MTV’s The Hills is rapidly approaching its series finale, going out with more of a whimper than a bang. The reality show hit its cultural high-water mark in series 3, when the feud between Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag jumped from the screen to tabloids and gossip sites to daytime and late-night talk shows. Suddenly the show and its cast were everywhere, objects of fascination, derision, adoration, and parody in seemingly equal measures, while spawning endless discussion deconstructing the status of the “real” in reality TV and celebrity culture. But The Hills‘ zeitgeist moment has long since passed, even before being usurped by Jersey Shore last year as the latest unscripted jewel in MTV’s crown.

I’m (still) a fan of The Hills, even though I’ve transferred the bulk of my affection and investment to its spin-off, The City. Rather than a typical end-of-series post-mortem, I want to talk about The Hills in terms of its fan cultures. From what I’ve seen, The Hills was almost entirely ignored in my circles of LiveJournal/Dreamwidth-based media fandom, and especially within what damned_colonial (adopting obsession_inc’s coinage) has recently described as ‘transformational fandom’ — that is, predominantly female fan communities centered around fan fiction and other fanworks. Transformational fandom is used in contrast to ‘affirmational fandom’, conceived of as focusing more on exploring and celebrating the source material and its creators. Damned_colonial notes that ‘affirmational’ and ‘transformational’ represent not so much two separate camps, but rather two alternate modes of fannishness that can co-exist in a given fan and a particular community.

In this framework, The Hills would seem to skew heavily towards the affirmational fandom mode, if only because of the relative lack of broad engagement through fanworks, but I think something else is going on that neither concept covers. For a lot of the show’s primary audience, the pleasures of being a fan of The Hills was partly identificatory and partly aspirational. Comments in forums would talk about the cast as if they were part of their extended virtual social network, chiding them, offering support, giving advice, taking sides in fights. These dynamics aren’t uncommon in soap opera fandoms or among celebrity/gossip fans, but for fans of The Hills, there was a special implied proximity and intimacy — that the cast was more accessible to them, or that it was easier to imagine themselves transposed into the world of The Hills.

In social science, this style of virtual sociality is called parasocial relationships. Fans are often mocked for talking about a celebrity or soap opera character as though they were a close friend or family member (for example, in the U.S. version of The Office, there’s a scene when Jim returns to the Scranton branch after being away and asks Kelly what’s new with her, and she replies with a breathless update on Brad and Angelina’s relationship). But those jokes rely on the assumed conflation between fantasy and reality in the minds of fans presumed unable to make those distinctions. In contrast, a hallmark of The Hills’ success and the discourse about the show among fans rested upon mobilizing the tension and blurred edges in the fiction/reality divide. Fans of The Hills had their own version of a Lost-style forensic fandom, scouring DVD extras, gossip blogs, and cast interviews to untangle a ‘true’ story from the constructed narratives of reality show editing and promotional spin. Fantasy vs. reality becomes another game, fodder for discussion and a source of pleasure in itself. Fans’ parasocial relationships with Lauren, Heidi, and company are less a sign of delusion than a space of imaginative play and a locus for social relationships between fans.

One of MTV’s innovations was to channel and frame this fannish mode of virtual sociality through The Hills After Show, a live talk show immediately following The Hills. Events from the latest episode were debated, dissected, and dished over by the hosts and a panel of fan-surrogates in front of a vocal audience, with cutaways to comments from fans in viewer parties linked by webcam. Finally a cast member would come on the After Show for an interview/interrogation about what really happened and what it all meant, bringing the “characters” themselves directly into fannish space and discussion.

I don’t think this style of fandom rests comfortably within the affirmational vs. transformational framework. Perhaps it straddles both to some extent, but I’m more inclined to see it as a third mode of fandom. Until a better name comes along, let’s call it parasocial fandom, to reclaim the term and celebrate its emphasis on relational play and pleasures.

