Alex Trebek. Aunt Becky. Not Your Friends.

Parasocial relationships form easily. Carefully-scripted and highly-rehearsed, people see fictional characters people on their screens from the comfort of their homes and almost naturally come to believe they really know and very much like them. People are not able to internalize that this relationship is one-sided and is with a fictional character. 

Sometime during the past week, Alex Trebek announced his current struggle with pancreatic cancer. I saw countless posts reacting to Trebek’s news. Numerous people wrote that the news was “absolutely devastating.” This baffled me.

Of course, any kind of medical scare is serious and warrants sympathy. I especially relate to this because of my already long history with on-going medical scares. I do not, however, understand the reaction of “absolutely devastating.” Such a reaction would be appropriate for a loved friend or relative, but for a celebrity, a stranger? Trebek’s family could rightly find offensive at strangers effectively appropriating their feelings.

Of course, celebrities waive everyday privacy. Of course, Trebek’s scare could awaken fears in other people. “Absolutely devastating” might well be a coded reaction for fears that have not found a welcome place in the lexicon of the everyday.

The Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchy matters, too. (bell hooks never ceases to inspire me!) Society has trained people to absolutely accept and to unquestionably respect people like Trebek. People are supposed to see him as a “father” figure. And again, while “Alex Trebek” is his real name, his character/persona on Jeopardy! and on his other television/film projects is fictional. 

Dynamics of the IWSC(HAT)P apply to and are perpetuated by women, too.

(Quick interlude: I am not suggesting any comparison between Trebek and Lori Loughlin beyond their celebrity status and the related concerns. Trebek’s cancer battle and Loughlin’s criminal record are in no way equivalents. I write about them together here, again, because of their celebrity status and because they are both in the news right now. I had been wanting to write about Trebek but lacked a framework until having the ideas in this article.)   

“Aunt Becky” (aka Lori Loughlin) is another household name. People believe they know and love her and believe she can do no wrong. She represents an ideal “motherly” figure who distills values and traditions. Her character does not challenge or even question prevailing mores. Maybe “Aunt Becky” can do no wrong–as she does not actually exist beyond the bubbles of Full House and Fuller House (which are admittedly kind of queer, as I have previously written about)–but Loughlin, as people across the United States learned yesterday, certain can.

As with Trebek, people are expressing devastation and dismay that “Aunt Becky” would face felony charges. In the case of Loughlin, I have seen a fair number of “we’re-not-surprised-a-celebrity-would-cheat-like-that” posts, but if not for everybody knowing “Aunt Becky,” she wouldn’t be receiving this kind of news coverage. 

Alex Trebek, despite Ken Jennings’s op-ed. Aunt Becky. They are not your friends. You do not know themThey do not know you. This does not mean anything positive or negative in and of itself. The public does not know. The public only knows their fictional selves, as created by other people.

I’m reminded of an interview I watched with Roma Downey of Touched by an Angel for a project I was working on. She recounted an event of being at a hospital to see a friend and having someone run up to her saying, “Monica! I was just praying for an angel. Thank you for coming.” Downey said that she tried to explain, to no avail, that she was not “Monica.” 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda