Some of you may have already seen this circulating the web this week, but I found it too good to pass up. In her review for the Drew Barrymore-Justin Long romcom vehicle Going The Distance, Michelle Orange utterly eviscerates Justin Long with a stab about his looks. It would seem Orange's takedown would flitter into Internet oblivion soon enough, but as fate would have it, Long not only read the review but took her to task on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. This inspired Orange to write a followup piece titled And This Is Word For Word: The Theory of Relatability and Rethinking Justin Long's Face. It's a fascinating piece, and in a surprise turn of events, Justin Long himself read it and left a thoughtful comment for Michelle Orange regarding the whole debacle. You can read the nitty gritty here, but the real reason I'm catching the rest of you up to speed is to illuminate Orange's wonderful piece, And This Is Word For Word...
In it she discusses pop culture's tendency to eschew truth in favor of something she calls relatability. Were we in a restaurant together, I'd hoist a foaming glass of something to the ceiling in Orange's honor, because she is a luminous writer, one that deftly plucks her point from obscurity, fortifies it with compelling evidence, then sends it orbiting into the stratosphere of "Man, I wish I'd written that!"
Here's an excerpt from her essay:
Going the Distance was not a good movie, but it pricked me in the way that separates bad movies from actively bad movies. I was irritated by the self-satisfaction with which the film presented its take on the dilemma of long-distance relationships: unconcerned with being thoughtful or even entertaining, it pushed all its chips onto the relatability of its concept. “Relatability” may not be a proper word—yet—but it is increasingly legitimate as a standard by which things—from TV to books to politicians to romantic comedies—are valued. The more main the stream, the more relatable a thing must be to get over.
Blame Oprah if you want to, but relatability has been fermenting as both a cultural phenomenon and evaluative rubric since the 1970s, when a combination of factors moved the social concept of the self to the front of the culture. The mainstreaming of therapy and therapized language, the platonic “we’re all the same” rhetoric of the civil rights and equality movements, the merging of high and low culture, and rampant individualism conspired to form a kind of cultural currency, a new dialect that had the ear of the country.
As a concept it grew valuable, and could be attached to modes of engagement–whether artistic, socio-cultural, or political–that were previously uninterested in relating to their audience in any conscious way. The memoir boom was built on this idea, as is much of chick lit, reality TV and of course the blogoscenti. With the dawn of the internet and its attendant traffic in user-generated, confessional minutiae—and I’ll comment on yours if you comment on mine—an ascendant cultural irregularity found the medium to turn its message into a malignancy. Romantic comedies often engender the worst of the phenomenon: Instead of telling a story, in the name of relatability they hit notes, make references, and present punchline-based characters in the effort to elicit one of our laziest, sub-trash responses, which in full goes something like this: I was exposed to something, and it reminded me of me.
The most dangerous thing about relatability is the way it is often presented (and accepted) as a reasonable facsimile of or substitute for truth. This, I worry, may handicap our culture so violently that recovery, if it comes at all, will be generations in the reckoning; if in the meantime we lose our appetite for the real thing we are pretty much doomed. The pursuit of truth is a basic human instinct, and guides our engagement with ourselves, with art, and with other human beings; the scourge of relatability—and its sweetheart deal with another basic instinct, adaptation—puts all three relationships at risk.