In the 1991 Jonathan Demme film, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, in one of the film’s most cringeworthy scenes, properly deduces that Clarice Starling is “poor white trash”. Working from his own collection of stereotypes, the observation of her good bag, cheap shoes, and Appalachian mountains accent, he correctly guesses that she’s not more than one generation out of the coal mines. Clarice’s accent, as much as her womanhood, marks her as “other”.
Everything about her, from the opening running scene, in which she is ogled by a pair of classmates, to the elevator scene where the height differential between herself and her classmates makes her stand out, to the soft Southern accent, with which she replies to her supervisor, it is shown that Clarice does not belong there. Although later, Clarice uses her accent to gain the trust and compliance of a roomful of rural professionals, who are suspicious of her presence, as a woman in an all male environment, and as a member of the Federal government. She uses her accent to show that she is actually one of them, from the culture in which the idea of the Wise (or Conjure) Woman is important, and respected.
When you watch that scene again, take note of the strength of the accent, and her use of words. She says to the men, “We’ll take care of her. Just go on now. We’ll take care of her.” And they unquestioningly obey her request, much as they would, if their mothers, or grandmothers had said it. She has successfully conveyed to the men, that she is one of them, a member of their social class, who knows how these things are done.
Clarice is a pretender to social class, which is a nice parallel to the film’s antagonist, Jame Gumb, who pretends at being a transgender woman. The only person who is not fooled by Clarice’s pretense at urban sophistication, is Lecter, who has a distinct, upper class, European accent, reminiscent of the Lithuanian nobility, from which he came. To less discerning characters, like Chilton, or the room full of cops that she orders around, Clarice can pass as a member of the middle class. The moment she speaks, people assume she isn’t, but to someone like Lecter, her lack of breeding is clearly evident. Both her, and Gumb’s, (his is Southern Californian), accents mark them as outside the mainstream. Except for the three primary characters, Lecter, Gumb, and Starling, all of the other characters in the film, including Clarice’s Black roommate, played by Kasi Lemmons, all have the Standard American accent.
The American Standard is the king of American accents, it is the default, so common it goes unnoticed, and the most well favored. It’s also called the Central Midwestern accent, used in places like Northeastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan to the far north, Iowa, New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and is the accent most often heard from news anchors, public announcers, and even AI programs like Siri, and Alexa. There are other accents in those regions, that coexist along side it, but the American Standard is the one which is preferred.
It is also somewhat of a constructed concept. What I mean by that is that nobody grew up in Standard America. The sound we’re talking about is what is called a prestige dialect. Most countries (and most languages) have a prestige dialect which is exactly what it sounds like: the speech sounds most commonly identified with status within a given society. Linguistically it’s not simply status but also clarity, intelligence, socioeconomic influence and general power.
Unlike Clarice, I have this privilege. I call this Accent Privilege, in the sense that my regular speaking voice doesn’t have an accent that is noticeably different from that of the mainstream, Midwestern accent. This happened by sheer luck. I just happened to be born into one of the regions where this is the most prevalent accent. People often judge others on how they speak, and if you have no noticeable accent, that judgment is favorable most of the time. My accent marks me to others as being intelligent, educated, and/or middle class. My words are treated with either trust or suspicion, based on who I’m talking to. White people consider me “safe”, and are reassured by my ability to be clear and articulate, but I was often asked by my Black classmates, why I spoke like a white person, as the Midwestern accent is heavily associated with Whiteness. I did not grow up as a member of the middle class. Like Clarice Starling, I’m pretending to a social class I was not born into, but which people assumed I did, and my accent helped to sell it, because, like her, I’m barely one generation away from the cotton fields.
But I do also engage in what is known as “Code Switching”, where people from other cultures, or just different regions of the country, speak differently, in different spaces, often “switching” back and forth, between their normal speaking voice, and American Standard. Why? Because many people are often uncomfortable with, and disrespectful, and suspicious of other languages, and vernacular English, like AAVE (African American Vernacular English). When I’m in my home, I speak the way my family speaks, and since the majority of them are from rural Mississippi, we speak AAVE, but I don’t speak at work that way. For one thing, my job involves answering phones, and a certain mode of professional speaking is required for that type of job. It would be considered “unprofessional”, and in the minds of some people, low class, for me to answer the business phone, as if I were at home. I don’t talk to my supervisors, the way I talk to my mother, for example, (and neither do most people, regardless of whether or not they have accents.
