In the grand scheme of things, I fancy myself a pretty relatable New Yorker. I am sane. I am friendly. And I prefer sneakers to high heels. This is all it takes, really, in a city where radical individuality is currency, and standing out in the crowd is a means to survive.
It is for this reason that I understand relatability, in any form, as the inextricable result of context. When I travel outside of New York once a year to visit my family in rural Pennsylvania, for example, I have to make a concerted effort to pack a relatable wardrobe, and still don’t even come close to fitting in. However, when, say, Donald Trump left his hometown last year on the campaign trail, his billionaire New York bravado was suddenly seen as relatable in comparison to the other more “robotic” candidates.
And so it came as no surprise last week that Sarah Huckabee Sanders was lauded for her “relatability” when she was promoted to press secretary after the inflammatory, unfiltered, dressed-to-kill Anthony Scaramucci was removed from his role as White House communications director. Tilda Swinton would have appeared down-to-earth in comparison to Scaramucci and his predecessor, Sean Spicer.
But no matter who is standing at the podium, we shouldn’t take relatability at face value. Instead, we need to be asking who it is Sanders is trying to relate to, and what she’s really communicating in the process. In the context of the White House, I would argue Sanders’s “relatability” is just as threatening as Scaramucci’s actual threats. To be relatable in Trump’s administration is to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the public has been quick to fall prey.
“With Her Disarming Familiarity, Sarah Huckabee Sanders Reminds Us of Lots of People We Already Know,” read a Slate headline following Sanders’s appointment. Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter posited that she might be the “most relatable woman in the West Wing,” and lauded her style as being that of “a young 30-something professional woman with a real-world figure, dressing on a budget.” In other words, she isn’t the aspirational Ivanka or Ice Queen Melania; she’s here to roll up her sleeves and clean up the mess the boys left behind.
In an email to the Times “Style” section last week, Sanders explained her aesthetic like this: “One of the most important roles — not just as press secretary but in any position — is to convey honesty and transparency to the American people, and that’s the image I’m most focused on,” she wrote. “My focus is less on the people in the room [i.e., reporters] and more about the people in America. I try to be relatable and convey the president’s message directly to the people across the country.”
In this statement, Sanders acknowledges that her role is to appear “honest” and “transparent,” rather than actually do those things that are, in fact, her job. In the same way that Scaramucci used phrases like “full transparency” to announce that he had deleted his own tweets, Sanders seems to be using her “relatability” as a way to both distract and detract from the incomprehensibility of the the White House’s actions. It’s a red herring, just like letters from small boys named Pickle.
“If you want to see chaos,” Sanders told a reporter on Friday, “you should come to my house early in the morning, when my three kids are running around. That’s chaos; this is nothing.” I don’t know about your house, but family breakfast is way more complicated than collusion with the Russians.
By definition, “relatability” is an illusion no matter the subject; a projected idea of how we’d like to see ourselves. But in the context of the White House right now, it has been co-opted as a tool to refract the larger Republican agenda, which paints homogeneity as somehow progressive. It perpetuates the idea that in order to achieve the “great” America that once was, we all should be on the same page about what this means, from Arkansas to Washington to New York. And if you think that sounds like a threat, it’s because it is. Relate, or get out.
In Trump’s America, “relatability” is neither bipartisan nor neighborly; it is a reflection of our worst aspirations. If you’re a New Yorker though, you already knew this: Relatable people should not be trusted.