What does it mean to "relate" to something?:

Total posts: [17]
The Hideous
I'm not a native english-speaker but I would evaluate my level of english proficiency as being at least somewhat decent. However, there are still a number of ambiguities that arise from usage of colloquial language that isn't wholly consistent in meaning from person to person that I'm not always able to grasp fully. An example of this is, in my mind, the transitive verb phrase "to relate to". I get that it generally means to feel that you have a connection to something by having experienced or at least having heard from someone you empathize with something similar to what is talked about at some point in your lifetime, but I often see people on the internet use an overly narrow definition of that when discussing media.

For example, you often hear people claim they couldn't relate to a piece of fiction because the main characters did not share their race, religion, ethnicity, cultural viewpoint, sexual orientation, political ideology, etc. Is it impossible for such people to identify with anything in a piece of fiction starring characters that are not sufficiently similar to them in some arbitrary respect (especially race or sex), despite the work in question focusing on issues and personal struggles that are universal to the human condition, which in my view is the kind of story most worth telling? An (admittedly) extreme example of that would be a hypothetical, black, female, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher with a disabled son, anger management issues and a nearly unrivalled knowledge of crystallography not being able to relate to anything in Breaking Bad purely due to the main character's sex and/or race.

Isn't part of consuming fiction (at least in an ideal world) being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes in order to see the world from a different perspective and subsequently being culturally enlightened by this? Or maybe I'm simply misinterpreting what people mean when they say "I couldn't relate to it because of this and that", it merely being a matter of what specifically they couldn't relate to. That being said, I still can't escape the creeping suspicion that certain people are missing out on a fair bit of good content due to the inability of some to empathize with people who belong to a social sphere outside of what they're used to fraternizing with on a daily basis, which, if you're wondering, I think applies equally to all races (looord, how I utterly despise that word), sexes, social classes, religions, nationalities, ethno-cultural groups, subcultures etc.

I implore you to not make this thread about Breaking Bad; I'm still watching and loving the show and I don't want to risk being exposed to spoilers of any kind, even extremely minor ones.

edited 10th Mar '14 6:40:47 PM by HeinousHeathenHedonist

"Your impertinence invites my severest displeasure"
The Brave
Isn't part of consuming fiction (at least in an ideal world) being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes in order to see the world from a different perspective and subsequently being culturally enlightened by this?
Indeed it has been shown that people who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don't. It could be that it teaches readers to be more empathetic or the other way round and people who are more able to relate to characters read more fiction.

I can easily relate to characters and don't quite grasp how something superficial like skin color, profession or sex can put people off. The amount of othering and/or shallowness required for that are quite scary to be honest (ironically this means I cannot relate to such peopletongue).
3 VeryMelon16th Mar 2014 12:35:11 PM from United States , Relationship Status: In Spades with myself
It usually means you either see a part of yourself in a fictions character or the fictional characters have the same struggles and issues that a normal person would, otherwise you can't like the fictional character. For examples, Superman is often seen as "unrelatable" in comparison to Batman because it's easier for Batman to have the same problems a normal person could have, unlike Superman, who is never seen by these same people as having any personal problems at all, much less ones the audience has.

Mind you, I'm saying this as huge Superman and Batman fan.
4 Wolf106616th Mar 2014 02:14:50 PM from New Zealand , Relationship Status: In my bunk
Typin' strangely
I can understand not being able to relate to a character because his/her problems are not ones you've experienced or his/her reactions to problems are not the ones you'd have in the same circumstances.

If a person is not relating to a character solely because of the character's race/sex/sexuality/nationality/whatever and would relate if the character were given a Race Lift, Gender Flipped or given some other change to make them "more acceptable", then that is an issue with the person.

I have no difficulty relating to characters that are female, American, coloured, gay or ultra rich (despite me being none of those things) if the character reacts in a way that I would under the same circumstances - and that sometimes means thinking "yeah, if I were a billionaire whose parents were murdered in front of me, I'd probably do that, too.

The character doesn't have to have a lot of similarities to me in order for me to "relate" to them, they just have to have enough to trigger a "Yeah, I'd totally do that" reaction.

If I watched a movie about a solo parent of four kids who's trying to find a job and "couldn't relate" because the lead character was British, then that would be an indicator of a flaw in my personality, not an indication of the character's "relatability".

edited 16th Mar '14 2:15:20 PM by Wolf1066

Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
5 FourK16th Mar 2014 05:53:54 PM from Missouri, USA , Relationship Status: Complex: I'm real, they are imaginary
What you've struck on isn't a misuse of the word "relate," it's the fact that some people are too shallow, narrow-minded and/or bigoted to identify with any fictional character who isn't a 1:1 match for them. Such attitudes don't expose flaws in the character, but rather flaws in the person. For example, if a man refuses to identify with a character who is similar to him in many ways but happens to be a woman, that is an obvious indicator that the man is a misogynist.
6 Joesolo16th Mar 2014 05:58:45 PM , Relationship Status: watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ
Indiana Solo
[up] this guy said it pretty well.

If someone can't "relate" because of small difference like that, it's their own problem.
I'm baaaaaaack
Chaotic Greedy
However, it's not irrational for networks to cater to the Lowest Common Denominator, since it's what brings in the most money.