Now, when I’m talking about accents, for the purposes of this post, I mean the entirety of a person’s manner of speaking, including word usage, because only certain types of accents are associated with the use of certain types of words, for example, the use of the word, “y’all”.
The mainstream Midwestern accent is the default accent used in almost all of American television, and movies. Having a Midwestern accent means a person gets treated as trustworthy, their words are given more weight, given the benefit of the doubt, assumed to be educated, to have a good job, and to be non-violent. In America, sounding like an American, means having “no accent”, but that wasn’t always the case.
In the early part of the 20th century, the Mid-Atlantic accent was what was used, until it fell out of favor, in the fifties, for a more “natural” sounding speech pattern.
Of course this is an accent, too, in the same way that “White” is a race, but this “lack” of accent (just like whiteness) is so ubiquitous, that most people don’t notice it.
The way someone pronounces their words, is used in movies and shows, not just to reinforce stereotypes, but as a form of shorthand, to show a person’s character, and social class. Filmmakers use accents to show audiences that a character is good, evil, smart, gullible, suspicious, or trustworthy. Turn on any American TV show, watch any movie, and chances are, those with Midwestern accents will be the majority of the characters, and probably will be the protagonists, heroes, or in positions of authority. They will also almost always be White.
You will not find a lot of characters in mainstream media with deep Southern accents, Western twangs, Texas Drawls, Valley Girl speech, Arabic, Southeast Indian, or Caribbean accents, unless they are also shown as poor, incompetent, corrupt, or played for comic relief. In other words, characters never just have accents. There is always a reason for the accent, and some point about that person is being made.
For example, the accent, in mainstream media, is used to indicate if someone is considered an American citizen. For the past twenty plus years, the Simpsons, has had the running gag of an immigrant named Apu, a stereotypical character from India, who has a strong accent, is the father of a small multitude of babies, and runs a convenience store. This character is meant to be funny because of how he speaks, not necessarily because of anything he does, as his very existence in Springfield, (the setting of The Simpsons), is meant to be comedic. His accent also paints him as a perpetual foreigner. Asian Americans are especially susceptible to this stereotype, as no matter how many generations they’ve lived in America, they are often still assumed to be from somewhere else. And if they have an accent then doubly so.
The perpetual foreigner stereotype is a racialized form of nativist xenophobia in which naturalized and even native-born citizens (including families which have lived in the country for generations) are perceived as foreign because they belong to minority groups.
I spoke, in an earlier post, about the use of accents in the movies of the Coen Brothers, where everyone’s speech patterns and accents are used as indicators of people’s socio-economic status, the status they aspire to be, or simply framed as comedic. In The Ladykillers, Tom Hanks broad Southern accent is associated with television conmen, corrupt religious authority, and the Antebellum era of Georgia. His accent gives the audience ideas about the type of man he is. The audience doesn’t know he is a grifter and conman by his deeds. We know this by the long association, that has been made in mainstream media, between his accent, and untrustworthiness. All we need is to hear is his caricature of a Southern accent, to understand that he is unreliable, and also that the movie is meant to be a comedy.
In Raising Arizona, Hi, a criminal recidivist, his two best friends, both prison escapees, and a murderous biker, all talk in what I call “downspeak”, where they talk as if they were college educated, but with the Southern twang that is meant to indicate their social class, and criminal status. This is what I meant by the association of word use and accent. The humor comes from the incongruity of Hi, and his companions, using words not normally associated with their accents. Not only that, but Hi’s word use can also be seen as aspirational. He talks the way he wishes to be seen by others, which is smart, educated, middle-class, and therefore a reliable narrator, but we laugh at the way Hi speaks, because his accent marks him as a member of the trailer park class, no matter what words he uses.
Accents are especially interesting when it comes to Black characters. Blackness, throughout most of film history, has been almost always associated with buffoonery, poverty, criminality, and a lack of education. So it is interesting that even though the largest population of Black people in the US, live in the South, Black people in Popular media, rarely have Southern, Californian, or even Texan accents, and those times when they have a Southern accent, it represents childlike helplessness, that they have wisdom above their station, or in the case of Black women, that they are deeply religious.
