When cultural and linguistic stereotyping is fostered by media

Children love cartoons, movies, games and we all know that the villains, the “bad guys” are not only characterized by features that make them unpleasant, but also by foreign accents.

Sociolinguist Calvin Gidney started to study language patterns in animated kid’s entertainment after noticing that Mufasa had an American accent, whereas Scar, the lion of the dark side, roars in British English in The Lion King. He analyzed 30 shows and 1,500 characters, and is still working on this project. Together with Julie Dobrow, a senior lecturer at Tufts who specializes in issues of children and media, they observed 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. They have continued to find these same accent trends through the past few decades, even as the political and social climate changes and the nation’s zeitgeist is marked by different ethnic and global tensions.”

It seems that still today, Slavic and German accents are still the voices of choice for “bad” characters in US and UK.

It seems that this is related with the age and training of the show-runners who “make the decision on the basis of what was popular and successful in the shows they grew up watching” (Rosina Lippi-Green, author of English with an accent).

Stereotyped use of language seems not to be an industry-wide norm, “accent signaling is a more subtle form of ethnic stereotyping” and we all observe this not only in cartoons, movies, video games, but also in TV shows, and in some online forums and social media in general etc.

I grew up in Italy and I noticed from a very early age, that not only villains and odd professors had the typical tscherman accent, but Germans were constantly ridiculed in shows, movies etc. People would make fun of their accent, of their “not fluent Italian” and of other clichés related to German–ness.

I didn’t take it very well to see my friends make fun of how Germans were portrayed in TV shows, movies, cartoons, TV commercials etc.. I remember that when show masters stereotyped German actors and actresses, I used to cringe.

I suppose that like many other children growing up abroad I don’t like stereotypes related to my cultures and languages. For a long time I thought that I am the only one feeling odd when it comes to this topic, but the study mentioned above confirms that “language tropes can have far-reaching consequences, both for kids’ perceptions of those around them and their understandings of themselves.”

If in the 90’ies children “used TV as a key source of information about other ethnic groups, as well as about their own ethnic and racial identities”, nowadays the internet and the countless social media platforms.

When it comes to language fluency, people tend to “make judgements about their peers’ intelligence and education levels based on language characteristics”.  Those using standard language are generally considered as being smarter than others, and they are treated better. Certain accents are “better” than others, more “prestigious” than others and  it exists a non-written hierarchy of languages and accents that are a clear distinctive feature.

We should not underestimate the impact on children whose home language is stereotyped by the host society and media, because they “see the correlation between evil and foreignness, between evil and low socioeconomic status” and they will be more prone to internalize negative perceptions of themselves or other groups!

Lippi-Green suggests to take entertainment as a “spoonful of sugar with a sour aftertaste for in-the-know adults —TV and movies “take [bias] and pour concrete over it.” Children learn through repetition : “You show them a pattern, you keep showing them that pattern … of course they’re going to assimilate that”, is amplified by the variety of platforms and medias our children are exposed to daily.

We can’t shield our children – and ourselves – from cultural biases, but we can learn to be(come) media-literate viewers.

Dobrow suggests “if a parent or sibling or caregiver is there with a child watching television or a film, this … can make anything into an educational experience”.

I personally find that there is a relation between this kind of stereotyping of accents and languages in the media, and the anxiety of speakers of that language, especially if these speakers use the language in international settings or outside of the country where the language is spoken.

In our interview with Dr. Yesim Sevinç at Raising Multilinguals LIVE, we talked about Heritage Language Anxiety, which is way more common than many think!
Feeling insufficient in one’s language contributes to language anxiety. When our language is then linked to a certain accent, a stereotype and a linguistic bias, it becomes even more difficult to feel the connection and even develop a sense of pride towards our heritage language.

Watching these movies, videos and reading the comments with our children is one step, but transmitting a strong sense of pride and ownership of the language is not that easy for us who raise our children abroad.

I appreciate and value accents, they are like fingerprints of our language, but I find that they shouldn’t be used to make fun, ridicule or stereotype a person. Not in movies and not in “real life”.

Please let me know what you think about this topic in the comments.

Posts and studies mentioned in this post:

Why do cartoon villains speak in foreign accents?

Children and television

An earlier version of this post was published on my “other” blog Expat-Since-Birth.

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