Can You Relate?

Rebecca Mead tut-tuts those who, like Ira Glass, would relate to art rather than identify with it:

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.

But Freddie suggests that Mead’s concerns about contemporary self-absorption are misplaced:

Selfies are the opposite of solipsism; they are the creation of a perspective that is entirely alien to the person taking them. None of us can naturally see our own face. We build mirrors precisely to get outside of our own perspective. We use the camera to put ourselves in the position of other people. Call that what you’d like, but it isn’t solipsistic.

Complaints that we’re all self-obsessed are evergreen, but I think that they badly miss the point in our current technological moment. Rather than being obsessed with our own point of view, I think we are instead in an era in which we are obsessed with the gaze of others. Yes, we are watching others watch us, and so there’s a second order sense in which we are still the subject of our own drama. But rather than being uninterested in the point of view of others, I think we have constructed an immense digital apparatus to focus on little else.

Meanwhile, Alan Jacobs wonders just how much “relatability” differs from “identification,” asking, “Is wanting the work to be a mirror really so different from wanting it to be a selfie?”:

People, especially young people, used to say, when explaining their dislike of a book, “I just couldn’t identify with it” or “I just couldn’t identify with the characters.” Now they say, “it just wasn’t relatable.” Both of these are just shorthand ways of saying “This work bored me and I think it’s the work’s fault, not mine.” …

I think what the language of relatability and the language of identification typically, if not invariably, connote – and they do this whether used positively or negatively – is weakness of response. And this is why the terms remain so vague, maddeningly so for those of a verbally critical bent. When people really love a work, or really hate it, they enjoy explaining why. When they sorta kinda like it, or sorta kinda dislike it, they say that it was or wasn’t relatable, or that they could or couldn’t identify with the characters. “Relatable” and “identify” are words that ought to come with a shrug pre-attached.

On a skeptical note, Derek Thompson warns, “If you don’t like relatability, you’re going to hate the history of American theater”:

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is nearly autobiographical and, famously, scarringly relatable to any family that has suffered from a form of addiction; Angels in America and The Normal Heart took on the AIDS crisis at the height of the AIDS crisis. A Raisin in the SunDeath of a Salesmen? These aren’t exactly Mesozoic dramas. The Crucible might be the most famous American play that isn’t about contemporary American life, but as a metaphor for America in the Cold War, its politics couldn’t be any more current for its contemporary audience.

The point isn’t that great art has to be about contemporary life. I’m not sure great art has to be anything. But so much wonderful theater has served, historically, as an exaggerated mirror held up to a country at a specific moment in history that it’s shocking to see a writer blast the idea that “[a play] be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” Ira Glass did not invent the idea that great plays ought to reflect their times.

Meanwhile, Alyssa Rosenberg makes sense of “relatability” in light of the politics of representation:

For certain classes of people, consuming mass culture is a constant exercise in empathy. If you’re anything but a straight, white man, action movies are an opportunity to exult in the strength and persistence of people who look nothing like you. Cable television has taken people of all backgrounds into a journey through the troubled mind of the middle-aged man that is well into its second decade.

Demands for “relatable” stories or characters can, in these circumstances, be a cry of “enough!” If traveling into someone else’s mind and experiences through fiction is meant to be morally improving work, we must acknowledge that sometimes that work can be tiring.