In the 1986 movie, Crossroads, starring Ralph Macchio, and Joe Seneca, we can contrast Willie Brown’s poor, Mississippi Delta accent, with Eugene Martone’s middle-class, New York accent, something which Willie never lets Eugene forget throughout the film. They’re both musicians who specialize in playing the guitar, but one of them was born into poverty and plays the Blues, a style of music that is dismissed as “primitive” by Eugene’s music teachers, and the other was born in one of world’s most cosmopolitan cities, and plays Western European Classical music, which is sneered at by Willie, as not being “real music, that comes from the heart”. In this movie, it is Eugene who is out of place, as his accent is commented on by the other characters in the film, and marks him as being from a different socio-economic class.
The Northern Blaccent, where a person speaks AAVE, but speaks it with a Midwestern accent, is often representative of the “thug”, or gang banger stereotype, and appears to be a universal Black accent, not closely associated with any particular region of the US, which means that no matter where the movie or show is set, the accents of Black characters in Popular media, tend to remain consistently Midwestern. Once again, this is not a hard and fast rule, as exceptions can be found, but it is a pattern, and the idea that Blackness alone, is so associated with criminality, violence, and unreliability, to such a degree, that none of those qualities need be further indicated by a strong accent, is disturbing.
When a Black character speaks SAE (Standard American English) onscreen, without an accent, then it connotes all the same qualities that it does in the real world, respectability, and safety. A decade after the demise of the Mid-Atlantic accent, used by White actors, Black characters were still using it. The use of AAVE in movies and shows, did not reach full use by Black characters until the mid seventies, after which it became associated with Black youth culture, and the Blacksploitation movies of that era. The use of AAVE, in mainstream media, came about as a result of the resurgence in Black Pride, when young Black people dismissed respectability politics, in favor of more natural manners of speaking.
Actors like Sidney Poitier, and other actors during, and after, the Civil rights Era, had a distinct, clipped, educated, Mid-Atlantic accent, which was meant to show that he was a fine, upstanding Black man, to be respected. The purpose of this manner of speaking was meant to counteract the “Coon” manner of speaking that had been heard in most mainstream films, featuring Black characters. His tone, and speech, are meant to convey authority. This was a man who could be liked and trusted, and this was illustrated in the 1967 movie, In the Heat of the Night, in which a Black Philadelphia cop, Virgil Tibbs, is sent to a small town in Mississippi, and works with the town sheriff to solve a murder.
Poitier’s voice is deep, firm, and commanding, because sometimes, the tone and timbre of a person’s voice are important, as well. In this scene, notice the difference in his voice, compared to that of the white sheriff, whose voice is of a higher register, and a more casual tone. The Sheriff’s accent is a soft Southern drawl, his tone holds just a touch of ambiguity, because while he is assured of his own authority, he is uncertain of Tibbs, but like the plot of every cop film of the 80s, the two men begin to respect each other, as they are forced to work together.
In Hollywood films, the accent that receives the most negative depictions, outside of the Northern Blaccent, is the Southern Twang. White people with Southern twangs from places like Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and the Appalachians, are often depicted in films as toothless, criminal, incestuous, “rednecks”, “trailer trash”, and “hillbillies”. They are often shown as uneducated, overly religious, violent, poor, and gullible members of the lower classes, (they often populate Horror movies set in rural America, like The Texas Chainsaw massacre, and Deliverance, which is something I’ll be speaking about in a later post.) We are meant to laugh at them, disdain them, be afraid of them, or disgusted by them. The audience is almost never meant to think of such individuals as their equals. Contrast this attitude with that of earlier in the twentieth century, before television, when such people were often held up as admirable examples of Americans, who were the “salt of the Earth”. They weren’t respected, but at least were not blatantly denigrated in most media depictions of them. They were shown as ignorant, but level headed, uneducated, but sensible. Over time, with the advent of television, which was aimed at a middle class audience, the depiction of white poverty became almost entirely negative.
