Taylor Swift’s relationship with Matty Healy, Jenna Ortega’s smoking habit, and Phoebe Bridgers’ breakup – today’s fans have an opinion on everything, but are they going too far?
For obvious reasons, celebrities rarely tell their fans that they hate them. Whether they’re giving interviews or speaking onstage, the standard line is that their fans are like family – forget the money, the critics or those fatcat executives in Hollywood, they do it all for the fans. But in a recent series of interviews, Phoebe Bridgers has hinted at a dark truth: as she told the Wall Street Journal, “There’s a higher chance that you’ll meet a fan that you hate than a fan that you love. You’re way more likely to be confronted with someone who just violated your privacy.” During a different interview with Them, she discussed being harassed at the airport by “people with [her] picture as their Twitter picture, who claim to like [her] music” while she was en-route to her father’s funeral. In particular, this harassment took place because people were furious with her for breaking up with Paul Mescal, and ruining the fairytale romance which had kept them entertained throughout lockdown. It’s not a novel phenomenon, but fans today seem particularly emboldened to dictate how their favourite celebrities live: in the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen Jenna Ortega lambasted for smoking a cigarette and Swifties writing an open letter and setting up a #SpeakUpNow hashtag on Twitter demanding that Taylor breaks up with Matty Healy (admittedly, not without reason). Is this kind of entitlement actually getting worse or is it just more visible? Why do some people take fandom so far?
According to Hannah Ewens, journalist and author of Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, more celebrities agree with Phoebe Bridgers than would admit in public. “Having spent years interviewing musicians, she is voicing what a lot of them secretly think,” she says. “They have to perform appreciation towards their fans, which makes sense: the fans literally pay for them to exist. But musicians are also just human and, if they’re encountering extreme behaviour, a lot of them are going to have a different view in private. They might feel a sense of gratitude, but the fluffy idea of ‘the fans are my family!’ is the PR take.”
This sense of antagonism isn’t new: fan culture has had an edge of entitlement for as long as it has existed. “Some of the things we might consider shocking or cringe today have been around forever,” Ewens says. “For example, fans have always had opinions about who their favourite artists are dating. Back in the 1960s, Beatles fans would send enraged letters to individual members demanding to know why they were dating someone. Sometimes they would send hate letters to their girlfriends like ‘you’re not good enough for him!’” Similarly, fans have always felt a sense of ownership over the music itself, criticising changes of direction and demanding that artists return to their original sound. However unpalatable this behaviour might be, we can’t lay the blame at any given generation.
The internet has been around so long that it’s not a novel factor either – it was almost ten years ago that Niall Horan wrote the immortal tweet, “Don't wana see a single person today , thanks ! really really fun night with everyone but today , don't talk to me”. But the way that fans are using the internet has changed: a shift from smaller, closed forums to large social media platforms has made the more unpleasant side of fandom more visible. As Ewens argues, fandoms used to be more self-policing than they are today: there were unspoken codes of conduct about how to act and, if someone stepped out of line, the community would enforce them. While people on social media are now punished in all sorts of ways (going viral is almost always an unpleasant experience), that sense of intra-community etiquette has mostly gone out of the window. “Extreme behaviour gets rewarded with visibility and engagement,” says Ewens. “I think we’ve entered into the Wild West in terms of how fans use social media.”
Whether it’s Bridgers breaking up with her boyfriend or Ortega smoking a cigarette, some fans seem to take it incredibly personally when a celebrity fails to meet their standards – it’s more like they’ve been betrayed by a close friend than disappointed by a public figure. This can be partly explained by the now-familiar idea of a ‘parasocial relationship’, which is essentially a one-sided relationship with someone who you do not know and likely never will. According to Dr Gareth Longstaff, an expert in celebrity culture and lecturer at Newcastle University, one of the defining features of a parasocial relationship is that it can never be satisfied. The things which draw people together in real-life relationships, whether platonic or otherwise, are usually impossible in the context of celebrity culture: you’re probably never going to hang out with your favie, you’re probably never going to sleep with your celebrity crush. “There’s always a sense of distance which, paradoxically, draws us even closer,” he says. “Our fantasy of who the celebrity is will always be mediated, whether through a computer screen, a social media platform, an interview on TV, or a film appearance.”
What’s different today is that social media allows us a glimpse into the mundane reality of a celebrity’s life – or at least, the version which we are being permitted to see. “There is something compelling, but also quite addictive about seeing a celebrity on your TikTok or Instagram feed, through a familiar lens, where people seem to be more vulnerable and open,” says Dr Longstaff. The candour of social media can foster an even more intense sense of connection between fan and celebrity, even though – in some cases – it’s just as artificial as any staged campaign. Bridgers, for example, has a specific way of presenting herself online: she is relatable, self-deprecating, literate in internet culture and she tweets in all-lower-case. This performance of authenticity allows her fans to feel a sense of intimacy towards her, but this sets the stage for a backlash: when she, as a person in her real life, acts in ways which run counter to her online persona, the illusion is shattered and some people get pissed off. The flipside, though, is that Bridgers is one of the few celebrities who can get away with slagging off her fanbase, because it fits into her slightly disaffected, 90s slacker vibe. “The idea that Bridgers hates her fans would still appeal to her fans,” says Gareth, which is absolutely not the case for the likes of Taylor Swift.
Moving from offline into the real world, one of the biggest ways fan entitlement plays out is through people demanding photographs and videos when they encounter celebrities. It doesn’t matter how much you sincerely admire someone, they can still become a prop for your own content creation, and a means of generating attention for yourself. Earlier this year, for example, Bad Bunny chucked a fan’s phone away after she approached him and started recording him without his permission. Incidents like this seem to be happening with growing frequency, which goes some way towards explaining the antagonism between fans and celebrities. “It’s still there, but to some extent we’ve moved away from the paparazzi culture. In a way, fans have become the paparazzi – the people who, sometimes in their hundreds, will be pushing mobile screens at celebrities' faces when they’re out in public,” says Dr Longstaff. If fans become a source of surveillance and intrusion, it’s easy to understand why celebrities would grow to resent them. We don’t find it difficult to sympathise with Princess Diana shoving a paparazzi camera out of her face, but if a celebrity does this to a fan, people often interpret it as ungrateful, a breach of some sacred relationship. But if you’re being harassed, does it matter who’s doing it?
The intent of the #SpeakUpNow movement has never been to:— Sophie - ✨🌈💜✨ (@PrimaFacieERA) May 24, 2023
- Cancel Taylor
- Be a platform to attack Taylor or lack respect.
The goal is to voice how her actions affects us and ask her to take accountability.
This is meant to be done with love and respect.
Technological innovation is, to some degree, the force most responsible for reshaping fan behaviour. Fans are doing what they’ve always done, but with added tools and incentives. But if things really have gotten worse within the last few years, there are larger factors at play. Since the pandemic, people are socialising less, spending more time on the internet, becoming lonelier and more atomised. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that people are investing more heavily in the lives of others at the same time that their own lives are growing smaller. “Since the pandemic, most of us are still dealing with this uncanny sense of how human life has shifted and changed, and I think this has had a big effect on how we engage with celebrities,” says Dr Longstaff.
As Ewens sees it, fan entitlement is partly based on a sense of resentment – and one which is not entirely unfounded. “Historically, fans have felt entitled to celebrities because they’ve been aware that the artist is a product; they give love, dedication, money and time to artists, and they expect something in return – that’s the Faustian bargain that celebrities have to make,” she says. But in recent years, people have become more aware than ever that fandom is an economic relationship – this creates a more powerful sense that you are owed something from celebrities.
“Social media plays a big part in that because we see so much of celebrities’ live: we’re following them, watching their content and paying the very little money we do have towards funding them. The socio-political climate at the moment supports the feelings behind that entitlement, and I’m absolutely convinced that’s only going to get worse,” Ewens says. “We’ve got two back-to-back generations which are financially insecure and politically ignored. Broke young people are sitting on the internet all day having a bad time and worrying about their future, and then seeing celebrities showing off their glamorous and successful lives. That sense of antagonism is only going to grow.”