When celebrities’ breakups break our hearts

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Q: This might be outside your normal topics, but I’m interested to hear your take. My girlfriend and I have been arguing lately and it’s getting more and more heated. But here’s the kicker: it isn’t even about us! 

Here’s the deal: we were both big fans of John Mulaney, watched his specials together and always said we wanted to see him live at some point. So when I saw that he was coming to Philly and asked her if she wanted to go, I assumed she would be excited. Instead, she launches into a rant about how she’s over him because of him cheating on his wife and getting another woman pregnant. I thought she was kidding, but she was entirely serious. And now it keeps coming up and we get into these stupid spats about whether or not his personal life should impact our enjoyment of his comedy. I think she’s being ridiculous. It has nothing to do with us and it’s not like he is a sexual predator or anything. She’s not normally a person to get mad for no reason, so I’m thinking I must be missing something. What are your thoughts?

Ahhh, the good old parasocial relationship. In exchange for fame (which presumably translates into money and power), celebrities make the Faustian bargain of letting fans believe they “know” them. We offer our admiration and financial support, and they must give us access to who they are as people, far beyond their professional work. 

Even though modern audiences are savvy enough to understand most of these glimpses into stars’ personal lives are entirely polished PR stunts, many people still derive great joy from these one-sided friendships.

And research shows that we gain many of the same psychological benefits from a parasocial relationship as a real world one. 

Celebrities serve as a symbol upon which we can project our understanding of society, relationships and ourselves. We don’t actually know these people, and the reporting on their lives is sketchy at best, but these narratives function as a way for us plebeians to connect with each other and share our worldviews. We’re not actually talking about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, we’re talking about our beliefs in gender and the dynamics of abuse. We’re not really discussing Jennifer Aniston’s marriages, we’re sharing our understandings of how we think “successful” relationships look and what it means for a woman to not have children.

These fixations on stars are not inherently unhealthy, either. While intensity of investment in parasocial relationships as a teenager is associated with lower levels of satisfaction in real life romances, there is not necessarily a correlation between these relationships and loneliness among adults.

For many, these one-sided relationships are a welcome respite from the difficulties of our real problems. 

In grad school, I developed a curriculum that used celebrity gossip to teach adolescents about issues of sexuality. Taking news coverage of stars’ romances, coming out stories, body changes, breakups, and the like, we could discuss topics that pertained to the kids, and talk about their beliefs and values without them having to share directly from their personal lives. I could challenge their pre-existing assumptions and stereotypes without making it be about them personally. This curriculum also created an opportunity to learn media literacy skills: to evaluate why certain items were published and how they framed some celebs differently than others – something I wish we all discussed more. 

If I were to do a workshop with adults now, John Mulaney’s last year would be ripe for examination about our various beliefs: about marriage, addiction, changing your mind on big topics, and what it means to be “a nice guy.” 

For those who are unfamiliar, comedian John Mulaney rose to popularity with hilarious writing and standup that often included self-effacing bits about himself, his love for his wife Anna Marie Tendler, and life with their dog, Petunia. He also repeatedly mentioned he did not desire to have children. It was a surprise to many, then, when it was revealed in May that he was divorcing Tendler and expecting a child with actress Olivia Munn. The internet has been absolutely abuzz with people disappointed that their illusions about him were shattered and scrutinizing the veracity of his stated timeline for their romance, while others ridicule those people for being so invested in him. There was even an article about what the Catholic church can learn from his precipitous pedestal toppling. 

All that is to say: neither I, you nor your girlfriend know the details of this situation directly. That’s to my knowledge anyway, maybe she was another sidepiece he didn’t leave his wife for. Our reactions to this absolute stranger’s divorce and looming fatherhood will tell us a lot about what we believe and our insecurities, hopes, and fears. 

To some, this is further evidence that no man will ever possibly be able to stay faithful forever or it ignites fears that if someone chooses to not have children with a partner, she will be left for someone who is willing to. Maybe that’s the case with your girlfriend. I don’t know.  

Perhaps instead of arguing about whether her feelings are ridiculous, this is a chance to inquire about their origin. Next time this comes up, try to approach the conversation with compassion and a curiosity to learn more and you might be surprised to find out this was never really about John Mulaney. 

Have a question for Dr. Timaree? Send an email to asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com.

  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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