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Is ‘relatable’ overrated?

| Thursday, January 21, 2016

Last semester, my writing professor forbade us from using the word “relatable” to describe each other’s work. I thought it was because the word was overused, the same way I was forbidden to use the word “skillz” in seventh grade (“You’ve got mad skillz!”). But, after thinking about it, it’s really the idea behind it that’s overused. Yet only in some contexts.

As consumers of words and stories in literature, film, art, music and theater, our relationship with “relatability” is a difficult one, closely linked to our majority or minority status in American society. Everyone wants — and deserves — to see characters with whom they can relate on a personal level. We want to see people who “feel” like us, what they look like and where they live and what they do. We want to see our situations and identities validated through the arts. For children especially, this is an exceptionally powerful role that books, movies, shows, songs and art exist to fill.

But on the flipside, some people have a lot more characters who look and live like them than others. Men, white people, thin people, normally abled people and young people. And while some roles require a certain look or lifestyle, many roles that could really be anybody are by default filled with people who look very much the same and presumably come from similar backgrounds: usually male, usually white. So what message is that sending? Prioritizing white people, straight people and men for most major characters reinforces divisions based on our differences, selecting who is more deserving of our support and understanding. Less urgently but also concerningly, it also robs white or straight or male or all-of-the-above people from the invaluable experience of connecting to popular characters that are different than themselves.

Reading a book or watching a movie forces us to empathize with the protagonist; it’s how we know whom to cheer for, and studies have shown that reading fiction — that is, stories — increases our empathy. So if we’re always cheering for the attractive white guy, if we’re always learning to relate to him, when do we learn to relate to others? When can we identify with characters of other genders, races, beliefs, and abilities? When can we put ourselves in their shoes?

Increasingly, people of color, women and LGBTQ people have been gaining more representation in literature and films like “Selma,” “Suffragette,” “Race” and “The Danish Girl,” which bring to the forefront the histories of oppressed minorities kept out of the spotlight. This is a great thing. So next, what about movies where the protagonist’s race, gender, ability and sexuality aren’t the focus of the conflict? Why can’t we see more black superheroes, woman warriors (wearing decent outfits, please), gay secret agents or wizards in wheelchairs?

Boys, particularly white boys, are widely excused from engaging with stories focusing on girls or people of color, while girls and people of color have little choice but to engage with stories about white boys. Think of popular franchises that have, unsurprisingly, also dominated the film industry: “Harry Potter,” “Percy Jackson,” “Spiderman,” “Superman,” “Batman,” “The Lord of the Rings” — all focusing primarily on white boys and men. “The Hunger Games,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Divergent,” “Game of Thrones” — all focusing on white people. Where are the movies for Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea Cycle,” where the protagonists are mostly people of color? Where is the wide readership and subsequent film adaptations for Octavia Butler’s — a woman author of color — science fiction and fantasy novels?

It’s not that “white dude” books and movies aren’t worthwhile for everyone (I’m a born-and-bred Potterhead and a devoted Tolkien fan myself). The point is: it’s important for underrepresented minorities — which includes women — to be more represented so they too can ”relate” to popular and academic culture, feel included, feel valued and see themselves as part of the movement. It’s also important for “majorities” to not rely on relatability to judge the worth and value of a story. We who are used to seeing ourselves projected on screens and book covers don’t need to feel distanced by characters of different races, genders, ethnicities, ages, abilities or orientations. To enjoy a story we don’t need to fully relate to the protagonist, especially in terms of appearance; we just need to sympathize with him or her.

That’s when stories are at their full power: when, through them, we come to understand people who are different than us, without judgment, without distance, without distinction. We come to respect them and to see them as the norm too, not just “us.”


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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