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Cartoon Villains, Diversity, and Implicit Bias

Cartoon Villains, Diversity, and Implicit Bias

Have you ever noticed the accents and voices used by cartoon villains?

Think about it – Do cartoon villains have stereotypical appearances and voices? Is there some implicit commonality linking all cartoon bad actors, a commonality that may carry an implicit message to children about diversity?

Surprisingly and disturbingly, the answer is yes, according to Tufts University sociolinguist Calvin Gidney.

Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents?

As explained by Isabel Fattal in her January 4, 2018 article, Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents, published by The Atlantic, when Gidney watched the film version of The Lion King, he discovered something unexpected:

The characters don’t have much in common: Mufasa is heroic and steadfast, while Scar is cynical and power-hungry. But what Gidney noticed most was how they each spoke: Mufasa has an American accent, while Scar, the lion of the dark side, roars in British English. In a climactic scene in which Scar accuses Simba of being the “murderer!” responsible for Mufasa’s death, the final “r” in his declaration floats up into a sky bursting with lightning, and it’s hard to imagine it sounding quite as monstrous in another tone.

Gidney, an associate professor in child study and human development at Tufts University who specializes in socio-linguistics, saw Scar’s villain accent as part of a disturbing pattern in the film:

Foreign accents and non-standard dialects were being used to voice all of the “bad” characters. Gidney also noticed that Scar’s minions, the hyenas, spoke in either African American English or English with a Spanish accent.

Gidney found this trend concerning, especially since the theme of the movie could be described as “the ‘natural order of things,’” he said. “I thought it was really disturbing that it was necessary to ‘take back the jungle’ from the British-sounding evil lion, plus the African American-sounding and Latino-sounding hyenas.

Gidney was inspired to embark on a study of language patterns in animated kids’ entertainment, teaming up with Julie Dobrow, a senior lecturer at Tufts who specializes in issues of children and media, to study how these trends play out on kids’ television shows. They’ve since analyzed about 30 shows and 1,500 characters, and they’re still at work on the project.

For their initial study in 1998, Gidney and Dobrow had a team of coders analyze 323 animated TV characters using measures such as ethnic and gender identification, physical appearance, hero/villain status, and linguistic markers…

Their findings suggested that lots of kids’ shows use language to mark certain traits in a given character.

Correlations between Language and Character Traits 

The use of language in children’s programming to mark character distinctions and dramatic action may not be surprising. However, Gidney and his team were unprepared for the ultimate “kicker” that they discovered: cartoon villains invariably are given foreign, non-U.S. native English speaker accents, almost as their defining character traits.

According to The Atlantic:

“Villains were given foreign accents. A modern-day example is Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, the bad guy in Phineas and Ferb who speaks in a German(ish) accent and hails from the fictional European country Drusselstein.

Meanwhile, the study found that most of the heroic characters in their research sample were American-sounding; only two heroes had foreign accents. Since television is a prominent source of cultural messaging for children, this correlation of foreign accents with “bad” characters could have concerning implications for the way kids are being taught to engage with diversity in the United States.

The most wicked foreign accent of all was British English, according to the study. From Scar to Aladdin’s Jafar, the study found that British is the foreign accent most commonly used for villains.

German and Slavic accents are also common for villain voices. Henchmen or assistants to villains often spoke in dialects associated with low socioeconomic status, including working-class Eastern European dialects or regional American dialects such as “Italian-American gangster” (like when Claude in Captain Planet says ‘tuh-raining’ instead of ‘training.’) None of the villains in the sample studied seemed to speak Standard American English; when they did speak with an American accent, it was always in regional dialects associated with low socioeconomic status.

But Gidney and Dobrow’s findings suggest that there’s something more specific at play than a general American bias against foreign accents. They said 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…

Since the publication of their initial research, Gidney and Dobrow have expanded their study to better understand the rationale for accent trends by speaking with kids’ TV executives involved in casting and development. What they’ve been finding in conversations isn’t that the showrunners think this custom is “a good idea”; rather, “it’s a conventional idea,” said Dobrow. Dobrow and Gidney suggested that these showrunners are simply imitating the tactics of commercially successful shows…

Yet Dobrow and Gidney noted that stereotyped uses of language aren’t an industry-wide norm; they said that networks such as PBS make a concerted effort to prioritize racial and ethnic diversity and accuracy in their programming, and that progress is being made in the industry more broadly. Accent signaling is also a more subtle form of ethnic stereotyping that can coexist with improvements to the ways in which children’s shows depict the world and the people who occupy it.”

What’s Next?

Having identified this language and accent disparity based on a character’s good versus evil role in a cartoon, Gidney and Dobrow are now taking their analysis to the next level.

They are researching the impact on children of the language differentiations the Tufts University team has already revealed. The potential impact, as The Atlantic reports, can be far reaching, even having consequences for how children perceive the world around them and differences among people.

“The next iteration of Gidney and Dobrow’s study will focus on how children are processing the messaging of animated television. They plan on having actors record basic sentences such as “please pass the water” using various dialects. The researchers will tell children ages 6 to 12 that they have a voice but aren’t sure what kind of character the speaker should be—whether it’s a villain, hero, jester, or so on—and they’ll have the kids make suggestions…

Language tropes can have far-reaching consequences, both for kids’ perceptions of those around them and their understandings of themselves.

Research has shown that kids use TV as a key source of information about other ethnic groups, as well as about their own ethnic and racial identities. Linguists have also found that not only do people make judgements about their peers’ intelligence and education levels based on language characteristics (with those who speak standard dialects usually being viewed as smarter and better-looking), but also that those judgments often shape how a person or group of people is treated.”

Final Thoughts

The Gidney and Dobrow study may affect what parents permit their young children to watch online, in movies, and on television. The questions for parents now go beyond the age-old worries about sex, violence, ad inappropriate behavior in video entertainment. Now, according to these Tufts University scholars, the accents used by kids’ favorite cartoon characters may have very far reaching implications for children.

Dobrow has new advice for parents about how to watch programming with their kids. She suggests “collaborative media-watching” so parents can identify cultural and implicit biases in how cartoon characters speak to children and then interact with their kids to discuss what they have just seen. As The Atlantic reports, “What’s really important is to be able to make your children into media-literate viewers,” she said. “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.”

**Read some of Bruce Adelson’s other blog posts to learn about more developments in language access law, and be sure to contact us if you’re interested in a consultation about your own organization’s compliance with federal language access law.

© Bruce L. Adelson, special for Bromberg.  2017 All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq, CEO of Federal Compliance Consulting LLC is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise concerning many federal laws.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.

Mr. Adelson teaches cultural and civil rights awareness at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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