Rebecca Mead writes about The Scourge of “Relatability”:
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.”
While sharing Mead’s frustration with the rise of this stupid word, I don’t follow her argument about how “relatability” differs from “identification.” Is wanting the work to be a mirror really so different from wanting it to be a selfie? Aren’t those just two slightly different ways of describing the same impulse?
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.” And that is a shorthand way of describing … well, what? Probably a wide range of experiences, all of which have one thing in common: they’re not interesting enough to readers or viewers for them to to inquire seriously into the causes of boredom.
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.
UPDATE: All this said, I think what got this conversation started, the mini-uproar over Ira Glass’s saying that King Lear is unrelatable, is pretty silly. It was merely an off-the-cuff remark, as Glass later said — which I think supports the point I’m making in this post. Casual remarks usually deserve no more than casual responses.