Author: Olivia Shorter
Nominator: Adam Hodges
Course: ANTH 4800 Language and Culture, Spring 2021
Like many American children, I grew up watching Disney movies; enjoying the cheery songs, vibrant animation, and ‘happily ever afters.’ As I grew older and began learning more about anthropology and linguistics I developed a critical eye. Animation often shows sugarcoated tales of heroism and romance, however, they are laced with underlying meanings that can influence and exploit our understanding of race and ethnicity. In these films, accents are usually chosen based on character personality and associated stereotypes rather than characters’ geographic or cultural background. Often, there is “not sufficient time in children’s movies to build character through action, so stereotypical accents that are associated with particular groups and ideologies about these groups may be used instead” (Azad, 2009). Tropes and stock characters are used that draw from an amalgamation of negative stereotypes of marginalized groups. Among viewers, the discrimination represented by these tropes can result in “negative self-concept and self-esteem” (Dobrow, and Gidney, 1998). The tropes reinforce negative stereotypes by aligning villainous characters with marginalized communities and excluding positive role models for groups who experience societal discrimination. While Standard American English (SAE) and British English (BrE) can be found in virtually every role from king to convict, other accents are relegated to minor characters or villians. Consequently, viewers can imagine a wide range of roles for persons who speak SAE or BrE, and only narrowly defined roles for characters assigned other linguistic accents and dialects.
When I took Dr. Hodges’ class, Language and Culture, he pushed us to examine our linguistic assumptions and helped us examine how a specific word, phrase, or accent was used; what information does language convey? In the paper I wrote for his class, I focused on The Lion King, and how the accents and dialects work to recreate structures of power prevalent in American society. Specifically, I looked at the characters Simba, Mufasa, Scar, Rafiki, and the Hyenas. Each of the characters has an accent that indexes what the viewer should think of the character; starting from the moment they open their mouth they play into common tropes and stereotypes familiar to viewers.
At the top of the food chain are the lions, who hold positions of power as kings and speak in SAE. While most of the lions are voiced by Black actors, all of Simba's actors are white anglos speaking Standard English to underscore the “whiteness” of the protagonist (Jurado, 2013). The lion villain, Scar, speaking in a feminized British accent is portrayed as intelligent and has power over the other villainous characters (hyenas) and rules over the pride for multiple years. The baboon, Rafiki, speaks in a vague Swahilli accent and unintelligible gibberish. The role Rafiki plays is that of the religious and unintelligent helper to the white protagonist (Simba), a familiar side-kick character that acts as a plot device to further the main character's story. At the bottom of the chain, the three hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed speak in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Latino accent, and only grunts. The hyenas — unintelligent, powerless villains — are the only characters to speak in AAVE and with Latino accents. Within the film, “‘White’ middle class perception of diversity portrays other races as inferior and unintelligent” and reaffirms the dominant control of white Americans (Jurado, 2013). The hierarchy created in The Lion King presents a scale of power which places characters using a white male voice with a standard American accent above others, “re-establishing, on a day-to-day basis, their preferred view of the world as right and proper and primary” (Lippi-Green, 2011).
The Lion King is a case study of how animated films can support social structures of racism and bias, of how prevalent prejudice and bias is within daily life, including entertainment. However, it is not the exception. Once revealed, it is hard to ignore the way that accents and dialects are intricately tied to prejudice and exploited to confirm bias.
Header image credit: https://disneyfanon.fandom.com/wiki/Shenzi,_Banzai,_and_Ed
Azad, Sehar B. "Lights, Camera, accent: Examining Dialect Performance in Recent Children's Animated Films." PhD. Diss., Georgetown University, 2009.
Dobrow, Julia R. and Calvin L. Gidney. "The Good, the Bad, and the Foreign: The use of Dialect in Children's Animated Television." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557, no. 1 (1998): 105-119.
Jurado, Kymberley G. "The "Magical Negro" in Disney Film." PhD. Diss. Hawaii Pacific University, 2013.
Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2011.