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The Hidden Bias in Cartoon Villainy

The Hidden Bias in Cartoon Villainy

cartoon villain

My two grandsons are still in the visual-entertainment-for-distraction phase (hello there, animated Wheels on the Bus or Paw Patrol for the forty-seventh time). But, when they grow old enough to grasp plot and theme, we’re looking forward to introducing them to all the modern film classics, including Star Wars (or “The Space Hero’s Journey” and The Lion King (or “Animal Hamlet”)
 
But a recent article by Isabel Fattal in The Atlantic has shed light on a phenomenon that occurs in both these movies, that I honestly hadn’t clocked — and that would be good to keep in mind when the grandkids graduate to a real movie night. Building on their initial 1998 study sociolinguist Calvin Gidney and Professor Julie Dobrow (both of Tufts University) has shown that many “bad guys” in American childrens’ entertainment speak with foreign accents or non-standard English dialects. This marks them as “other” in their narratives — creating an Us-vs.-Them conflict that potentially imparts a harmful subliminal message to kids about diversity.

The study found that the accent coded as most “evil” in the entertainments studied was British: In The Lion King, main villain Scar is voiced by Jeremy Irons, who trained at the Bristol Old Vic. But:
 
“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.
 
(Interestingly, the preponderance of German, Slavic, and Russian accents sported by villains points to an inherited bias in American culture: The study authors say it’s likely a holdover from World War II and the Cold War — a time still within the memory of many creators of children’s’ entertainment. Though world conflicts have changed over the past 70 years, no new accents have knocked the above from their second place “evil” spot behind British.)
 
Isabel Fattal goes into detail about the cognitive repercussions of these lessons, absorbed by kids who, on the surface, are “just” watching a cartoon. Not only do children use television to sort out the concept of ethnic identities and where they themselves fit, they also (like adults) use linguistic cues to make judgments on the perceived intelligence and education of a speaker — and use those assumptions to determine how they treat others. 
Fattal concludes that this problem seems deeply entrenched in our culture and entertainment, but that it can be turned around and used to educate kids when they watch these shows and movies with adults who can discuss the issue with them. So, I’m actually looking forward to hanging out with my grandkids in a way that involves more media awareness — and a lot less Wheels on the Bus.