Comedian and writer John Mulaney announced on Sept. 7 that he and his girlfriend Olivia Munn are expecting a child, and the internet promptly broke.
Within the past nine months, Mulaney has been to rehab, divorced his wife, relapsed on drugs and started dating Munn. The baby announcement, however, is what has seemingly put the internet — and many of Mulaney’s fans — over the edge.
Mulaney previously mentioned in a comedy special that he and his fan-beloved wife, Anna Marie Tendler, weren't planning to have children. So, the news comes as a shock to his fanbase. This, along with the divorce of Tendler — who served as another topic of many of his comedy specials — has resulted in fans feeling betrayed. After all, who was Mulaney, if not the goofy, dog-loving and child-averse husband he painted himself to be on stage?
His career is built on his image as a genuine and relatable figure, and his deviation from this presentation in the past six months has seemingly been interpreted as a personal attack by Mulaney’s viewers. But this overwhelming response by fans hinges on a central problem: Why do we care so much about what Mulaney and other celebrities do in their personal lives?
There's one answer: parasocial relationships.
These relationships, often mediated through the Internet, are completely one-sided, where one party thinks they know another personally, but the other is unaware of their existence.
Celebrities don’t know their fan base personally. They don’t know our names or where we live. To them, we are numbers on a screen and dollars on a check.
For us, however, celebrities are vibrant and complete characters. We know, or we think we know, everything about them based on their public personas. We expend emotional energy on these individuals and respond to their actions the same way we would if a friend or family member committed them.
But the reality is, we are only seeing a small sliver of these people’s lives. We are getting the headline of John Mulaney’s life without ever seeing the day-to-day rationale behind his divorce and a new relationship with Munn.
From these slivers, we are choosing how to define our entire relationship with celebrities — whether we will judge them, despise them or celebrate their victories as if they are our own. Celebrities have complete control over what parts of their lives are visible to the general public, and in reality, we have no understanding of what their lives entail.
Some fans theorize that Mulaney’s relationship with Munn overlapped his marriage to Tendler, especially considering the two met at a wedding when Mulaney and Tendler were still married. The divorce comes after Tendler was a topic of much of Mulaney's comedy.
We’re humans. We can’t help but feel sympathy for Tendler, and even some outrage at Mulaney. But we can realize that we don’t know — and will likely never know — the big picture.
We are feeling disappointed by someone who owes us nothing. Celebrities are humans with flaws before they are public figures, role models or Netflix comedians.
When we place individuals on a high pedestal, their fall from grace is bound to be far more dramatic than if we had not elevated these strangers to that level of admiration.
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