“Relatability”: BARF

Here’s a comment I just wrote on a student paper. It’s a long one (especially for a 600-word assignment!), but it finally articulates something that’s been bothering me for a long time, namely, the word relatable. Yuck. Here’s the comment:

the word “relatable” kind of drives me nuts. For a historical treatment of it, see here. The problem is that it suggests that certain characters are somehow naturally more relatable than others. But what kinds of literary characters readers relate to—and I think the better term is identify with (as is, they are willing to see the character as a second or even better self)—differs from time to time and culture to culture. Medieval people clearly identified with knights and kings, and often did so: the hundreds of surviving manuscripts of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is sufficient evidence of that. But, as you say, for a few decades in the later 14th century, English readers started relating to or rather identifying with peasants instead of kings. And indeed we should say “as well as” rather than “instead of,” since chivalric literature continued to be produced and consumed in this period. If we say the new identifications happened because peasants are more “relatable” than kings, then we’re just saying that of course people should “relate” to peasants instead of kings. We’re just saying that this is the natural way of things, and that’s the end of thinking. Except people did identify with kings etc. The question therefore should be: when do they identify with certain classes and why, and what kinds of effects do these shifts in identification cause or indicate? “Relatability” prevents analysis, whereas “identification” opens it up.

Obviously we could take this in any number of more sophisticated directions, but for a comment on an undergraduate paper, I think it’s sufficient. Cut and paste for your own grading as necessary!

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