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Beware of ''Others''
Jan 1, 2008
In My Fair Lady, a satirical movie based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Henry Higgins makes a wager with his friend that within six months he can transform a coarse Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady who can take her place in high society. After making his bet, Higgins starts his experiment simply by getting her to have a bath and change her dirty clothes. Immediately afterwards, he begins working on her vulgar accent; as he believes that diction is what really sets the classes apart. He has no doubt that as soon as she acquires perfect upper-class diction, she will be ready to deceive others and disclaim her plebeian origins.

Upon brief contemplation of the relationship between language and identity, it is not easy to deem Higgins totally unjust in classifying people according to their diction, since there is a strong relationship between the language we use and the personal and social identity we have. A Harvard graduate, who also studied at Columbia and the Sorbonne, David S. Thomson, confirms this: “No one can speak without broadcasting his origins, his role in life, and ultimately his identity. For the language that every individual uses is the product of the entire social forces that affect his behavior: the society in which he lives, his class, his occupation, and his own unique experience“ (p.109).

Here, Thompson summarizes how we acquire our language, verifying that to classify people based on their way of speaking is not completely inappropriate.

On the other hand, how we are perceived in the eyes of others, namely our perceived identity, is also shaped by the language we use. In other words, just as language is a product of our social and personal identity; our identity is formed and molded in accordance with the way we use language. On the whole, language is a distinctive characteristic that reveals the social status of people and affects who they are and whom they are seen to be. Most people automatically start judging a person favorably or unfavorably as soon as they hear them talking and when they detect a certain kind of accent or dialect, it is usually enough to deduce whether they belong to a higher or lower status in society. According to the studies of Colin Baker, the author of Attitudes and Language, “people’s attitudes toward dialects and their speakers consistently reveal that speakers of the standard dialect are considered more intelligent, better looking, and wealthier than speakers of nonstandard dialects” (in Dubrow and Gidney p.109).

Even so, there is not always a direct parallelism between people’s accents and the personal and social identities they have. Neither classifying a person who speaks with a standard accent as educated and intelligent, nor labeling others whose speech have traces of a non-standard language variations as unlettered and substandard would be right. Furthermore, when the linguistic characteristics of people are manipulated in order to produce stereotypes based on their national or social affiliations, it turns into an issue that needs careful attention.

Noticeable examples of such stereotypical representations are not scarce in many animated movies, in which language variations are widely used as a quick way to build character and affirm stereotype. They are frequently used to represent national tensions through portrayal of villains and not-so-likeable characters. In a broader picture, it would be true to argue that many movie producers use language variations in a stereotypical fashion which teaches children to discriminate ethnocentrically and maintains the status quo by creating fear of “the other.”

Due to the nature of animation, the majority of animated movies rely heavily on language to mark characters’ personalities. To build characters and convey their messages, producers basically make use of two kinds of language variations: foreign accented English and a range of English dialects. Linguistically, Julia R. Dubrow and Calvin L. Gidney define foreign accent as “the product of the interference of one linguistic system with another language system” while defining dialect as “simply, a variety -any variety- of a language.” Yet, the outcome of language variations is more significant than their actual meanings. Since these language variations are labeled as non-standard forms in a language system, they do not enjoy equal prestige and are associated with low quality. Upon their studies on evaluation of accented speech, Josiane F. Hamers, a professor of psycholinguistics, and Michel H. A. Blanc, who is an emeritus reader in applied linguistics, conclude that “any accent different from the accepted norm is less positively evaluated than the norm itself” (p.224). On the other hand, numerous researches have shown that standard-accented people are rated relatively highly for intelligence, education, wealth, and kindheartedness as opposed to people who speak with foreign accents and dialects. At this point, a question comes to mind; if there are standard-accented people, then what is a standard accent? In order to clarify what standard language is, it is practical to quote Dubrow and Gidney, as it is possible to find an answer to this question embedded within one of their sentences: “Generally, those dialects spoken by people who enjoy social prestige, power, and wealth are more favored than the dialects of people of more limited power, wealth, and social prestige; the former come to be known as the standard dialect.” It is noticeable that they do not define standard dialect in a linguistic manner. Instead, they point to a common acceptance of what constitutes norms of language variations in the society in relation to socioeconomic status. Regarding the power of pronunciation varieties, another authority in the area of sociophonology, Rosina Lippi-Green, even claims that accent is “a litmus test for exclusion,” supporting the argument that language variations are not just varieties of language but have more profound meanings concerning the identities of people (p.64). In our case, such linguistic characteristics, namely foreign accents and dialects, are used to representthe superiority, inferiority, amiability, and unfriendliness of characters.

A significant aspect of animated movies that should not be overlooked is studied by Harold Schiffman, a professor from University of Pennsylvania. He argues that the accents used in some animated movies are usually “non-authentic”-differing from the accent that would be used in real life- and that they are present to create an effect. That is, characters in the movies do not speak with a non-standard dialect or foreign-accented English because the characters in the movie have different origins. On the contrary, the linguistic variations are usually manipulated to build stereotypes or to indicate villain or hero status.

