Relatability as Political Power

The other day I read an editorial in The New Yorker, "The Scourge of Relatability" by Rebecca Mead, about the dangers of valuing relatability in art. According to Mead, appreciating art only to the extent an individual is reflected in it "[makes] for a hopelessly reductive experience" which prevents viewers from appreciating parts of a work which don't confirm their personal experiences. Mead also states the modern emphasis on relatability undermines the viewer's critical thinking skills if a work does not recognizably reflect the viewer. Both these claims are legitimate, but her underlying assumption--relatability seekers only value art as a mirror of themselves--seems extreme when you consider representation part of the relatability equation.

The modern representation emphasis is an obvious effect of individual rights movements, which promoted more positive media representation to gain cultural acceptance of marginalized groups. Thus demographic representation encourages cultural acceptance instead of the narcissistic feedback loop Mead portrays. Someone seeking representation of their gender/race/sexuality/disability/economic class considers a confirming piece assurance of society's general acceptance of that trait, rather than "a flattering confirmation of an individual's solipsism." However, civil rights movements' emphasis on media representation seems to have bled over into mainstream culture, which now values "relatability" on other, non-marginalized fronts. Relatability thus becomes solipsism when consumers demand reflection of personal/situational circumstances instead of individual rights representation. This modern, non-politically charged solipsism is less ethically acceptable than its rights movements' counterpart. Attacking minority relatability arouses touchy political issues, whereas an attack on personality/situational representation is safely colorless. Mead appears to mainly ridicule this second, more pervasive type of relatability.

The article's danger lies in not making the distinction between selfish and minority representation, since without it the author condemns all relatability seekers as dangerously self-centered. Granted, seeking any kind of relatability always involves a certain self-centered attitude, but erasing the political underpinnings of representation ignores the civil rights struggle which probably intensified the modern relatabilty emphasis in the first place.


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