There are so many ways we tell our favorite celebs that we love them. Last year brought us bestie. Bae is so 2013, but it’ll do the trick. Dad and mom are almost a decade old and have since been joined by zesty newcomers zaddy and mommy. Lorde thinks Kim Kardashian is mom, while Taylor Swift prefers to be called aunt. And in fandom, we have our sons.
“I’m a huge Phoebe Bridgers fan and when people call her ‘mom’ it’s like, ‘You’re so cool, I wish you were my parent so you could nurture me,'” says trend expert Amanda Brennan. She spent seven years at Tumblr studying its communities and culture and remembers watching the rise of “my son” discourse in anime communities on the platform, specifically around Attack on Titan’s Eren. Instead of “you’re so cool,” son culture flipped the script to “you’re so cute.” Fans began talking about their favorite characters as their children, taking inchoate feelings of parental pride and investment and “amplif[ying] them up to 12,” she says. “Like, ‘man, I want them to do so good… I want to nurture the shit out of them.'”
Julia Henn, a 24-year-old writer from Brazil, says son and daddy/zaddy are two sides of the same emotional coin. You’ll know a “daddy” when you see him. “It’s just the feeling that a certain man that fits a certain description gives you… the feeling of being taken care of, feeling safe,” she says. “For a son, it’s the need to take care of someone, the urge to see them thrive, but you don’t want the more literal parts of the ‘son,’ it’s just affection.”
The word actually falls short of the emotion it tries to capture, but it’s all we have. “[Son is] definitely not an accurate representation of my feelings,” says Henn over Twitter DM, it’s just the “word that we instinctively use when referring to someone (often younger) we love and wish to protect.” Her feelings about her sons are way more nuanced. “I don’t believe having that protective feeling towards someone and being attracted to them are mutually exclusive,” she notes. “I call [22-year-old] Choi Yeonjun from TXT my son, but I do have a crush on him.”
For a son, it’s the need to take care of someone, the urge to see them thrive…
The concept of a “parasocial relationship” is more than 60 years old, but we haven’t developed new vocabulary to properly express the affections it stirs within us. While we chat, Brennan scrolls through the “my son” tag on Tumblr and comes across a post about a role-playing battle game where users play as personified cookies. A simple line drawing of hands in different positions has been edited to redefine their functional duties: “pat,” “hold,” “cherish,” and “forfeit all mortal possessions” to a Sherbet Cookie character. It’s compelling evidence of the shortcomings of our existing vocabulary. “What does the relationship of a human to a cookie look like? You don’t know. You just think it’s cute. Clearly, it is your progeny, right? I think [son …….