Being a Fan is Being a Responsible Consumer

Heidi S.
13 min readSep 6, 2021

(This is Part 5 of a series on fame, but each part stands alone | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Interlude | Part 4 | Part 6 | Postlude)

Underlying all of my thoughts about celebrities is an idea of consumerism. By which I mean that our socio-economic system encourages us to constantly acquire more goods and services to the point of overconsumption. There’s going to be a lot of “multiple bad things can be true at once” in this, so bear with me. But because celebrities are used to sell media, events, and other products, then we need to talk about the consumer component to being a fan.

The phrase “responsible consumer” is often used to describe environmentally conscious and sustainable buying habits — things like reducing consumption, buying local, buying secondhand, reusing, repairing instead of buying new, etc. It may also extend to mean socially conscious buying — ethical banks, independent sellers, companies that pay their workers a living wage. Individual buying habits don’t ultimately make a lot of difference (more on that later) in affecting institutional or global problems, but I want to explore the idea of extending the idea of responsibility to general consumer behaviors and the sense of entitlement that customers have just because they spend money on something. (I’m talking primarily about the US context here, because it’s what I’m familiar with.)

If you’ve ever worked in food service or retail, you don’t need me to tell you about this part. Consumerism was supposed to improve service to customers, but there’s little thought given to service workers in that ideal. The “customer is always right” mentality has contributed to entitled customers behaving aggressively, rudely, sometimes even violently to get what they want, regardless of the reasonableness or legitimacy of those demands. In addition to terrible pay and no benefits, one of the reasons people are fleeing the service industry now is because consumers are downright mean to service workers.

To all the customers except the mean ones. Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

I think fans sometimes do the same thing. There’s some reason to believe that vocal and angry fans on Twitter and Reddit influence large film franchises (and not in the focus group kind of way). And when it comes to celebrities, we think we’re entitled to famous people because we like them and spend money on their stuff, and that includes knowing things about their personal life and travel schedules, getting autographs and photos when we see them in public, and having them post regularly on social media (either so we can feel like part of their life or so we can make snarky digs at them — I can’t always tell which). I’m in a Wilco fan group on Facebook and there were even fans complaining about Wilco’s setlist on their last tour as if that’s their choice and not the band’s.

The “Parasocial Relationships are Bad” Argument

The term “parasocial relationship” started appearing in popular discourse a few years ago, even though it was coined in the 1950s by a couple of sociologists. It’s meant to describe the way people feel like they have a connection or a “friendship” with a figure from the media.

People online started using this term as if it’s exclusively a bad thing (I just saw this tweet as I write this), even though it’s just a descriptive term. It’s not that far off from “imagining” or “fantasizing,” which aren’t bad in themselves. Of course, there’s a range of what’s acceptable vs. what’s actually harmful here. But, say, me thinking about having a conversation with Wentworth Miller about how we both discovered we were autistic later in life isn’t hurting me or Wentworth Miller. I think probably a lot of our relationships outside of mass media are generally a bit one-sided, many of them are transactional, and so long as everyone involved is aware of this, typically there’s no harm done and there can be mutual benefit.

You get a positive feeling when something a famous person says to their fans feels personally encouraging. You might feel better or understood when a celebrity opens up about some personal hardship that you’ve also gone through and have a hard time talking about. Music can make you feel less alone — this is why some people make music. You might for some inexplicable reason get some much needed stress relief from watching Jeon Jungkook put together IKEA furniture in an episode of Run BTS. (I’m getting extremely specific here.) And in all of these cases, the celebrity likely feels good for being able to positively affect people in this way.

Entertainment media specifically sets up these parasocial relationships. A lot of things are sold to us via fantasy. That’s what commercials and ads are. Every car commercial with the car going deep into nature, getting away from it all, that’s a fantasy. Celebrities are also presented as objects of fantasy, but they must be likable, too. And it’s in this blurring of person, persona, and fantasy (and ever-present power relations) where problems lurk.

One clear problem is when people don’t act as though it’s a one-sided relationship and proceed to stalk, harass on social media, and demand attention from the celebrity. Another problem is when fans get defensive on the celebrity’s behalf (as if they know them personally) and then act aggressively toward or even doxx anyone who they deem as a critic or less of a fan (sometimes fans even go on the offensive and do this to fans of some other celebrity in the same industry). On the flip side, sometimes people get too invested in the celebrity’s personal life and then lash out if the celebrity does something they don’t agree with. And sometimes being too deep in a fantasy affects the way you treat people you know personally.

So the issue is how to have the benefits of a parasocial relationship with a famous person (as the persona they present to the public) while still respecting that they are an actual, fallible human being whom you don’t know and who has a right to self-determination that has absolutely nothing to do with you. It’s knowing that we don’t have a reciprocal social relationship, and we aren’t getting friendship in return, even if we get other good, beneficial feelings from being a fan, which I think many celebrities are glad they can spark in people. Remember, this is a reason why people want fame.

