Now Reading: Our Unhealthy Obsession With Relatability


Our Unhealthy Obsession With Relatability

August 4, 20208 min read

At its heart, it’s simple: we flock towards those who are most like us. We crave connection, and where better to find it than with those who share common ground? Whether it’s by race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, interest or any other categorical factor, we unconsciously divide ourselves into sectors. Into us and them. It is far easier to belong to insular, disparate groups than to be torn, scattered among many interconnected identities. It is far easier to notice either our similarities or differences than to see both.

Courtesy of Duy Pham

This tendency appears in every facet of our lives. In politics, we gravitate towards those who are most personable, most charismatic in a way that uplifts every layman. We are attracted to the evocative headlines, which target our emotions and alert our primitive instinct to react to threats. On YouTube, we enjoy watching vlogs because they are a piece of escapism. Influencers transport you along with them, befriend you without ever knowing you.

During school, there are the athletes, the band geeks, the students competing for valedictorian. On the internet, there are the social justice warriors, the Karens. And in our social circles, there are those who complement us perfectly. Everywhere, we search for pieces of ourselves — chances to resonate with others, coincidences that may be a sign of fate. Relatability is a way for us to organize this chaotic, unpredictable world, to forge bonds and find community.

The YouTube landscape is constantly in flux, and we’ve entered the stage where our fan-favorites have matured and reached the zenith of success. They are no longer the gangly, pubescent teenagers with shoddy editing skills. They no longer have the disjointed, self-conscious sense of humor that they used to. Instead, these quirks — these awkward blips — have been smoothed over with the confidence that comes with millions of followers and sudden wealth. With sponsorships and merchandise and editing teams, comes the irreverence, the impulsivity, in how they carry themselves.

These new realities tend to send us into a media frenzy. There’s something innately wrong, something inexplicably repulsive, in the concept that influencers — particularly the younger ones — are not the same people they used to be. We can’t accept it; we resist it at all costs.

Take Emma Chamberlain, for instance. At the peak of her fame, when every Gen-Z girl was buying hydroflasks and wearing scrunchies, she also faced a tsunami of scathing criticism. Her trademark of “relatability” disintegrated the moment she wore Louis Vuitton. Suddenly, it became glaringly obvious to us: she was elite. She’d joined the ranks of YouTube fame, become a bone fide celebrity. Once this sunk in, we lashed out  — in fear, in resentment, in bitterness. Granted, there was merit to some of our claims — like her inflated ego, her carelessness — but the bulk of them seemed to stem from our own internalized issues with seeing a once-familiar figure turn unattainable.

Courtesy of Andrew Bucko

We see this pattern over and over again with other YouTubers who are in the same age range as her and who’ve, essentially, finished adolescence in front of a camera. James Charles, just last year with the “Bye Sister” video that Tati released, was accused of letting his success go to his head. Again, there was accuracy to these imputations — he even admitted it himself in an apology video — but the discord seems to start in tandem with the loss of relatability. When we’ve spent so long believing ourselves to be on equal footing with these YouTubers, then one day see they’ve been elevated to greater heights, we experience whiplash. We experience vertigo, a sense of surreality, and this dizziness sharpens our tongues.

But here’s a beacon of hope: We’ve overcome this. The hate towards Emma Chamberlain has subsided, and James Charles recovered from the scandal quickly, once again donning the laurel of most popular beauty guru. Granted, it’s a time-consuming, grueling process, and it takes some self-enlightenment on the influencers’ part, but, eventually, we start to embrace them again. We learn to adjust to their new lifestyles, learn to understand — if not relate to — them.

Still, this is not sustainable. We cannot continue to, without reason, harangue YouTubers for simply becoming successful. It’s no fault of their own and is simply an indicator of how lucrative social media is career-wise. Rather than fixate on relatability and scrutinize creators based on this criteria, we should emphasize authenticity. Relatability has become synonymous with mundane, middle-class citizens with Subarus and Honda Civics — but we can’t, realistically, expect this from influencers, can we?

But we can ask for sincerity, in everything that they do. We can ask that they are honest about their faults, that they are aware of their privileges. That is our right as viewers, but it is not our right to demand that they pretend to be just like you and I (though that might enrage us even more). Authenticity can ensure that the character, the value, of their content is up to our standards, even if we cannot resonate with the material parts of life. We should allow influencers to evolve, to grow into themselves because it’s unnatural to force them to do otherwise. Stasis is impossible; we are perpetually being shaped by forces we know and forces we don’t.

Because here’s the kicker: on the surface, they may not seem relatable. But when it comes to who they are as humans, and who we are, we’re more alike than we think. And, who knows, maybe in a couple of decades, the carelessness that characterizes young influencers will translate into wisdom, even grace.

Photo Courtesy of Tiffany Ferg

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Phyllis Feng

Phyllis Feng is an Ohio-based writer who loves venturing into a diverse array of topics, from literature and music to mental health. She always seeks to emphasize honesty and empathy in her work. In her free time, you'll usually find her with a book and a mug of tea in her hands.