In order to illustrate the claim that producers use language varieties non-authentically to create an effect in its animated movies, we can provide some solid examples. For instance, racial stereotyping is evident in the movie Aladdin, which takes place in a mythical Arabian Kingdom. Throughout the film, evil characters are depicted with long beards, dark skins, and wicked laughs as well as with heavy Arab accents, whereas the lovable characters, Aladdin and Jasmine, are drawn light-skinned, and attractive, and, interestingly, Aladdin and Jasmine sound all-American. Noticing the non-authentic use of accents in the movie, Yousef Salem, a former spokesperson for the South Bay Islamic Association, accuses the film of being discriminatory against Arabs:

All of the bad guys have beards and large, bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and they’re wielding swords constantly. Aladdin doesn’t have a big nose; he has a small nose. He doesn’t have an accent. What makes him nice is they’ve given him this American character, [. . .] I have a daughter who says she’s ashamed to call herself an Arab, and it’s because of things like this. (in Giroux)

As in the movie Aladdin, negative portrayals of Arabs build stereotypes that affect child viewers. They learn that bad guys sound a certain way, look a certain way, and come from a certain part of the world. According to Lippi-Green, such depictions teach children “to assign values on the basis of variation in language linked to race, ethnicity, and homeland” (p.80). Undoubtedly, the accents of characters in the movie are not chosen randomly. On the contrary, they are present in their exact places to create a certain effect.

Another instance of stereotyping clearly shows itself in the movie The Lion King, which was the highest grossing film of the year in 1994. In the film, while the powerful and noble Lion King Mufasa speaks with a mainstream US English accent, his brother Scar, who is evil and plans the murder of his brother so as to be the king, has a heavy British accent. As the story takes place in Africa, authentically, both characters should have the same African dialect or they could both speak with mainstream US English without any implication as to the characters’ origins or characteristics. Conversely, the voiceover for Scar is provided by Jeremy Irons, who has a distinctive British accent, whereas the voice over for Mufasa is provided by James Earl Jones, who speaks with a mainstream US English accent. Scar’s British accent is there to draw audience attention, to help children distinguish his character as villainous in contrast to that of Mufasa, who has characteristics of a hero. Not only does such a portrayal reinforce ethnocentrism-imposing the idea that the one who speaks with standard American English, namely Americans, are superior to others-but also highlights the stereotype that the British are rather snobbish through Scar’s arrogant manners and feelings of superiority towards the rest of the animals in the movie. Another example from the same movie is that the malicious and sinister hyenas do not have standard American English accent although they live in the same jungle. Henry A. Giroux from Pennsylvania State University states that “racially coded language is evident in The Lion King where [. . .] Shenzi and Banzai, the despicable hyena stormtroopers speak through the voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin in racially coded accents that take on the nuances of the discourse of a decidedly urban, black and Latino youth.” It is an undeniable fact that these dialects are chosen on purpose in order to represent the villainous hyenas as racial and ethnic minorities speaking with an inner-city street dialect.

Yet another example of stereotypical depiction comes from Lady and the Tramp. In the movie, specific accents are manipulated in order to create an effect in the minds of the viewers. With chopsticks in their hands, cymbals on their heads and with their distinct accents, the Siamese cats represent Asians. Disgracefully, the cats are depicted as sinister, cunning, manipulative, and treacherous, creating stereotypes suggesting the Yellow Peril. Furthermore, it would be unjust to overlook the portrayal of Native Americans as savages in both Peter Pan and Pocahontas.

Although such stereotypical depictions are not confined solely to these animated movies, the abovementioned examples are more than adequate to support the argument that subtle ways of creating fear of “the other” and undermining dialogue and mutual acceptance is widespread in children’s animated movies. Consequently, children grow up with groundless stereotypes that seep into their conscious as well as their subconscious. But what exactly are the ramifications of stereotyping? Why should we be cautious about it? Stereotyping, which has detrimental outcomes, is defined by Stuart Price as making simplistic and usually negative social identifications of certain groups, in which the “supposed attributes of the group are applied to all those identified-rightly or wrongly-as group members” (in Barton). Moreover, According to Ron and Suzanne Wong Scollon, stereotyping also has social and political ends. In their book Intercultural Communication, they write:

Characteristics of the group are not only overgeneralized to apply to each member of the group but they are also taken to have some exaggerated negative or positive value. These values are then taken as arguments to support social or political relationships in regard to members of the groups. (p.168)

Unhappily, at a very young age, due to watching such movies and other social influences, children learn to stereotype, and the images constructed in their minds may affect their perspective throughout their lives. As a matter of fact, not only negative stereotyping but also positive stereotyping is harmful because although it seems to be innocent, categorizing people confines our perception of others and distorts reality. All in all, stereotypes “blind us to others” as well as limiting our understanding of intercultural dialogue through impeding communication and mutual understanding between groups of people (Scollon p.169).

