Can You Fall in Love With Your Favorite TV Character?

This week, the New York Times Magazine featured a fascinating piece on the growing subculture of "2-D Lovers", grown adults in Japan that have found romantic love with their favorite characters from anime, manga, and video games. The article considers the possible cultural forces propelling the trend -- namely, "the difficulty many young Japanese have in navigating modern romantic life".

The article reports that more than a quarter of Japanese men and women between 30 and 34 are virgins while only 50 percent have friends of the opposite sex. For some, it seems 2-D love may be the only way to experience romantic (and sexual) pleasure.

The article was followed by a Scientific American story published a few days later, reporting on a separate yet related phenomenon: social surrogacy. The article discusses the findings of new research that suggests watching your favorite TV shows can alleviate loneliness and provide a sense of belonging just as effectively as true interpersonal interaction. The study showed that individuals found a similar sense of comfort when 'spending time with' (watching) their favorite TV show characters as if they were real-life friends. Watchers would even grieve when losing their 'social surrogates' (due to a show cancellation, for example), experiencing the same despair and longing as they would with the absence of a real friend.

The two articles, though discussing discrete phenomena, point to the same idea: the displacement of real life social experiences with simulated ones. The emotions we experience in being with our friends and lovers are being carried over -- and sometimes even replaced -- by mirrored feelings we develop for our favorite characters, toys, and objects. Kevin Slavin discussed a related idea in his excellent talk at PSFK Conference NYC. He offered a look at how our outside and inside realities are merging: as we are becoming more dependent on our possessions, our possessions are becoming more dependent on us. Sophisticated technologies are helping us reach this meeting point between object and subject -- our objects are not only mediating connection between us and others, but serving as a substitute for that very relationship.

The growth of media should also be thanked for making social surrogacy so appealing. The channels, gadgets, websites and apps to help us be and/or feel 'social' (with a real person or just the idea of one) are only getting smarter and more diverse. Our everyday lives find many of us immersed in entirely virtual communication and socialization, based on a simulacrum of real life or an entirely fantastical one. We are avatars talking to avatars, on our own terms, at our convenience.

These semblances of real life interaction and the feelings we have for our toys and favorite characters may feel authentic, but they offer experiences quite different than person-to-person ones. In a real life interpersonal relationship, the connection is shared: it is a two-way interaction between living, breathing beings -- each with his/her own thoughts, actions, and reactions that must be accepted and dealt with. Our relationships with objects, characters and avatars is always at a distance -- we are interacting with the representation of something, rather than the thing itself. This arrangement results in a unique type of relationship -- one that should be considered differently than a real-life interpersonal one. And as new ways of staying connected, entertained and virtually 'social' grow and become mainstream, one has to wonder how these new forms of bonding will adulterate the one we cannot imitate. As we continue acculturating ourselves to new means of virtual connectivity, are we losing our understanding of how to do it the old fashioned way in the process?

[Image via NYT]