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.