Also on The Simpsons, there is another recurring character named Cletus, The Slack Jawed Yokel, and his theme song and vignettes are every stereotype of rural poverty, which pretty much sums up how this character is meant to be seen, but because this is a white character, no one thinks of it as being especially mean-spirited, despite the fact that the people writing the show, don’t share the socio-economic background of the character. We are meant to laugh at him, and his antics, not sympathize with him. (TBH, many of The Simpson’s recurring characters are collections of various tropes.)
We can more clearly see this stereotyping at work, in the 1993 movie, Kalifornia, between two couples who share almost nothing in common, beyond having white skin. The don’t share income levels, background, or education. Early and his girlfriend, Adele, both speak with a Twang which, outside of their dress and demeanor, indicates their low social and economic status, compared to Brian and Carrie, who speak with the “accentless” accents of the Midwest. Brian and Carrie are both urbane, educated, middle class, and look down on, and mock Adele and Early as “poor white trash”. When the two couples meet, Carrie expresses reservations about Early and Adele, and finds them funny. Throughout the movie, she regularly expresses disgust, and embarrassment, for the couple’s mannerisms, speech, and lack of boundaries.
Early is a murderer, with a long criminal background, and on parole, while he and Adele inhabit a trailer, they cannot afford. Adele, while sweet, and good-natured, is also dimwitted, gullible, and easily manipulated by Early, who is physically abusive towards her. Adele is more open with her sexuality. She isn’t slut-shamed in the film, but her manner and dress is distinctly different from the cool, modestly dressed, and sexually aloof Carrie, who Early covets as being beyond his ability to acquire. Carrie’s hair, makeup, and clothing, all indicate that she is a member of the middle class, while Adele’s childlike hairstyles, and lack of makeup, indicate her lack of sophistication. This is actually pretty typical of Hollywood versions of White people with strong Southern accents, but there are at least two exceptions to this, as well.
The Texas Drawl, for example, which is commonly given to hyper-masculine, and heroic White men, like John Wayne, and the Southern Belle, a white woman of at least middle class status, who is depicted as either a simpering, or fiery, damsel in distress, like Scarlett O’Hara.
In genre movies that take place in Fantasy and Science Fiction settings, the Midwestern accent is still dominant, even if there is no reason why a story set in Medieval England, or Outer Space is filled with Midwestern American speaking people, outside of being the actors hired for those roles. Most of the lead characters in Game of Thrones have either staunch Midwestern, or upper class British accents, when there is no reason for such a class station to be alluded to at all, in such a setting. If the characters in a world based on Medieval European history, can have modern British and Midwestern accents, and not be argued as historically inaccurate, than why not any of the many twangs, drawls, Indigenous, Asian, or even Eastern European accents? Why are posh British accents always used to denote the upper classes and nobility even in fantasy settings?
In the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, Viggo Mortensen is a multilingual actor, of Danish heritage, who speaks with a pronounced American accent in the movie. Of all the accents he could have chosen to use, why use that one? The Hobbits all use a variety of English, and Midwestern accents, that are meant to sound casual, but are still “low class” English, or Midwestern standard (and sometimes both in the same character). Although the movies are shot in New Zealand, none of the primary actors have Kiwi accents, which for the Hobbits would be just as valid as the English and Midwestern accents they’re using.
All of the members of the nobility, for example, including the fantasy creatures, regardless of the region of Middle-Earth, or the culture they’re from, like the elves, and dwarves, have English accents. Now I do understand that many of these accents are the natural voices of the actors hired for the roles, but what is never taken into account by audiences is that, that too, is a choice the creators made. The creators of the movies took the time to have the actors speak invented languages, and they could have easily taken the time to make up accents, but chose not to, which probably means, just like the audience, they didn’t hear it either. They could have taken the time to use different accents, for different cultures, or regions of Middle Earth, but didn’t.
Contrast that decision with the accents used in the movie Black Panther. Yes, the accents are all over the place, but according to some of the countries referenced by dress and custom in the movie, the actors accents are not the real accents of any particular region, or tribe, and as a result, many Africans found the accents funny. The Wakandans do speak something like the real language called Xhosa. The bottom line is someone thought about how the characters should sound, and made a deliberate choice that all the members of the fictional nation of Wakanda, would have a certain accent, while it seems no particular thought was given to the accents of the characters from Lord of the Rings. The actors just all used their natural voices there.
