Disney’s Poor Track Record with Foreign Accents

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Children’s films and cartoons are often based on moral stories where a social message is repeated several times: the good almost always triumphs over the bad. And the women are often mothers, princesses or housekeepers but that’s another topic all together! Disney’s questionably poor track record in including characters of other races has been widely discussed. But what about their linguistic diversity? What do these films tell us about language and accents? What decisions are made about language use and language character?

 

Have you watched Disney’s version of Aladdin recently? The film is set in a fictional Arab country. The heroes— Aladdin, the princess and her father—all speak standard American English. The bad guys speak English with a heavy, foreign accent.

 

I have recently been re-reading a study that analyzed 371 characters in 24 Disney films (most of the current ones are not included). Out of 91 characters that should logically not speak English because they live in a non-English speaking country, only 34 were represented with a foreign accent, and most of them were the bad guys. In the Lion King, for example, set in Africa, only Rafiki, which means friend in Swahili, shows traces of Swahili in his speech and accent. He is the eccentric and wise character guiding the others.

 

The study by Lippi-Green (1997) classified the characters in three categories: good, bad and unclear. You can probably guess the results: the majority of U.S. English speakers are good characters (over 70%), the majority of British speakers are good characters (but to a lesser extent, 57%). And more importantly, the majority of foreign-accented English speakers are negative characters.

 

This lack of diversity is not just limited to English versus foreign languages. There is a clear lack of diversity within the English spoken too. In the study, 43% speak standard U.S. English, 22% British English and only 14% speak a regional, class-oriented or ethnic minority version of U.S. English. Out of the few non-standard U.S. accents, most are very stereotypical characters (like King Louie, the music-making hedonist our of the Jungle Book). All Southern U.S. accents are used for animal characters. Things may be changing, however. Take, for example, Merida, Disney’s latest princess who has a strong Scottish accent. Disney gave her a physical makeover when she joined the family, maybe they will be toning her accent down too!

 

The study concludes that the movies show our children a ‘fragmented and distorted view of what it means to be black, based on characteristics which rest primarily on negative stereotype linked directly to language difference’. The same sort of conclusion applies to other language and minority groups.

 

As a mother trying to raise my child to be a little global citizen, I try to encourage her awareness of diversity, attitudes to difference and the effect those attitudes may have. There is something unacceptable about excluding people on the basis not of what they have to say, but of how they say it. I was deeply touched by this study and always remember it when my daughter mentions Ariel or Cinderella, which she has yet to watch, but that her friends know by heart.

 

Source: Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. London & New York: Routledge.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Great article Annabelle. I had no idea. Argh… I really hate that Disney keeps stacking up the reasons to hate on them. Even watching “Cars” my son’s current favorite, and hearing all the exaggerated accents associated with the negative characteristics from each group, I looked at my husband and said, “do you think this is a bit racist?” I think he kind of rolled his eyes and called me a stick in the mud. But I’m sticking to my assessment. ; )

  2. Annabelle, this is a very important topic. I was doing a similar study on films and cartoons where the German accent is used for a certain type of characters. In my opinion the use of a different accent is not politically correct in a world that is becoming more global and which is multilingual already (at least in Europe and in many other countries).

  3. Great analysis!
    And such disturbing stats! More thumbs down to the corporate we never endorsed in our family! Luckily we’ve raised our kids bypassing it completely. Thanks for this piece, Annabelle!

  4. Thanks for this article, I think I have read this study previously but it is a timely reminder for me. It is such a struggle trying to find appropriate viewing for little ones as they grow older.
    Would you – or anyone else – have suggestions for other films that might be more inclusive? And that would be easily accessible?

  5. And it’s not just Disney, and it’s not just English! For example did you know that f.ex in the new Star Wars films, Jar Jar Binks speaks German with a Turkish accent?

  6. @Jacqi: someone recently recommended the Totoro films to me but I haven’t looked into them yet.

  7. “My Neighbor Totoro” is wonderful and weird and lovely and gentle. My almost-4-year-old adored it, and my husband and I enjoyed it too. “Spirited Away” is in a similar vein but with some pretty scary parts, maybe a little too much for the preschool crowd (but infinitely better than “Cars 2” and the like…).

  8. The REAL question is, how do members of the ethnicities portrayed in those movies feel about villains speaking in those accents? If many members of those ethnicities found this to be racial stereotyping, there’d be real grounds for a complaint. I don’t know for sure if there was one such controversy. Let me know if there was.

    ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MexicansLoveSpeedyGonzales )
    This TV tropes entry discusses many stereotypes of other nationalities and members of those same nationalities actually finding them funny (i.e. the intended reaction). It appears to me that the only ones being offended here aren’t even members of said nationalities themselves, though I won’t doubt there might be members of said nationalities who might also take offense. I also won’t doubt there are some stereotypes that are largely false and offensive, but that’s not we’re talking about here.
    Racism is wrong no matter who it’s coming from. It’s one thing if the creator’s just trying to be funny. It’s another thing if that creator shows real prejudice. As far as some of the films are concerned, it’s important to understand when the movie came out and how race relations were at the time. I don’t know how they chose those nationalities for the villains, but I’m pretty sure there are many members of said nationalities who frankly don’t give a toss and see these movies for what they are supposed to be: fun for all ages.
    Now, if a kid gets the wrong message (so the article fears), is this the fault of the movie’s creators? Or is this just bad parenting? Do you really want to censor the film industry? If something offends you, just turn the thing off. Fair and square.
    My two yen worth.

    P.S. It seems that new comments always get published every three months despite being written weeks, months even, beforehand, so I’d have to wait until December for this one to appear. Who the heck moderates them? Who’s in charge of this website by any chance?

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