Stan Culture and Celebrity Love
If you’ve managed to find yourself on any social media website in the last decade, or have any Gen Z acquaintances, chances are the term “stan” has entered your orbit. Fandom culture is massive on sites like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, and is known as the fundamental cornerstone of the almighty Tumblr.
If the word stan sounds like a made up word to you, let me fill you in: stans are passionate fans of anything, including a musical artist, sports team, actor, film series, or even a hypothetical romantic pairing of two fictional characters. Stan as a term can be traced back to the 2000 song “Stan” by Eminem, which details the fictional story of an extremely devoted fan sending correspondence to Eminem. After receiving no reply, the person in the story ends up taking their own life and the life of their girlfriend. The word has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary and is said to describe “An overzealous or obsessive fan, esp. of a particular celebrity.”
While “stan” might be a fairly new word, the phenomenon of worshiping a person or group that you’ve never met is nothing new. Beetlemania erupted from television appearances, and worshiping deities or figures can be traced back thousands of years.
Today, Beyoncé’s BeyHive, BTS’ ARMY, and Taylor Swift’s Swifties, among other groups, carry heavy online presences, and Graceland is still registering official Elvis fan clubs on their website. For some, the term stan is a badge of honor. It’s a self-appointed label that many online community members use to show their extreme love of a celebrity. The rise of social media has brought an entirely new context to stans. No longer is “stan behavior” defined by having posters on your wall or following an artist around on tour. Now, stans have the power to gather online in communities, and social media platforms are crucial to stanning someone.
Online stans show their commitment by organizing listening parties to have their favorite artist top the Billboard Hot 100, creating short video edits called “fancams” of their favorite celebrities and posting them under unrelated Tweets, and avidly discussing interpretations of the actions of their favorite people and characters to suppose information about their intentions and desires. While it might seem like these communities are isolated, there is a fair amount of interaction between stan communities online. When musical artists announce album drops the same week, stan wars can begin as stans form alliances with other groups to try and maximize streaming. Stans will literally put their blood, sweat, and tears into supporting their favorite artist.
A popularly referenced piece of “stan lore” online is that of the former Taylor Swift stan twitter account @LegitTayUpdates which allegedly refused to join the IDF and had a friend tweet letters for them from prison asking everyone to stop spreading pregnancy rumors about Taylor Swift. This fan’s steadfast commitment to defending Taylor while experiencing extreme personal circumstance is one of many examples of stans working overtime to show their chosen celebrity how much they care about them.
Is this love? At the core of stan culture is people devoting their energy to relationships with celebrities who don’t know they exist. Some might say that the constant support for their celebritie’s creative and professional projects, the online notes of adoration posted with hopes that they will be read, and the continuous showing of affection online are all displays of love, albeit one-sided love.
Another term used in conjunction with stan is “parasocial relationship,” which was created in 1956 by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl to describe how mass media can “give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer.”
This term has expanded to include the sorts of long-term relationships that develop between audiences and performers that are seen today. There are a wide variety of ways one can engage in parasocial relationships, as Riva Tukachinsky notes in their 2010 article titled “Para-Romantic Love and Para-Friendships: Development and Assessment of a Multiple-Parasocial Relationships Scale.”
“In the same way that it is impossible to speak of social relationships as a single, homogeneous phenomenon, the definition and conceptual assessment of PSR should account for the various types of parasocial experiences,” Tukachinsky says.
Stans might talk about their favorite celebrity as if they’re a close personal friend, or they might express romantic desire for the celebrity. A recent display of this has been the repeated trending of the joking question “Can Joe Alwyn fight?” by Swifties on Twitter after photos of public appearances of Taylor Swift appear. In this case, the lighthearted support of Swift by fans seemingly has no harm, but it’s also a display of unreturned devotion.
Yes, Taylor Swift has spoken about loving her fans and even stalking their accounts in the past, and some lucky fans may have interactions with Swift through her Secret Sessions or by being scouted out at a concert by her team as a super fan, but the time that fans put into the relationships with celebrities is never matched like it would be in a conventional social relationship. It simply isn’t possible for famous people to know everyone who cares about them on a one-on-one basis.
On the other side of these relationships are the celebrities themselves, often multimillionaires who line their pockets from the engagement of fans with their creative work, brand deals, social media, and merchandise. The love that stans show is all a part of the success of the entertainment machine, and it makes the rich richer.
Not all stans stay stans forever. Sometimes, the original fanbase of a celebrity will see shifts over time as the original fans find the celebrity less genuine. It’s impossible to know as a non-famous person if fame really would change one’s character, but it is interesting to consider what bothers original fans when their artist is shot into the stratosphere. Has their favorite artist changed, or can the common person worrying about rent, car payments, and groceries just no longer relate to someone living in amassed grandiose?
And famous people can feel the negative effects of devoted fans in their real life, as some people see no issue with serious invasions of the privacy of celebrities because they “chose to be famous.” Should success have to come with not being able to safely leave your house, or having to listen to everyone speculate about your relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners?
Recently, accusations of queerbaiting, a term created to discuss marketing fictional media as including LGBTQ+ representation but not actually including it, has been thrown around a lot online to discuss celebrities. There are many ways that people online might accuse celebrities of queerbaiting, from critiquing their style of dress as aligning with one view of gender and sexuality, or claiming that actors who have not specified their sexuality should not be allowed to portray LGBTQ+ characters on film and television shows. Some stans even accuse their own favorite celebrity of queerbaiting because they’ve made a statement that contradicts fan-concocted “evidence” of a celebrity’s sexuality.
This type of conversation is neither healthy nor productive, and it’s a product of the one-sided nature of parasocial relationships. It’s easy to think you know someone when you’ve watched every press interview, movie, Tiktok, concert video and red carpet appearance of a certain celebrity, but that’s ultimately not the entire picture of a human being.
Stans feel hurt when their narratives about celebrities are contraindicated because it brings to light the real distance between them and their favorite person. And these social skills being gained in online interactions don’t just go away when people shut their computers. This idea of expecting constant truth and moral perfection from people can carry over into the way people interact in person with friends and family.
That’s not to say all stans engage in these intense online discussions with problematic elements. Many advocate for celebrity privacy and want to focus more on what is actually being shared versus what is just being speculated. There are plenty of spaces online where stans are less invested in parasocial relationships, and more interested in talking about an artist’s creative work and what it means to them.
It’s easy to harp on stan communities and say that para–social relationships are unhealthy across the board. But it’s also important to think of who makes up these communities and what they get from them. Many stan communities for celebrities are made up of predominantly women, and they use stan spaces as a place to find community among those who might share similar interests to them. And while “stan culture” is typically used to refer to fans of musicians and actors, is it really so different from people with undying devotion to their local sports team?
Large groups of women displaying passionate adoration for anything online often leads to that thing being described as “basic” and “overhyped”, and in doing so it can rob many young people of the communal joy they find in sharing passions. The COVID-19 pandemic made the online world feel like the only way to communicate for many months, and for those whom the ability to leave the house safely is still not an option, online communities continue to provide a space for socialization.
There’s nothing wrong with admiring someone, and stan communities can be a fun place to make friends from around the world who like the same things you do. But the way we choose to engage in behaviors surrounding celebrity culture can detrimentally impact our socialization skills if we’re not careful.
Julia Dath is a senior writing major who tries to enjoy pop culture to a healthy extent. She can be reached at [email protected].