Cold maybe, dickish maybe, but not irrational.
"And as long as a sack of shit is not a good thing to be, chivalry will never die."
8 joeyjojo17th Mar 2014 05:32:15 AM from South Sydney: go the bunnies!
Happy New Year!
Now hold on here, we can't just label people misogynist or closed minded because they didn't identify with a story's protagonist. It's not only unfair it's a way too common tact for oversensitive artists to deflect criticism from their work by projecting short comings onto the audience.

There is nothing wrong with someone relating to a character becuase they are from the same social economical background, or yes the same same cultural, race or sex. People appreciate seeing characters from the same walks of life as they are from.

edited 17th Mar '14 5:50:38 AM by joeyjojo

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9 shimaspawn17th Mar 2014 07:23:49 AM from Here and Now , Relationship Status: In your bunk
Sometimes when minorities say they can't related to a lot of media characters, what they mean is, 'I would like to see more people like me with my problems and issues on the screen instead of all these white men all the time.'
Reality is that, which when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

-Philip K. Dick
10 TobiasDrake17th Mar 2014 08:10:22 AM from Colorado, USA , Relationship Status: She's holding a very large knife
Always watching, never seen
There are also those who relate too well to certain characters, projecting their own justifications. One aspect of human behavior is the ability to excuse bad behavior when we are the ones committing it. For instance, if I snap at you, it's because I'm under a lot of stress, I haven't had my morning coffee, I didn't sleep well last night, etc. etc. But if you snap at me, it's because you are an asshole. If I do it, it's okay. If you do it, you are a bad person.

Projecting this subtle hypocrisy onto characters an audience member relates heavily to is a common source of tropes like Draco in Leather Pants and Ron the Death Eater, rationalizing and justifying anything the related character does, while being overly critical and harsh of anyone who takes action against them.

edited 17th Mar '14 8:11:50 AM by TobiasDrake

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The Brave
There is nothing wrong with someone relating to a character becuase they are from the same social economical background, or yes the same same cultural, race or sex. People appreciate seeing characters from the same walks of life as they are from.
I would argue that there is something wrong with tying relating to someone to sex or race or haircolor. It shows that the person thinks people from a different race or sex are fundamentally different in their feelings and thoughts. It shows a certain dehumanizing of others.
12 Greenmantle17th Mar 2014 09:19:17 AM from Greater Wessex, Britannia , Relationship Status: Hiding
It shows a certain dehumanizing of others.

Everyone does it. There's a lot in OTC.
Keep Rolling On

The Brave
Everyone does it.
And that justifies it?
14 BlueNinja017th Mar 2014 09:51:41 AM from Lost in a desert oasis , Relationship Status: In my bunk
Chronically Sleep Deprived
[up] I don't think "justified" is the right word. More that it seems to largely be an inherent property of human consciousness to automatically group everything we encounter, including each other, and assign values and traits that may or may not apply to everything in that group.
TBH, his ego doesn't need more stroking. Nor does any other part of him. - M84
15 Wolf106617th Mar 2014 04:40:04 PM from New Zealand , Relationship Status: In my bunk
Typin' strangely
@joeyjojo: I'd say that if someone cannot relate to a character solely because of race, sex, sexuality etc, then it is fair to label them as racist/sexist etc.

If someone can't relate because "sorry, I can't understand the problems of having too much/little money because I've never been in that situation", then fine - not everyone can put themselves into a situation and say "yeah, if I were in that situation, I'd feel/act that way, too."

But if someone can't relate "because he's a nigger", then that's an issue with the person, especially if the character is facing problems that the viewer has faced and reacting in a way that the viewer would react/has reacted in those circumstances.

Personally, I have no problem relating to characters in books and movies, regardless of their sex, age, culture, colour, sexuality etc.

Conversely, I wouldn't relate to a character who is driven by greed and a hunger for power even if it were a straight male New Zealander of European descent - he would not think/act in a way I can relate to.
Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
16 codytheheadlessboy18th Mar 2014 04:04:35 PM from Parts Unknown , Relationship Status: Dating Catwoman
The Great One
By being able to "relate" to something it means that you can empathize with the characters and their plight such as Frodo trying to get to Mordor to destroy The One Ring or Rocky Balboa trying to win the championship. If you can relate to these characters it means that you want to see them succeed in their goals.

Sometimes the author fails to explain just why the hero or heroine should go hotfootin' it off to whatever the local equivalent of Mordor is just because some crazy wizard told them to, Why does it matter if evil Dr. Nazi Von Puppykicker takes over the world?, or Why should we give a damn if Nerdy Mc Niceguy finally gets his shit together and asks out that girl/guy/sea monster he's got the hots for?

Just visit the bad writing section of this site and you'll see plenty of ways writers shoot themselves in the foot trying to get audiences to empathize with their characters and their plight.
"If everybody is thinking alike, somebody isn't thinking"- George S. Patton

I can only relate to people in my family. Or did I mean, I am only related to people in my family? English can be so stupid.

The phrase "to relate to" has almost no meaning. "I can relate to Harry Potter" only means "I like Harry Potter", unless I explain why I relate to him.
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Total posts: 17