When The TV series The Witcher was announced, there was a great deal of argument about adding people of color to the cast, saying that they didn’t belong in a story based in Polish folklore, because that would not be “Historically Accurate”. This is an argument I’m getting especially tired of hearing,for stories set in Fantasy settings, that involve elves, dragons, and magic, especially since none of those same people complained about any of the characters lack of Medieval Polish accents, or the lack of any of the languages of Poland. It’s not accurate for any of the characters to have either American or British accents, but no one complained about them. No one complained, because they are not meant to notice that the “accentless” accent, of Midwestern America, is actually a very specific, and just as contrived, accent, aimed at a specific audience the films.
Would we take any of these films as seriously as we do, if all the characters spoke like Cletus, from The Simpsons?
In Star Wars, most of the characters (even robots) have either British or Midwestern accents, as well, and there is no particular reason why no one has a Blaccent, or speaks like they’re from Georgia, Pakistan, or Indonesia, although in Science Fiction, this is changing, as in some of the films, most notably in Rogue One, the actors of color all kept their original accents, from places like Mexico (Diego Luna), and China (Donnie Yen). At least part of the reason we don’t often hear other types of accents in genre films is those types of actors are rarely chosen for those roles, the disrespect and mockery of accents outside of the Midwestern standard, and the fact that British accents are the only accents that generally don’t receive mockery in American culture, (although men with such accents are sometimes coded as villainous gays.)
Asian accents on television and in movies are often subject to ridicule and satire. Starting with Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to Long Duk Dong, in Sixteen Candles, Hollywood has a long, and sordid, history of mocking Asian accents, often using White actors. Asian characters may be stereotyped as smart, or “model minorities” in comparison to Black characters, but they are still shown as being less American, through depictions of broken English, ignorance of American culture, and mock languages, like the sing-song noises directed at Asian Americans, even if they were born in America.
Any non-American accents will receive mockery though, no matter what the the race or culture. I’ve caught myself mocking the Australian accent of Steve Irwin, Michael Caine’s Cockney accent, or laughing at fake Irish and Scottish accents. All accents that are considered by mainstream media to be comedic, or just of the “lower classes”.
All this means is that all accents are unworthy, and that the only one that should be respected (or just never noticed at all) is the accentless accent of the Midwest. And let’s be absolutely honest, not even all Midwestern accents are considered equal. The Northern Midwest has its own distinct sound, and is often used in movies as a form of comedy relief.
Here, Amy Walker talks about some of the more common American regional accents.
Essentially, the Midwestern accent is as ubiquitous, and invisible as whiteness. It is an accent without an accent, it is everywhere, and because its so pervasive, no one can hear it.
I am currently, like a lot of people, in a lockdown city, here in the US, due to the C- 19 pandemic, and I’m not working. Unfortunately, now is also the wrong fucking time to have either the flu, or allergies, both of which are currently kicking my ass, but I am otherwise okay. I live in a predominantly Black neighborhood and although we rarely panic about anything, yes, people are buying lots of toilet paper.
My Mom and I went shopping this weekend, and while there was a very mild air of excitement, kinda like what’s felt before a National holiday, most people were quite calm, and polite. I saw only one woman wearing a face mask, and one guy with rubber gloves. The handful of white People I saw had amassed lots of toilet paper, while the Black customers seemed like they were just buying food for their unexpectedly early, out of school children. Schools will be closed here to the end of the school year, but the kids are still going to be fed, because otherwise the school lunches, that were bought in advance would go to waste, so that’s good. Voting has been postponed til Summer, movie theaters are closed, and I have no idea when I’ll be back to work, although thankfully, I’m one of those people with fully paid leave.
I’m thinking of donating to people without paid leave, so if anyone knows any organizations that will do that, then please hit me up on Tumblr with the details.
I have no intention of talking about the pandemic on this blog, mostly because reliable information can be found everywhere else, and I really don’t have strong feelings about what’s happening. It is what it is, I’m gonna roll with whatever happens, and my white noise about it isn’t going to be helpful. I’m going to continue to post what’s in my queue, talk about movies and shows, and try to be entertaining, with an occasional deep thought.