It’s Time to Stop Using the Word ‘Relatable’ When Talking About Female Characters
Everyone has a list of words they can’t stand. Moist. Crusty. Bromance. The word currently at the top of my list? Relatable.
But wait, that doesn’t have any off-putting associations, does it? Well, it’s subtler than that. We see it as a hashtag, a modifier in headlines, a descriptor for celebrities—usually earnest (as in A-listers spotted at Trader Joe’s), occasionally ironic (as in a $4,000 skincare routine). It’s also frequently used to describe beloved TV and movie characters. Relatability is seen as a positive thing, a quality to aspire to.
Let me back up: Last month, after blowing through all eight episodes of Russian Doll on Netflix, I evangelized the show to all my friends—and got a few responses I wasn’t expecting. One friend found the protagonist, Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne), too over-the-top, so obvious in her flouting of gender stereotypes that my friend no longer found her relatable. I, on the other hand, found her refreshingly…specific. To say I saw myself in Nadia would be a stretch—we’re both 30-something single New Yorkers, sure, but her self-assuredness and left-brained problem-solving is where we diverge. Still, I was fascinated by the way she moved through the show’s world, living by her own unique set of principles and patterns (and eventually being forced to reexamine them).
My friend’s difference of opinion isn’t the point—we’re entitled to our own preferences. But her comment got me thinking: Why do we so often expect female characters to be a reflection of ourselves? And why has this term become so ubiquitous?
I have never known a man to write off a TV show because he couldn’t see himself hanging out with the protagonist. Tony Soprano? Fuhgeddaboudit. Walter White? Hard pass. And anyone who lists Don Draper as a personal hero is someone I’d file under “don't die in war with.” Yet these are lauded as pillars of the so-called Golden Age of TV. And many of the viewers making—or at least echoing—these endorsements are women.
Why are we more willing to bridge the gap with male characters than female? Is it because we inherently hold men to lower standards? I’m being facetious, but maybe there’s some truth there. Natasha Lyonne and Russian Doll co-creator Leslye Headland recently spoke about how, historically, male characters have been allowed to “explore the act of existence” in a way that women haven’t—women’s roles have too often been defined by their relation to a partner or the search for one. (Think about our collective tendency to “ship” male-female pairings based on the most tenuous suggestions.)
Lyonne also mentioned the Hays Code, a set of filmmaking rules enacted in the ’30s intended to “clean up” Hollywood (after pressure from none other than the U.S. government), but which in reality contained a lot of sexist (and racist) directives that affected pop culture for decades. It was intended to promote a predetermined definition of morality—essentially, qualities its enforcers hoped its viewers would emulate—while punishing or excluding anything not deemed appropriate.
Naturally, this affected the disenfranchised disproportionately to (white) men, unsurprising when you consider who held most of the proverbial reins at the time. Sure, nearly a century has passed at this point, and some have argued that the guidelines led to creative work-arounds, but there’s something eerily familiar about the idea that we’re meant to root for women espousing the “right” values—say, loyalty to one partner, respect for authority—and condemn those who fall outside the norm. (Interestingly, the Hays Code coincided with another Golden Age—the Golden Age of Hollywood. Kind of makes you look at the “classics” in a different light, no?)
Much has been written about the rise of “unlikable” female protagonists, and while that’s a characterization that holds its own importance, that’s not what I’m talking about, exactly. I’ve found myself relating to characters I didn’t particularly like, but the inverse is a little trickier. There’s an inherent impulse to evaluate a character’s motives and actions based on what we would have done in the same situation. Remember the internet’s collective head-shake at Molly’s increasingly frustrating decisions in the most recent season of Insecure?
Even famous “it me” icon Liz Lemon of 30 Rock recently drew ire on Twitter for not actually being that relatable after all. I say this not to refute anyone’s opinion (she makes some good points—who wouldn’t kill for a head TV writer job?) but to show how ingrained the instinct is to contrast against our own lives. You could even argue that certain shows have been built on this assumption (you don’t title a show This Is Us without a slight wink about whom “us” is referring to).
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking it’s a non-issue—maybe you’re an equal opportunity viewer, in which case, great! But based on conversations I’ve watched unfold (both in person and online), innumerable think pieces and the meme-ification of anything to grace our TVs and laptops, there’s still a widespread tendency to see characters as a surrogate self—just consult one of the many “Which Sex and the City Character Are You?” quizzes that refuse to die. Has there ever been an equivalent mapping of caricature personalities for men? (Short answer: no.)
And the concept reverberates beyond pop culture. Think of the way female political candidates are exhaustively dissected for things that have nothing to do with professional competence. How they dress. How they speak. What their marriages look like. Shouldn’t values, ability and experience outweigh what brands they wear or how they lost the baby weight? It’s a double standard that’s not just irrational but also incredibly damaging.
It’s natural and justifiable to want to see a version of yourself reflected onscreen—and in terms of casting, representation is essential. But just as we want to see characters of every race, age, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background, let’s expand that definition to include characters that fall all over the moral spectrum without lumping them into good and bad. If past eras’ storytelling didn’t trust us to know whether or not someone was redeemable without hitting us over the head with it, the best 2019 writers respect their audiences enough to let them decide for themselves. Role models, particularly for young viewers, are important—but so are complex, flawed and sometimes incomprehensible characters to show us the actual breadth of human existence.
Let’s look back at a show like Friends, which may not be considered groundbreaking but was certainly both a commercial success and something of a ’90/2000s touchstone. At the time, the characters and various plot lines were clearly sketched out to tick the “relatable” box—the overachiever, the romantic, the free spirit—though it’s now blatantly clear that its version of relatability was hyper-specific to a certain demographic. (I say that without vitriol, as someone who’s seen every episode.)
Contrast that with, say, Killing Eve, a show whose two leads were written to be many things—but I doubt “would I invite this person to brunch?” was a primary concern. We’re meant to align ourselves with the protagonist, Sandra Oh’s Eve, but not all her traits are admirable ones—we watch her toy with the idea of a different, darker life. More alarming, perhaps, is how easy it is to like Villanelle, the enigmatic assassin played by Jodie Comer. It doesn’t get any more specific—and less relatable—than a killer in a pink tulle dress, but that’s exactly what makes you unable to take your eyes off her. At times, I found myself unsure who I was rooting for more. And the relationship between the two of them looked like no dynamic I’ve ever seen on television, let alone experienced.
In an era when women are finally gaining ground in top-level writing and production roles, I think we need to sacrifice “relatability” in order to encourage a landscape of female characters as wide-ranging as possible. The real-life piece is going to be tougher to change. (I am horrified, on a daily basis, at the harassment female public figures have to face.) But changing the language we use to talk about women, both fictional and otherwise, is a start.
That’s not to say that you have to like or identify with every female character you come across—or give carte blanche to a show just because it’s created by women. Just don’t invoke the R word.
It’s worth noting, here, that in my initial Russian Doll lovefest, I also recommended it to a male friend…who, a month later, has yet to watch a single episode. Which is maybe what riles me the most: Women—50 percent of consumers—are constantly fed male narratives as stories “for everyone,” while a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes score and an emphatic personal recommendation aren’t enough to overcome a guy’s dubiousness that he’d be able to connect with a female-led series. If we keep holding these characters to an impossible standard among ourselves, how are we going to get the other half of the population on board?
Not that we need the approval of men to validate these characters. (It’s not like they ever sought our approval.) But if we can increase audience demand for stories about women—all kinds of women—hopefully it means one less bromance on the air.