[META] MTV’s The Hills as parasocial fandom
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7 thoughts on “[META] MTV’s The Hills as parasocial fandom

  • 08/07/2010 at 20:01

    I’m wondering if comparisons with wrestling fandom might be useful. Like what you’re describing, wrestling seems to excel in the scripted real in a way that is neither the reality show model that pretends to be real nor the fictional media model where we want to clearly separate actors from characters. Or maybe it’s similar to musicians who simultaneously act as themselves and as these personas co-created by their publicists, the media, the fans, and themselves (I’m thinking mostly boybands etc here).

    So the question to me then becomes why transformational fandom hasn’t really embraced shows like The Hills. Is it too close to home in a way that pop stars or even actors aren’t? Or is it a gender issue with many of the central “characters” being female? Or something entirely different?

  • 09/07/2010 at 17:55

    That’s a really interesting comparison! Wrestling fandom has its own idiom, distinguishing ‘marks’ (fans that treat the events as real, or engage primarily on the level of characters & storylines) from ‘smart fans’ (those who enjoy wrestling for its constructedness and focus on quasi-insider, behind-the-scenes information). It’s roughly analogous to the media fandom concepts of Watsonian vs. Doylist. A lot of online wrestling fandom centers around news and analysis, spoilers and speculation, debate and critique — including the smart fan preoccupation with decoding wrestling shows to glean insights into backstage politics. But there’s a lot of marking out mixed in, or at least an appreciation of the skill, craft, and art. And of course a lot of wrestlers have established their own presences on Twitter (as have stars of The Hills).

    I’m inclined to say that if The Hills had centered around an equally photogenic male cast, it would definitely have attracted transformational fandom’s interest — at least in bandom/popslash/AI RPS-type circles. So it’s partly gender, but also genre, where The Hills is closest to soap operas, whose fannish modes are primarily not along transformative lines. But I also think it’s interesting to imagine where the parasocial might overlap with transformative modes of fandom — I’m thinking of Louisa Stein’s description of Misha’s minions, et al.

  • 12/07/2010 at 15:00

    croptoxin, thanks for pulling me into the conversation. First of all, very interesting piece. Dave Feldman, a fantastic guy who regularly attends and was one of the originators of the Popular Culture Association’s annual gatherings and who has carved out quite an interesting creative niche for himself through his “Imponderables” series, argued to me several years ago that “The Hills” was probably the best soap opera on the air, in terms of giving people that feeling of identification and analysis of the emotional choices of a human being…that, in fact, shows like “The Hills” were doing a far better job of it than the genre that pioneered such storytelling.

    To your point regarding the fan communities, though, Nina’s right: there may well be a tie-in with wrestling fandom here. While I’d argue that few true “marks” exist today, the wrestling fan faces a paradox: watching something they know isn’t “legitimate” sporting competition, constantly finding mistakes that expose the artifice and praising performance when the artifice is compellingly upheld…yet longing for moments that might dupe even them. When wrestler Matt Hardy had his fiancee (a female wrestler named Lita) legitimately leave him for another wrestler named Edge, he complained publicly and commented on it so many times the WWE let him go. Later, they hired him back and had him jump Edge from the crowd, then spending the next several months enacting the feud publicly. For wrestling fans “in the know” with backstage rumors and who engaged in the information-seeking and rumor-discussing culture you describe above, it was particularly exciting, if anything because it gave some fans the chance to say, “I know this is all entertainment, but those guys REALLY hate one another.” That’s often why WWE will book two guys together who legitimately don’t get along to a degree, if it assists and fuels the emotion of the story. The longtime rivalry of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels was certainly booked that way.

