Monday, September 29, 2014

Against relatability

I've been reading Roxane Gay's collection of essays, Bad Feminist, all week. Most of them are familiar, as many of them have been published at The Rumpus or Salon; however, I missed this one about female characters and the scourge of "likability" I hate that word, likability, as applied to literature. Most of my favorite literary characters have been patently unlikable, though it's important to note that most of my favorite unlikable characters have been men. Women have to be liked. Women have to relate.

I've written characters from the sociopathic to the just plain selfish, and one of the notes I've gotten consistently in writing classes in workshops is not only that they're unlikable, but they're unrelatable. No shit. Relatability goes beyond just being "unlikable": it's seeing your experiences, -- yourself really -- mirrored back at you. It's saying your experience is worthy and "correct." In an article for the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead defines defines this relatively new phenomenon:
Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was “relatable,” she meant that it could be told—the Shakespearean sense of “relate”—or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as “relatable” began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of “relatable”—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry. When Rosie O’Donnell launched her TV talk show in 1996, she said that she hoped to preserve time with her family. “It’s the stories about living your life that makes you relatable to your audience,” she said. In 2004, the critic Virginia Heffernan called “relatable” “a weird daytime [TV] word” and characterized it thus: “I thought the stock way daytime people become ‘relatable’ is by being older than starlets, with wider hips. They talk about dieting.”
 I don't read to see myself or my life reflected. My life is boring, I don't want to. When someone say that a particular character is unrelatable, I want to ask, "What do you read? And why is it so important to you that you're validated through what you read?" Literature is supposed to transform and expand, not maintain stasis.

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