Ultimately, this is a matter of treating individuals (celebrities and other fans) with basic respect. It’s knowing when you’re being manipulated by marketing and fantasy. It’s not being a judgy asshole about someone else’s life when it’s just as easy to say nothing. It’s letting go when you stop having the good feelings or when the celebrity has done something you aren’t willing to compromise on. But it’s certainly possible to get the good feelings of a parasocial relationship without feeling entitled to the celebrity doing, saying, and making everything you want or without believing they are infallible pinnacles of perfection that can do no wrong. It’s being a responsible consumer of celebrity-driven media.

The “They Brought This on Themselves” Argument

I’ve never been a fan of the argument that celebrities should take criticism, online abuse, abuse from the press, paparazzi following them with cameras, TMZ with a microphone in their face as they leave the airport, scrutiny about their every move and the way they look, etc. because that’s just part of the job, part of fame, and they’re rich. For one, there’s not a monetary price that can be put on your sense of self, your health and mental wellbeing, or simply not being gawked at. Money can absolutely provide material comfort, can relieve many of life’s stressors, can insulate you from the horrors of the world, and can take away a lot of worry and improve certain health conditions. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have human value and shouldn’t be treated like a person anymore. Even when you are being presented as a product.

I’m just not sure it’s worth it. Photo by Zeg Young on Unsplash

Maybe I find this argument so baffling because I don’t want to be rich. I don’t want to have more than anyone else. I don’t think that people who have more are better than me on any level. I want to live in an equitable society where every single person can afford to be alive without struggling. I think it says something about our society that we’re supposed to value money and wealth accumulation above all else and that we think this is adequate compensation for the objectification and dehumanization we do to celebrities.

I’m not defending wealth. I would never do that. I generally think wealthy people are ghouls, because wealth inequality is unjustifiable, and wealth is mostly built on exploitation in a world that decided that endless “growth” was the highest good while only letting a miniscule number of people hoard that “growth.” And I think that includes celebrities to an extent, because amassing money and luxury goods and living in mansions is bad if we want an equitable society. Wealth definitely insulates people from being in touch with the rest of society, and wealthy celebrities often do and say shitty and insensitive things as a direct result.

That said, I do think an actor does something different from a CEO of a pharmaceutical company. I’d argue that acting in movies isn’t evil, but charging diabetics $450 a month for insulin and not giving your warehouse employees bathroom breaks are.

Celebrities with endorsements may be tangential to exploitation. An athlete with a Nike or Adidas endorsement is teaming with a company that doesn’t pay workers a fair wage. But short of starting a company that manufactures athletic gear as ethically and sustainably as possible, they have to wear some kind of clothing and they don’t get much choice. Sports leagues and major movie and TV studios routinely show themselves to be unethical institutions, but I think we overestimate the power that entertainers actually have in that regard.

Especially in the case of singers, actors, idols, and athletes who start out at a young age, I’d argue that they’re also being exploited. Money doesn’t protect you from a conservatorship or a drug problem. Money doesn’t protect you from being stalked or having your appearance criticized or your behavior speculated on by millions of strangers. Money doesn’t insulate you from virulent racism or sexism or both online or in the press or out of the mouth of Piers Morgan. Money doesn’t protect you from abuse from coaches or studio executives. Money doesn’t protect your body from the damage of pushing yourself in pursuit of athletic feats or from excelling in a contact or combat sport. Money doesn’t protect you from the dehumanization that comes with fame.

As I said from the outset. There are a lot of bad things happening here all at once.

Instead of fixating on individual wealth while using celebrities as punchlines and objects to sneer at and project our own shit onto, maybe we should step back and re-evaluate our society and the things we were taught to value — including wealth and the fact that our social structures are manipulated by it.

Maybe we should evaluate industries as a whole and the biases that operate within them, the way narratives are manipulated, and the types of exploitation we allow. Maybe we should re-evaluate the standards we judge people with to recognize our own personal biases. Maybe we should use a consistent set of values and hold all people up to them, whether they’re rich or not, celebrity or not, someone we like or not. Maybe we should evaluate the social power we give to celebrities — we often end up enabling narcissists and unkind people. And maybe we should also question our feelings of entitlement as consumers of media.

Ultimately this requires examining the sources of our information and recognizing that power structures driven by capitalism dictate that the media conglomerate is always more powerful than the individual celebrity — no matter how rich they are.

The “There’s No Way to Do This Ethically So Why Try” Argument

People often say there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, and that’s correct in a way. It’s similar to when people say “100 companies are responsible for climate change,” which is also correct in a way (that number is actually specific to 71% of greenhouse gases). But I see people make these statements as if that gets us consumers (specifically us USians) totally off the hook, and that’s not quite right either.

