Doja Cat and the Perils of Parasocial Relationships

In Defense of Doja Cat

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“It’s stupid. You follow me, but you don’t really care about the music.”

In her music video for ‘Attention’, dripping from head to toe in blood and standing naked in the street, Doja Cat debuted her provocative new alter-ego, Scarlet. Shocking yet not entirely unexpected, the introduction of the Carrie-esque persona marks a distinctive shift in the trajectory of the artist’s career—a “rebirth”—and the world is split on how to respond to it.

After a whirlwind of contentious posts and back-and-forth debates with followers on X (formerly Twitter), Doja Cat made it clear that she doesn’t owe them anything. For the unfamiliar, the American rapper—known for her viral hits ‘Say So’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Streets’—landed in the hot seat this year after a total revamp of her look that drew public ire. She shaved her head, denounced her most popular albums as nothing more than “mediocre pop”, and adorned her body with a myriad of tattoos that had many labelling her “satanic”.

doja cat tattoos
Image: @dojacat on Instagram

Regardless of how you feel about her tattoos (I for one think they are incredibly well-done works of art) and unconventional new appearance, I’d like to delve into the most egregious sin that Doja Cat appears to have committed: “hating” her fans. 

While some overzealous Doja Cat devotees are scrambling to conjure up theories that absolve her of criticism—such as the theory that “she doesn’t hate us, but Scarlet does”—I posit that Doja Cat doesn’t need to apologise for her apparent transgression.

The Point of Contention

The most widely circulated exchange between Doja Cat and a fan took place on Threads; one fan account implored Doja Cat to say “I love you” to her supporters, and she simply responded, “I don’t though because I don’t even know y’all.” It all went downhill from there.

X thread argument
Image: Pop Crave on X

But was she wrong to say what she did? Though harshly worded, the incontestable truth is that celebrities do not owe their fans anything. Rappers like Doja Cat produce music and put on performances, and in return, audiences stream their songs, attend their concerts, and put money in their pockets. It’s transactional, to put it bluntly.

The unbearable sentiment that supporters of any musical artist or celebrity inevitably have to grapple with is that celebrities are not your friends. Though we may think we know who Doja Cat is, the fact of the matter is that we only know her quirky persona, which first made its way into the public consciousness via the entirely un-serious song ‘Mooo!’.

As the Doja Cat persona gained popularity, we recognised her for her catchy pop tunes accompanied by TikTok trends galore. Now, she wants the world to meet Scarlet, who embodies her shift to being totally unfiltered and making edgier, darker music. And throughout all her musical eras, we do not truly know the woman behind it all, Amala Dlamini. 

The hard-hitting reality, particularly for lovers of Doja Cat’s “mediocre pop” (like myself), is that Doja Cat no longer enjoys making the type of music she used to, and her enthusiasts aren’t entitled to continue expecting it. And despite the flood of online comments claiming to “miss the old Doja”, the bitter truth is that the Doja they are grieving the loss of never really existed. The “old Doja” was, as she would admit, a persona, tailored to put out easily digestible radio-pop music for the masses. So, what makes devoted fans wholeheartedly believe they are entitled to the love of someone who is virtually a stranger?  

The dilemma of continuing to support a celebrity with an outwardly flagrant disregard for her fanbase brings a much broader issue into the spotlight: parasocial relationships.

The Perils of Parasocial Relationships 

The idea of ‘parasocial relationships’ was first explored in the 1950s by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl and eventually came to describe an imagined perception wherein audiences connect with characters (such as celebrities or fictitious characters) and believe that they are in a mutual relationship with them. With the advent and prevalence of social media, it is even easier to feel connected with a celebrity or influencer when they make posts that seem to be addressed directly to you.

We see this phenomenon in motion most prominently among fans of K-pop idols. As a fan of the genre myself, I can understand how easy it is for a casual listener to go down the rabbit hole of available content and devolve into an obsessive fan, especially when young and impressionable. K-Pop artists (like most other celebrities) are media trained and expected to tell supporters they love them and they will be there for them—the proliferation of one-on-one “fancalls” only exacerbates the issue and leads fans to feel more closely connected to their favourite stars.

And when “thank you” and “I love you” become conflated, it is no wonder that the revelation of K-pop idol relationships often leads to backlash from distraught, die-hard fans who are tied up in a one-sided love with their idol. Research on the dangers of parasocial relationships has revealed contributions to anxiety and depression, among other effects. 

Naturally, there are arguments that can be made in favour of parasocial relationships. One could cite the sense of comfort that can come with parasocial interaction. To that end, I wonder whether the illusion of reciprocated love is worth the fleeting sense of comfort. What happens when your favourite “comfort celebrity” shatters the illusion? What I can glean from the hostile reactions to Doja Cat’s attempt to break out of her fans’ parasocial fantasies is that many fans are not prepared for the heartbreaking reality.

Navigating a New Era of Doja Cat 

With all that said, what does this mean for fans of Doja Cat’s music? Do we have to listen to her music with the nagging, depressing awareness that she hates our guts?

Not quite. She says it herself in her most recent release, ‘Paint The Town Red’: “Fans ain’t dumb, but extremists are.” She is rightfully tired of being on the receiving end of demands from belligerent “fans” who want to dictate how she acts and what artistic direction she desires. Now that she has broken away from the ‘perfect popstar’ image—abrasively as she did—she feels free

That said, if you adore her “mediocre pop”, don’t be embarrassed; keep enjoying her bubblegum pop tracks. Likewise, if you love her edgy new hip-hop vibe, Scarlet has 17 tracks to indulge in.

In all, perhaps it is time we took a step back and reflected on the parasocial relationships we are a part of. It is not inherently detrimental to relate to a celebrity and enjoy consuming the content they produce. But, be mindful not to hold them to a god-like standard. And of course, prioritise the individuals in your life who will actually be there for you when you need them.