The scourge of “relatability” in the arts

Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker:

What are the qualities that make a work “relatable,” and why have these qualities come to be so highly valued? To seek to see oneself in a work of art is nothing new, nor is it new to enjoy the sensation. Since Freud theorized the process of identification — as a means whereby an individual develops his or her personality through idealizing and imitating a parent or other figure — the concept has fruitfully been applied to the appreciation of the arts. Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

To appreciate “King Lear” — or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars” — only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize — because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy — is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”

MORE: The Scourge of ‘Relatability‘ “

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on April 23, 2015, in Arts & Entertainment and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Relatability would mean many things to many people. But some basic sense of relatability is always necessary for any communication to happen, which is the purpose of language.

    As Ligotti has pointed out, even the monstrous needs to be shown through human experience. Only the relatability of the human can convey the monstrous to the reader.

    The problem is when relatability becomes a simplistic and confining standard. But that isn’t inevitable.

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