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All Aboard the Toxic Gossip Train: Unravelling Parasocial Relationships through the Colleen Ballinger Controversy

Zara Hernandez deep-dives into the Colleen Ballinger controversy and seeks to answer why we form parasocial relationships with comfortable strangers. 

Colleen Ballinger posted her first vlog in November 2023, almost five months after her disastrous ukulele-playing ‘apology’ video and, like many others, I screamed at the moment of her return - I wasn’t really expecting this on my November bingo card. 

It was 2013. My friends and I were sitting around on the beanbags at dancing, and playing on our iPads as usual. Amidst the digital amusement, my friend captured everyone’s attention with a video of this peculiar girl with overlined red lipstick and an extremely obnoxious demeanour, making a horrible attempt at ballet. At the ripe age of eleven, we found this strange character known as Miranda Sings, to be the absolute peak of comedy. Little did I realise that this chance encounter would lead me down a rabbit hole of laughter and entertainment that would transcend into my high school years, and even through to early adulthood. 

Colleen Ballinger, most famously known for her alter ego ‘Miranda Sings’, was a viral sensation throughout the 2010s and carved a unique niche in the entertainment world with her multifaceted career. Ballinger’s character quickly gained traction on YouTube, amassing millions of followers and enabling her to expand her career into various creative ventures. Her successes include worldwide tours, a Netflix series, and even the opportunity to perform on Broadway. All this ambition catapulted however; with numerous allegations of Ballinger having engaged in inappropriate conduct with underaged fans, leading her to fall victim to ‘cancel culture’.

Colleen’s response? A ten-minute song and ukulele ‘apology’ video with seemingly little display of remorse for her victims. [1] Receiving intense backlash from fans and non-fans alike, Ballinger disappeared from social media for almost five months, until suddenly re-emerging on her vlog channel in November 2023 resuming normal activities pre-scandal. 

Like many others, Miranda Sings formed a significant part of my childhood/tween years, and as I became older and my taste in entertainment became more ‘mature’, my focus shifted from Miranda Sings to her creator, Colleen Ballinger. I have watched every single vlog since the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. They gave me a sense of comfort in some of my loneliest moments. All of the anxiety I felt throughout Year 12 was so easily soothed by just watching one of her vlogs. I even had a fan account in 2015 dedicated to Miranda Sings (embarrassing, I know). So, hearing that the person’s career I admired and respected deeply was based on lies and manipulation made me question: why are we so quick to form these parasocial relationships and why have we taken everything presented to us on social media at face value? 

The term ‘Parasocial Relationship’ was coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. It is defined as “the one-sided relationship in which the consumers of mass media consider media personas as friends, extending their emotional energy whilst the persona is unaware of their existence”. [2] And in the age of the internet and social media, we see this phenomenon play out constantly.

It is widely known that as humans, we desperately need social connection for our survival – and although not definitive, it may be plausible for me to state that with the rise of the internet, we have replaced the need for in-person communication through engagement on our electronic devices. According to the US National Library of Medicine, higher levels of social networking can lead to greater depressive symptoms in adolescents. [3] Perhaps it is then safe to say that there is a definite link between a young person’s mental health issues and a higher engagement with social media. 

These carefully curated personas have led us to overly idolise these celebrities and influencers – only seeing the positive emotional benefits these people bring us. This mindset has proven to be extremely detrimental as it becomes difficult to hold these people accountable for their actions. We see people like Taylor Swift who is known to take unnecessarily short private plane trips [4] or Justin Bieber who was charged with assault and reckless driving yet was only fined $600; [5]  and instead of facing the repercussions, their fans were too quick to defend them. 

Circling back to the Ballinger situation, her actions of racism and extremely inappropriate interactions with minors were so evident in her past videos however no backlash was received until now. However, Ballinger isn’t the only O.G. Youtuber to be held accountable for controversial behaviours in the past, as celebrities such as Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star and James Charles have become victims of this new phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’. 

Are we, the viewers, to blame? The majority of us were only children and teenagers when we started watching these YouTubers. And with our young and impressionable minds, any form of problematic behaviour was simply brushed aside purely due to the admiration we held for them. 

By no means am I justifying their actions – however, we viewers willingly consumed the content presented to us by these media personalities. Can we blame it on societal standards changing? At what point did we all realise; ‘The behaviour of these public figures was unacceptable, let’s collectively destroy their whole career?’ 

Perhaps the media itself has a role to play – this situation may not have grown to the scale it did if it weren’t for the various media outlets reporting on it. As such, due to herd mentality, or the inclination of individuals within a group to think and behave collectively, we have only decided to hold her accountable now. [6] Therefore, we can apply this concept of herd mentality as a way of explaining the reasons for consuming the information fed to us at face value. As I examine the timeline of Ballinger’s controversies, evidence of past racism and inappropriate interactions with minors only garnered significant attention in recent months. This delayed reaction only raises questions about society’s collective ability to discern right from wrong and the impact of external influences. 

Colleen Ballinger’s comeback to YouTube initiates a reflection on our ties with public figures, serving as a reminder that these relationships transcend mere entertainment; they shape our beliefs and behaviours. We idolise these individuals and are finally figuring out the consequences of these parasocial relationships. Many of us grew up alongside them as we intensively watched them navigate the pressures of their own fame and fortune, sometimes at the cost of compromising our own ethical and moral standards. Perhaps for us to effectively restore that standard, we must cultivate a media culture of critical thinking, mindful consumption, and empathy as a society. 

[1] Quintana, Andrew. How the Miranda Sings/Colleen Ballinger Scandal Went Off the Rails. Vanity Fair, 2023. Online.

[2] Haupt, Angela. In Defense of Parasocial Relationships. Time, 2023. Online. 

[3] Khalaf, Abderrahman, et al. The Impact of Social Media on the Mental Health of Adolescents and Young Adults: A Systematic Review. Cureus, 2023. Online. 

[4] Bansinath, Bindu. Climate Change (Taylor’s Version). The Cut, 2022. Online.

[5]  CNN. Justin Bieber found guilty of assault, careless driving in Canada. CNN, 2015. Online. 

[6] Merriam-webster. Definition of HERD MENTALITY., 2020. Online.


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