Content Warnings: mentions of murder, misogyny, spoilers for SWARM
While parasocial relationships and fandoms have always existed in the 21st century, the term has become much more mainstream among Gen-Z. There’s no doubt that the recent pandemic and all these lockdown restrictions made it feel normal, to be in a one-sided relationship with people that don’t know you exist. From the minds of Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, SWARM is a comedy horror series recently released on Prime Video exploring the parasocial relationship between the character of Dre and her obsession with a pop star, Ni’Jah, and more importantly, how fandom obsession can take someone to great extremes.
It’s no surprise that one of the first Google autofill suggestions that come up when you search "SWARM" is “true story”. Credit is due to the show’s creators for reflecting pop culture and its extreme fan behaviour so accurately. As confirmed by the show’s creators, SWARM takes a lot of inspiration from Beyonce (we see this in the name SWARM itself paying homage to Beyonce’s fanbase, commonly referred to as the BeyHive), especially in the establishing plot of Marrissa Jackson in the first episode as explained by Janine Nabers in an interview with Shondaland. Nabers details the rumour of Beyonce fan Marrissa Jackson committing suicide after watching her visual album, Lemonade, which then led to horrible tweets making fun of her death.
SWARM builds on its incorporation of pop culture by casting Billie Eilish for the role of Eva, leader of a women’s ‘empowerment group’. Eilish gives an impressively unnerving performance, and her presence in the series feels as if the creators are reminding the audience of the true reality of fan obsession given Eilish’s own devoted fan base in real life. Eilish has had the classic Gen-Z musician start up with her accidentally viral SoundCloud hit, Ocean Eyes. This ‘I’m just like you’ narrative perpetuated through Eilish using social media to connect and interact with people allows her fans to feel a strong sense of familiarity and connection with her. By closing the gap between star and fan, a strong parasocial bond is thus created. This is only emphasised through Eilish’s relatable music where fans feel as if they are understood by her. While this is a completely valid way to feel, since personal connections to music are what make it so special, a line can be drawn when this crosses into extreme territory. Much like the story between Dre and Ni’Jah, Eilish has had her own stalker encounter, which led to her being granted a temporary restraining order. The similarities between Billie’s real-life experiences and SWARM’s fictional one is confronting, no doubt making this casting a strategic choice.
The series subverts the classic crazy fangirl trope, often portrayed as geeky girls with shrines in their rooms who need to ‘get a life’, by giving Dre an emotional depth that provides a sympathetic outlook on the fangirl psyche. In episode 6, the series takes on a mockumentary style through the direct narration of investigative journalist, Lorette Greene. The episode delves into Dre’s childhood which intends to explain—but not excuse—her currently obsessive and, to put it bluntly, murderous behaviour. A key element of Dre’s childhood backstory is her attachment to her sister, Marissa, as seen in how Dre only wants Marissa to spend time with her and doesn’t like when Marissa includes other people. The obsessive behaviour Dre displays for Marissa in childhood is similarly reflected in her behaviour towards Ni’Jah. This is supported by attachment theory on the psychology of parasocial relationships, which states that adult attachment likely stems from parasocial relationships providing “intimacy without the threat of rejection”. Dre’s relationships are constantly threatened by rejection, such as Marissa rejecting her to be with other friends and her boyfriend, her parents rejecting her without explanation, and even her girlfriend breaking up with her. Thus, attachment theory appears to be the backbone of Dre’s parasocial relationship with Ni’Jah throughout the series.
This time dedicated to humanising Dre during the mockumentary episode investigating her childhood was completely necessary to avoid falling into the typical media portrayal of fangirls. Society finds an issue with fangirls screaming and crying at concerts, but when male sporting fans yell and brawl over a game of football, it’s chalked up to appreciation— presenting a blatant double standard in how we understand female vs. male emotion. The real issue seems to be in girls expressing themselves, a stigma steeped heavily in misogynistic undertones. This not only goes to show how traditionally female interests (think boy bands or rom-coms) hold little social capital, but further highlight the conventional belief that women lack rationality and control over their emotions.
As Dre’s friends and family always acknowledge her obsession with Ni’Jah when addressing her, we see this obsession become so closely linked to her identity. This explains why, when people (online or in-person) aren’t fond of Ni’Jah, Dre takes it as a personal attack. This is often a sign, marking the line where parasocial relationships and fandom behaviour begin to become rather unhealthy for the individual.
When it comes to parasocial relationships, there are usually levels of toxicity – especially among Gen-Z, where extremely dedicated fan behaviour is so normalised. From being invested in the lives of public figures who will probably never know who you are, to the urge to watch Youtube or Twitch streams as a way of having the illusion of social interaction, these are common behaviours that fall under the dangerous parasocial umbrella. Its prevalence among Gen-Z can be attributed to many factors, but our label as the loneliest generation, along with the rapid mobilisation of technology, seems to be the main propagators. Technology has facilitated behaviours that are able to inhabit our need for human connection; yet, the issue lies within us relying on artificial, one-sided socialisation practices that will never truly be able to replicate the legitimate exchange of human emotion. The normalisation of parasocial relationships almost acts as evidence affirming our ‘loneliest generation’ label, as it highlights how Gen-Z has substituted personal relationships with attachments found artificially – seeking attachments that are easy, low effort and without rejection, indeed, reflecting attachment theory at its core.
While SWARM takes on a dramatised approach to fandom culture, pushing it to the extent of serial murder, the issues it tackles still hold up a mirror to an online CULTure (yes, emphasis on the word cult) that has bled into real life.
Although I speculate that this will remain a limited series, the audience is left on a cliffhanger that questions the reliability of Dre as a narrator and now leaves the internet in speculation. When done right, SWARM proves that incorporating internet culture (without being incredibly cringey *cough* Netflix Originals that seem to only use outdated slang) can capture a disturbing reflection of extreme behaviour that has been normalised amongst Gen-Z. The audience is confronted with dramatic portrayals of parasocial relationships and fan culture, ultimately provoking a serious and thoughtful reflection on how we see this behaviour manifest in society today.