’t be looked as weird or an indicator that a person has a twisted relationship with technology. In fact, she pointed to our childhoods for a similar sort of parasocial relationship that we have that’s one-sided and intense: imaginary friends.
“It’s a normal, natural part of our lives,” Boon said, citing research from 2010. “Some people might worry that there’s something wrong with the child, but it’s just an artificial social world, an extension of the real one”—and a way to understand the complexities of it through the eyes of another. That might lead some to think that those with imaginary friends are lonely, but Boon said that research indicates these parasocial interactions with imaginary friends show that kids are actually well adapted and score well on intelligence tests—proving imaginary friends and their alternate worlds are a way to understand what’s going on in their lives.
Which brings us back to our collective royal wedding obsession. Sure, it could be looked at as a distraction, a much needed respite from the daily churn. But the royal wedding is also a lens by which us normals can understand things that are difficult to comprehend in our ho-hum plebian lives: wealth, relationships, wading through social norms and etiquette.
“Why you guys care so much is beyond me,” Boon, a Canadian, laughed about the American obsession for the royals. But, she hastily added, “It’s not unusual. In the history of human existence, it’s what we always seek: connection.”