    Wrestling today gets really complicated in that it admits it is “scripted” and even has especially unrealistic and cartoonish actions happening on screen, yet the WWE still invests quite a bit of its resources into keeping the artifice in place. Most recently, they’ve told one heel faction of wrestlers that they cannot sign autographs or be nice to fans in airports, etc., because it goes against character. That ability to perhaps run into the wrestlers IRL is, I think, part of what drives the fascination. I had one heel performer tell me that his goal was to make people say, “I met the guy who plays that villain in real life, and he’s an even bigger prick than the one he plays on the show.” So, even though it’s known to be fake, the performer might be invested in doing everything possible to invest fans “back in.”

    One big difference is the live event element of wrestling, though: the ability it gives fans to directly be performers on screen…

    To get back to Nina’s question from a wrestling sense, there is both a history of fanfic and slash fiction for pro wrestling, to be sure, but also a tradition of “fantasy booking” or “performance,” a crossover between fantasy baseball and fiction writing, in which fans roleplay the performers online or else write the storylines as if they were in charge, as a way to criticize and critique what the WWE is doing. Not surprisingly, the latter is more male fan driven, the former more female fan driven.

    BTW, on the soaps front, Gail De Kosnik has an interesting piece in our “Survival of Soap Opera” book coming out in December on celebrity gossip as a soap opera narrative universe.

    • 14/07/2010 at 01:46

      Thanks for joining the discussion, Sam! All good points about wrestling fans & fandom (though I admit, when I see a wrestling show live, I’m totally in ‘mark’ mode — and even watching on TV, the Undertaker’s entrance music can still send shivers down my spine. So marking out is still fundamental to my pleasure in wrestling). To fanfic & fantasy booking, I’d also add a fair amount of wrestling vids on YouTube — which is interesting to me from a vidding point of view, since WWE makes their own official ‘vids’ and there’s a historical connection to MTV.

      Re: The Hills, at least during their heyday, I’d agree with Dave Feldman’s assessment. And I remember when Guiding Light shifted to their new production model a couple years ago, Ellen Wheeler explicitly referenced The Hills as a model for its modernized/naturalistic look and feel.

      P.S. I’m looking forward to your book, and I’d love to interview you & Gail about it for a future blog post here!

      • 16/07/2010 at 06:06

        Thanks, cryptoxin, and totally open to that. I’ve done some writing about the wrestling experience within the arena itself. What amazes me is how fluid people are in switching roles. Case in point, from a show I performed at: a little boy was fighting with me, calling me every name you can imagine (and some you probably couldn’t). Then, at intermission, I saw him at the portable toilet…(fancy show, as you can tell). He smiled and said, “You’re doing a good job out there.” That’s when it really crystalized for me just how crucial the audience performance is. Sure, it’s Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” as people so often say, but it’s more than that. It’s playing the role of sports fan, of enjoying “marking out.” The process of the “smart fans” is particularly intriguing to me, as they spend as much of their time as possible learning all the backstage rumors, etc., to understand what’s going to happen, yet they are still often seeking a moment that will make them mark out in spite of themselves.

        And good point re: vidding, and the vidding takes on many different functions on YouTube…

  • 12/07/2010 at 16:23

    After thinking about it, I find these four labels to be quite useful. And I know many fans who do indeed participate in all four ways in various mixtures, depending on their mood, the particular fandom at hand, or their personal talents. (I need to read up on the fact that they really are apparently gendered, which surprised me when I first heard it.)

    So what is metadiscussion? Transformational? 🙂

    I’m also fascinated by the glimpses of wrestling fandom in the comments, a fandom I know nothing of! The parallels and differences to the Real Person Fiction that I am familiar with are so interesting — the tension between knowing it might be faked and wanting to enjoy the drama, the conscious suspension of disbelief, the terminology of marks and smart fans. Good stuff.

    • 14/07/2010 at 01:49

      Thanks! And maybe metadiscussion is ‘conversational’? 🙂

      I’d love to write more about wrestling fandom in future posts — I’ve mainly participated as a lurker, but it’s one of my central fannish passions. And I think same-but-different objects of fandom, like wrestling or The Hills, can offer a different lens to thinking about patterns and dynamics in media fandom as well.

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