In addition to producing prejudice against “the other” in the minds of children, another effect of non-authentic language variations is causing low self-esteem for young viewers with non-standard accents. It is very clear in certain animated movies that language variations are heavily used to determine hero versus villain status. That is, the bad guys are made distinctive through their non-standard accents while the friendly characters speak with standard American accents. Statistics show that of the characters who speak Standard English, 73.5 % are positive characters while only 19.9 % are negative. On the other hand, only 37 % of the representations of persons with foreign accents are positive (Lippi-Green p.92). Obviously, producers do not give specific accents to specific characters by accident. In contrast, this data conveys a message regarding the deliberateness of their preferences. There is also evidence that in animated movies mothers and fathers are most likely to have mainstream accents while foreign accents are usually assigned to “villains, servants, and silly characters,” and negatively portrayed characters in some way (Wynn). Such discriminatory representation may cause minority children to grow up with the idea that some positions are open to them in the world while some are not. They see heroes, lead characters, caring mothers, and good fathers all speak with mainstream US English accents in the movies, and observe that non-standard accented characters are negatively portrayed, which eventually affects their self-esteem. On the other hand, for American youth it produces prejudice against other racial and ethnic groups. It creates hard-to-forget stereotyped images of foreigners in their minds and teaches them to discriminate.

It is reasonable to claim that by indicating negative characters with foreign accents, another intention of producers’ is to create fear of “the other.” Interestingly enough, there is a strong correlation between the foreign policy of the US and the choice of foreign accents to indicate evilness. According to the article “The good, the bad, and the foreign: The use of dialect in children’s animated television”, during the late 1990s, villains were noticeably Russian, Eastern European, or German, reflecting the Cold War and World War II alliances. The Lady and the Tramp was released in 1955, soon after the Korean War and in the middle of a cold war fear with China. Accordingly, the negative representation of the aforementioned Siamese cats reflected the fear of the “Yellow Peril.” Nowadays, Arab characters are also having their share of a similar political and ideological stratagem under the impression of reality. James Monaco, the author of How to Read a Film: The World of Movies, Media, and Multimedia, discusses the relationship between movies and politics impressively. In his book, after emphasizing that there is no film that does not display a political nature even though it might seem trivial, Monaco points out to the power of film “to recreate reality” through producing “a fantasy of [its] own that eventually comes to be accepted as real” (p.262). Producers use this specific power of films to maintain the status quo and to create fear of the other through stereotypical representations of racial and ethnic groups. Lippi-Green is also in agreement with this claim as she states, “a study of accents in animated cartoons over time is likely to reveal the way linguistic stereotypes mirror the evolution of national fears” (85). Unfortunately, through animated movies, children are exposed to such ideological strategies and they fall prey to these ungrounded-but strongly established-fears.

In addition, while they are raised to be scared of “the other,” children who grow up with the idea that the others are “deviant, inferior, unintelligent, and a threat to be overcome” (Giroux) become increasingly ethnocentric. Under the influence of ethnocentrism, children think themselves superior to other cultures and cannot feel empathy for others. This in turn leads to a lack of intercultural communication and dialogue between nations as well as individuals. Yet again, Lippi-Green presents a concluding argument regarding the unfavorable effects of animated movies on children, “what children learn from the entertainment industry is to be comfortable with ‘same’ and to be wary about ‘other’, and that language is a prime and ready diagnostic for this division between what is approachable and what is best left alone”(p.103).

Since the stereotypical portrayal of characters construct a skewed view of foreign people, children learn to be suspicious about other groups of people.

The main risk of misrepresentation of “the others” in the animated movies lies in the fact that for a great number of children, the film industry is a key socializing agent. In real life, children usually do not have many opportunities to get to know people of other ethnic or national origins. Therefore, a great deal of information they have comes from what they see in the movies.

Besides, they do not watch them with skepticism; in other words, they trust what they see and their “tabula rasa” is filled with distorted and biased facts whose nature is determined by the producers. A quick glance at the statistics reveals how enormous and far-reaching the effect of animated movies is on the lives of children. According to the internet movie database, The Lion King and Aladdin as well as Beauty and the Beast ranked among the one hundred most profitable films ever made, by the number of movie tickets sold in the U.S. Adding to that the number of rentals and video interactive games leaves us with astonishing figures. However, behind the innocent fantasy world animated movies build up, there is a noteworthy reality that awaits young viewers.

As a result of stereotypical representations, children get positive or negative messages about the characters, and they apply them in real life to judge others on the basis of their accent, appearance, or national origin. Therefore, I suggest we be more mindful about the effects movies will have on young viewers and stay wide-awake while our younger siblings or children are watching their favorite animated movies. What we innocently believe to be a fantasy world might have serious effects for the young viewers and their worldviews later on. I believe we would be better to teach children to beware of stereotypical representations instead of teaching them to beware of “the others.”

Safiye Unal-Yigit is a sociologist living in Houston, Texas.


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