When the public found out that Kim Kardashian had been robbed at gunpoint last autumn, the Internet soon became a breeding ground for everything from political statements about gun control to memes. The one notably absent reaction: sympathy. “Should have killed #KimKardashian,” wrote one Twitter poster. “Finally, some good news on a Monday!” wrote another. Before long, social media platforms filled with accusations that Kardashian’s social media usage was to blame for the robbery, or even that the event was only a publicity stunt.
Why did so many target Kardashian for being a crime victim? The most likely explanation comes from her untouchable persona. Kardashian’s entire life — family drama, fertility struggle, even breakfast food choices — has been monetized and made palatable for public consumption. Events that should have been awkward or intensely personal were airbrushed in a way that made her and her family seem to transcend regular people. In the same way, the “breaking news” coverage and drama surrounding Kardashian’s attempted shooting made the event look like just another real-life episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. In her public persona, Kardashian made herself larger than life, the opposite of relatable. In return, she has become, in the eyes of the public, subhuman.
It’s clear that during less turbulent times, she’s benefitted from this brand of fame. But it’s also important to note that it has cost Kardashian, as well. Creating a persona distant from its audience, whether in a book, through an acting role, or in the public sphere, prevents the audience from ever truly understanding that character. In fact, considering the audience’s circumstances can help create an experience more likely to engage them, just as great rhetoric is shaped by people who think about the effects of their words before they speak.
Fundamentally, many of the industries now praised by relatability are those which are bolstered by empathy. In literature, connection with our shared humanity can often enrich a text and encourage readers to deeply engage with the text. A student in Shakespeare struggling to parse the language, for example, can find some sense of understanding in relating with characters.
In politics, leaders are expected to know the struggles of the common people in order to effectively lead. Populists from the 19th century Alphonse de Lamartine to 2016’s Bernie Sanders have succeeded because they truly understand what others in their country need. In politics, relatability is an increasingly relevant issue because leaders are now expected to serve their people, not the other way around. Aggressive marketing of relatability is sometimes the only way to communicate to an electorate that they can identify with the struggles of their people. Conversely, failure to effectively relate to citizens does, in fact, show them that the politician might not be the most effective leader for their country since it demonstrates their inability to inspire.
Doctors, engineers, and programmers, on the other hand, are not likely to have “be relatable” on their checklist any time soon. These individuals do not have the same responsibility because their job does not require them to engage the same way that authors, actors, and leaders should. Their job consists primarily of aptitude at a task, which can be easily measured by the quality of work put out.
So when another friend or orator or writer berates “relatability culture,” think of the alternative: blank, perfect, and forgettable celebrities; dull and droning authors; and self-serving, narcissistic leaders. Whether or not relatability is manufactured, distance in our society only brings harm to ourselves and to the people it targets.