When the sociolinguist Calvin Gidney saw The Lion King in theaters two decades ago, he was struck by the differences between Mufasa and Scar. 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.
Gidney, an associate professor in child study and human development at Tufts University who specializes in sociolinguistics, saw Scar’s 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.
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. The coders tested a random sample of 12 shows, which spanned a variety of networks, air-times, and genres. Their findings suggested that lots of kids’ shows use language to mark certain traits in a given character.
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.
So what are parents to do with the knowledge that many kids’ TV shows and movies are brimming with cultural biases? Dobrow points to intentional, collaborative TV-watching. “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.”
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