Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films.
We like to see ourselves in books, movies, and TV. Relate enough, and an okay story can become all-consuming. Relate a little, and the worst character can become human. Some might say relatability is what entertainment is all about, but that is a new concept, and it might not be for the best.
The New Yorker has traced the origin of the word, which has surged in popularity in the last five years. And, we do mean surged. In 2008, there were 16 occurrences of it in The New York Times; however, in 2013, it was used in 116 articles. But, its meaning has changed in the last 100 years. If we were to use it in the early 20th century — you know, in our previous career as a heavy-drinking, hard-living theater critic — it would've been used to say a story could be told, that it was feasible, or that two things could be connected. And, that's not at all how we use it today.
Its current usage started popping up in the '90s, though its new definition was still loosely realized in 2004. That's when critic Virginia Heffernan defined it as weird euphemism for "non-threatening" in daytime television. "I thought the stock way daytime people become ‘relatable’ is by being older than starlets, with wider hips," she said. Since then it's gone on to become a standard unit of measurement when evaluating entertainment.
We'd argue we've always had a need to relate, and it took a neologism to make it real — after all, we read, watched, and related plenty in the late '80s and '90s. This could be because until 10 years ago, critical discourse belonged to an elite few who were trained to discuss art in a very specific way. But, with the rise TV recaps and social media, criticism now belongs to the people.
Still, relatability is now a word. We collectively brought it into this world, and we can't just get rid of it — we can't just throw it off the BQE like that poor pit bull. Recognizing yourself in a story is one of the great joys of being lost in a book or movie, but so is being introduced to a totally new world, one you'd otherwise never have a chance to know. Is relatability's sudden popularity just more proof of our collective narcissism? Or, is it a word we needed all along? Nobody really knows, so we're just going to have to keep saying it to find out. (The New Yorker)