It’s true that changing your habits as an individual acting alone is not going to have a significant impact on climate change. It’s true that the richest 10% of people globally consume 20 times more than the poorest 10% of people. It’s also true that the US has emitted a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions since 1751.

Regardless of blame, American patterns of consumption are bad, even if we as individuals don’t get much choice in them. Living in large single family homes that require a lot of energy to heat, cool, and electrify (and that contribute to suburban sprawl) is bad. Driving cars, traveling, flying, and getting things shipped overnight is bad. Eating non-sustainably-raised beef is bad. Yes, we’re being held hostage by the fossil fuel industry, the military industrial complex, people who peddle supply-side economics, and everyone in the government who is in a lobbyist pocket (which I think is probably 100% of them). It’s also likely true that if we try to address these issues within capitalism, the heaviest burden is going to fall on the poor and they will continue to be harmed the most. But there are certain aspects of the US lifestyle that will have to change to meaningfully address climate change.

This just can’t be good. Photo by Andy Li on Unsplash

If we talk about media consumption, we are similarly beholden to a handful of companies. In the US, the big six media conglomerates are bad — in terms of the concentration of wealth among their decision-makers, but also in that they uphold white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, neoliberal, and consumerist values and have a huge effect on shaping and normalizing cultural narratives as they have all but killed independent media, consolidated it, and homogenized it in the drive for ever-increasing profit and “economic growth.” Case in point, that we let Fox News continue to exist at all is bad. Celebrity is tied up in all of this, too.

Again, we don’t have much of a choice other than supporting independent media and not falling for tabloid fodder and bad statistics as best we can. But even though your individual consumption choices don’t make much difference, the United States’ consumption choices might. I know that’s a hard distinction to grasp when we’re taught that individuals are the primary unit of responsibility and we have absolutely no obligation to the whole (in fact, in the US we’re trained to otherize, marginalize, and make partisan). Not to mention, we’re also encouraged to be passive about all of this and made to feel like we have no choice but to toil in order to consume more and more until we die. But it’s only social and community responsibility that will make us less dependent on, and thus less validating of, these oppressive structures.

I’ve extended this way beyond celebrities, and I’m microdosing you with Adorno and Horkheimer without citing them (sorry, lads), but my smaller point is that I don’t think it hurts to objectify people less and respect their boundaries more, regardless of what systemic practices are at play.

To me, these arguments are all variations of “the customer is always right” (or, rather, “the customer is always going to be entitled so why bother trying to make anything better”). And the response to all of them is this wild idea that we could respond to the harms of mass media by being better at treating celebrities like they’re people and by being more conscientious of how we consume media and information in a heavily consumerist society at a time when misinformation spreads like wildfire.

Is this a pipe dream? Probably. Me trying to recognize the humanity in every other person and treat them accordingly, whether I know them personally or not, won’t make society as a whole suddenly value humanity. But I don’t think that’s a reason to not believe that a society that values humanity is possible.

I think you can responsibly be a fan. And it’s possible to be a fan of a celebrity, of whatever persona they are sharing for our consumption, while recognizing that they are a real, living, breathing complete stranger.

Being famous is doing a job. You don’t want to be harassed at work. You don’t want customers to stalk you. You don’t want people to nitpick every single word you say or every item of clothing you wear. You don’t want people who don’t know you to dictate who you can date. You probably also don’t want people causing harm to others in your name. The media makes it hard to avoid some of this, but most of it seems pretty reasonable.

A celebrity is going to make choices that are good for their career — some things they might feel forced to do, some they might want to do, some you might not agree with, and that’s fine, because they aren’t you. If there is no ethical consumption under capitalism then celebrities are going to be put into no-win situations, too. Do I wish entertainers would use their social capital to encourage a mass labor movement in the US? Possibly. Do I think anyone should make millions of dollars while servers make $2.13/hr? No. Am I going to stop consuming all entertainment media because these things aren’t going the way I want? Well, I could try, but I’d lose out on the good feelings I get from being a fan.

As I said at the outset, a lot of bad things are true at once.

It’s easy to only blame the machine, the institutions, the corporations, because they’re all definitely at fault. It’s easy to blame celebrities because “celebrity” is part of the machine, too. And I think this makes it all too easy not only to forget that we do have responsibilities as consumers, not to single-handedly fix climate change or stop engagement-based business models, but at the very least to treat the other people we encounter — be they service workers or celebrities or other fans — with consistent ethical standards and basic human decency.

It would take a lot of collective work to make real impactful change, to curb overconsumption and the harms of global production, but being a decent person never hurts.

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Heidi S.

PhD in philosophy | Feminist | Anarchist | Pop culture junkie | Kpop listener | Actually Autistic