The Scourge of “Relatability”
Rebecca Mead establishes many different opinions on how we use “relatability” to judge literature and works of art. Mead uses her article “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” to articulate the history of the word, the different meanings behind ‘relatability,’ the surge in the use of this word, the qualities that constitute ‘relatability,’ the difference between ‘identifying’ and ‘relating’ to a work of art, and the consequences of demanding “relatability.” I agree with Mead, when she states that the value of literature or a work of art should not be judged solely on how easily the audience can relate to the story or character, but I do not agree with how Mead places all the responsibility on the reader or audience to find ways to establish connections with the artist.
While relatability is a tool that can be used to measure the effectiveness of communication in artwork, it should not be the only means used to determine something’s value. In contrast to Mead’s belief that it is the responsibility of the audience to interpret artwork, I believe the responsibility should be evenly split between the author and audience when making connections and establishing understandings through works of art. Although I saw how important the use of tools other than “relatability” actually were in measuring the value of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I also believe that the way Charlotte Perkins Gilman reflected on the experiences of women in the 1800s to help women relate to the narrator was crucial in getting her message across.
Although there are many points in “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” that I can agree with, the major point that can be supported by “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the idea that the value of literature and films should be based on more than just “relatability.” When Mead talks about how relatability is wrongfully being used as the main tool to assess value, I can’t help but agree that art can still be very valuable without being relatable. “Relatability—a logism so neo that it’s not even recognized by the 2008 iteration of Microsoft Word with which these words are being written—has become widely and unthinkingly accepted as a criterion of value, even by people who might be expected to have more sophisticated critical tools at their disposal.” When reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I found that I could relate to the narrator due to the fact that we are both female, but could not really relate to this narrator on any other basis because of our different historical context and ethnic identities. Although I could not relate to the narrator on a cultural and historical front, I was able to use other tools like clarity and creativity to assess the overall value of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
While I understand why Mead believes “relatability” should not be our only criterion for judging whether or not a film or piece of literature is any good, I don’t agree with the emphasis that Mead places on leaving “relatability” completely up to the audience as opposed to both the audience and the artist. According to Mead, “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.” In order for a film or work of literature to successfully reach the reader or viewer, I think that the author must provide some sort of framework that a good majority of people can relate with through direct or indirect experiences. As the author provides the opportunity for the majority to relate to the piece, the audience must use this opportunity to dig into their life experiences to solidify this potential connection. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Gilman establishes a plot in which an individual is oppressed. Although men may not be able to identify with the gendered oppression faced by the narrator and women across the globe, it is their responsibility to look into their life experiences for a time when they were oppressed for perhaps another reason.
Although Mead makes a lot of claims in “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” that I don’t particularly agree with based on my reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I think she also makes many claims that effectively capture the importance of reflecting on the way we “identify” and “relate” with different texts. In many ways, artwork can be used as a mode of communication. While it is incredibly important for artists to relay their messages in ways that the audience can try to understand, the ability of the audience to make their own personal connections to a piece of art is what ultimately leads to a sense of value and appreciation.