In a television landscape littered with stick-thin, sickly-sweet female role models, women who came of age in the nineties may remember MTV’s Daria as a welcome breath of fresh air. Laura, the business student, certainly does. “Watching Daria—this sarcastic, sardonic girl who was vaguely angry and felt above everyone else—she was like a beacon of light.” Daria reminded Laura that there were other girls like her, even if they didn’t exist en masse in her hometown.
Even with characters we might not like in real life (think: Don Draper or Dr. House), we develop strong connections. In some ways, it’s an exercise in empathy. “Even the most hated characters have traits that make them capable of loving other people and make other people capable of loving them,” says Chris. “We don’t fall for people who are perfect; we fall for ones who also have flaws.”
Stage 2: The Intimacy Phase
After years of watching Chris Noth as mysterious Mr. Big of Sex and the City fame, I once caught an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, where Noth plays a well-suited detective, and thought to myself, “So that’s what Mr. Big does in his secret life!” Sure, it might sound crazy, but when we get really close to a character, they naturally start to become real to us.
Mariska Hargitay, known for her role as sex crime detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, is so strongly associated with her character that real-life sex crime victims often seek out her help. In fact, Hargitay received so much fan mail from women sharing personal stories of rape or abuse that she founded The Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse heal and reclaim their lives.
The reason we trust fictional characters so fully—even when we know they’re really actors—might come down to brain science. “There’s evidence that we are hard-wired to believe what we see, even if we know that it’s fiction,” says Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D., professor of communication studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. “It requires effort to remind ourselves that what we are watching is not really there, like when you remind yourself that ‘it’s just a movie’ during a scary scene.”
Often, people simply choose not to separate fact from fiction, says Cohen. “After all, people on TV always look better, sound smarter and are more effective than the doctors, cops or lawyers we meet in daily life.” (You mean FBI detectives don’t always look like Bones’ Agent Booth? Please, say it ain’t so!)
In many ways, parasocial relationships tend to mirror the real world. In fact, your attachment style, meaning the way you typically think, feel and act in close relationships, affects your TV friendships too. “Anxiously attached people”—those who want to be close to others but often worry that loved ones will leave them—“are more likely to go overboard with parasocial relationships, whereas securely attached viewers”—those who feel confident and comfortable in relationships—“are likely to enjoy them and keep them in perspective,” says Cohen. That’s the same pattern you’d see in real life relationships.