Hollywood villains have all KINDS of accents. Is that okay?
Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle (1952). Jafar from Aladdin (1992). The hyenas from The Lion King (1994).
Why do so many cartoon villains have foreign accents? People fear what they don’t know, and when producers want their audiences to be afraid, they make their characters mysterious-sounding.
Accents are an easy way to do that. But what stereotypes get reinforced along the way?
According to a great piece in The Atlantic magazine, a pair of researchers at Tufts University spent years studying the “ethnic identification” of hundreds of characters from children’s TV shows over the past two decades. The Tufts researchers–Calvin Gidney, a linguist, and Julie Dobrow, a professor who focuses on how the media affects children–found that most heroes had American accents and most bad guys had foreign ones. The most commonly used villainous accent was British, while German and Slavic accents were close behind.
Hollywood has also exploited cheap stereotypes behind the accents of Italian-Americans (the Sopranos), men and women of color (the hyenas from The Lion King have African-American accents), people who identify as gay and others.
TV and movies shape how kids think and how they perceive the world. If they grow up consuming stories where the killers, thieves and criminals are all foreigners or members of certain groups, they’ll develop a distrust of those kinds of people until they have other experiences to change that. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t always happen.
This is important because, if today’s kids are the future, our country depends on them being educated and having the right values.
In fact, it’s not just America. It’s also the rest of the world: My mom, who watches lots of British TV series, loves to imitate the sleazy or stupid American characters in those shows. Egyptian cinema, which is popular in the Muslim world, also portrays Americans as brutish morons more often than, well, is statistically accurate. Scandinavian films apparently use accents of immigrants from the Balkans.
The list goes on. So don’t stop watching movies, but be aware of what you’re consuming and how it might shape the way you think.