THE ATLANTIC: THE LION KING's Jeremy Irons Represents the Voice of the Marginalized Other
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From The Atlantic:

Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents?

Children’s shows often use non-standard dialects to voice the “bad guys,” sending a dangerous message to kids about diversity.


This is the first installment in an ongoing series examining kids’ worldviews and how they are shaped.

When the sociolinguist Calvin Gidney saw The Lion King in theaters two decades ago, he was struck by the differences between Mufasa and Scar. The characters don’t have much in common: Mufasa is heroic and steadfast, while Scar is cynical and power-hungry. But what Gidney noticed most was how they each spoke: Mufasa has an American accent, while Scar, the lion of the dark side, roars in British English. …

Also, Scar sounds like Claus von Bulow, while Mufasa sounds like Darth Vader, Mufasa’s son Simba sounds like Ferris Bueller, and Mufasa’s bird aide Zazu sounds like Mr. Bean. What’s deal with that?

Gidney, an associate professor in child study and human development at Tufts University who specializes in sociolinguistics, saw Scar’s accent as part of a disturbing pattern in the film: Foreign accents and non-standard dialects were being used to voice all of the “bad” characters. Gidney also noticed that Scar’s minions, the hyenas, spoke in either African American English or English with a Spanish accent.

One of the hyenas sounded like a funky nun from Sister Act and another hyena sounded like one of the “Dave’s not here” guys. I find that problematic.

Gidney found this trend concerning, especially since the theme of the movie could be described as “the ‘natural order of things,’” he said. “I thought it was really disturbing that it was necessary to ‘take back the jungle’ from the British-sounding evil lion, plus the African American-sounding and Latino-sounding hyenas.”

Gidney was inspired to embark on a study of language patterns in animated kids’ entertainment …

The kicker: In many of the cases studied, villains were given foreign accents. A modern-day example is Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, the bad guy in Phineas and Ferb who speaks in a German(ish) accent and hails from the fictional European country Drusselstein.

Meanwhile, the study found that most of the heroic characters in their research sample were American-sounding; only two heroes had foreign accents. Since television is a prominent source of cultural messaging for children, this correlation of foreign accents with “bad” characters could have concerning implications for the way kids are being taught to engage with diversity in the United States.

The most wicked foreign accent of all was British English, according to the study. From Scar to Aladdin’s Jafar,

the study found that British is the foreign accent most commonly used for villains.

In Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), Peter is American, Wendy is English, and Captain Hook (played by Hans Conried, who was born in Baltimore) is Mid-Atlantic.

German and Slavic accents are also common for villain voices. Henchmen or assistants to villains often spoke in dialects associated with low socioeconomic status, including working-class Eastern European dialects or regional American dialects such as “Italian-American gangster” (like when Claude in Captain Planet says ‘tuh-raining’ instead of ‘training.’) None of the villains in the sample studied seemed to speak Standard American English; when they did speak with an American accent, it was always in regional dialects associated with low socioeconomic status.

Some shows also gave foreign accents to comic characters, though British English was almost never used in this way. “Speakers of British English are portrayed dichotomously as either the epitome of refinement and elegance or as the embodiment of effete evil,” the study concludes. “What general sociolinguistic theory would suggest,” Gidney added, “is that American adults tend to evaluate British dialect … as sounding smarter.” Funny characters, on the other hand, often speak in German or Slavic accents (Dobrow offered as an example the associates of the evil Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget), as well as in regional American dialects associated with the white working class.

Personally, I like cartoon characters with English accents from a Guy Ritchie Movie:

… To Gidney, the common denominator in all of these vague foreign accents is “the binary distinction of ‘like us’” versus “not like us.” “Villainy is marked just by sounding different,” he added.

But Gidney and Dobrow’s findings suggest that there’s something more specific at play than a general American bias against foreign accents. They said that the use of German, Eastern European, and Russian accents for animated villains is likely reflective of America’s hostility toward those countries during World War II and the Cold War. … Gidney and Dobrow noted that, contrary to what researchers might have expected, children’s TV today is no more likely to use, say, Middle Eastern or Korean accents for villains than it was in the past. Slavic accents, German accents, and the like are still the voices of choice for “bad” characters.

Good guys can have Australian accents too:

Pitch Perfect 2 might be the first movie I’ve seen that points out that Europeans are taller than Americans lately.

Keep an eye out for this towering German comedian with the supercilious manner, Flula Borg: you’ll notice he’s in everything these days.

Scottish and Irish accents are usually Good. English accents can go either way. Probably Hugh Grant could pinpoint for you exactly the difference in accents between adorable diffident rom-com star and effete toff villain.

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