Rebecca Mead, staff writer for The New Yorker, writes the article, “The Scourge of Relatability.” The purpose of Mead’s article is to analyze overtime the term “relatability” and to question “[w]hat are the qualities that make a work ‘relatable,’ and why have these qualities come to be so highly valued?” She remarks:
“Since Freud theorize[s] 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 watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should be where critical thought ends.”
Mead concludes that artists do not need to target or connect with their audience; however, it is the responsibility of the audience to reflect and think critically of the artist’s work. I both agree and disagree with her points. That said, I disagree with her first point. I think artists/writers/actors/TV and radio hosts etc. should think about their message and their intended target audience so that their delivery comes across powerfully, successfully, and genuinely. It is a disservice, in my opinion, for an artist/writer/actor/ TV and radio hosts etc. to simply write without any attempt to connect to someone. Ignoring the audience does not result in a win-win situation. For me, regardless of the forum used, the message is critical; the message should not be spoon fed to me but should make me think, reflect, and to challenge my personal views. Otherwise, why write? Moving on, I agree with the second point. It is important for the viewer/listener/reader to connect with what the person is trying to convey. The audience does not need to relate to the character but should attempt to walk in that person’s shoes. In other words, the audience should attempt to venture outside of the box. The process of stepping out of the box and into another person’s shoes enables someone to open their eyes more clearly and broadly and to think more freely and tolerantly. Gaining a new perspective by looking beyond relatability stimulates personal growth.
This new, perspective experience – looking beyond the relatability of the character(s) – happened to me after reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. First off, I am not the intended target audience, a white northern woman during the time of slavery in the United States. Despite the fact that I’m not the intended audience, I am still able to relate to Jacob’s poignant themes and messages about abandonment, suffering, and freedom. It is a combination of these themes and messages as well as Jacob’s determination and her relentless desire for hope that surpasses the lack of relatability of her character, Linda Brent. Jacobs teaches universal truths about will power and self-belief as well as spurs political activism. From her writings about the harsh and the brutal conditions of slaves, I am able to connect more clearly with the abuses of others. The Life of a Slave Girl encourages me to question the morality and humanity of what is going on around me. Sadly, Ira Glass declaring “Shakespeare sucks” because “Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional” misses the poignant point of reading/studying/watching Shakespeare and learning from it. In my opinion, it is not important to relate to Richard III per say but to identify right from wrong and freewill from fate as well as identifying and relating to the other themes and messages of justice, power, and manipulation. These concepts are not only pertinent today but also are relatable today. Again, similar to Richard III, it is not critical for me to see myself in the same mirror as the characters in the “Twelfth Night;” however, what is important is the concept that things are not what they seem.
It is hard for me to imagine that many people can personally relate to a person that lived over 500 years ago. However, their experiences, feelings, hopes, purpose, and legacies should be shared regardless of a personal connectivity. It is their message that is purposeful not their relatability.