“Poor little guy! He just makes mistakes. He doesn’t know any better. I’ll just have to be patient and teach him the right way to do things,” said Mickey.
Disney Inc., “Mickey Mouse and The Boy Thursday” (1948)
As a child growing up in rural South Africa, much of what I knew about the broader world I discovered through my television screen. National Geographic taught me about polar bears and tsunamis, and the history channel gave me a decent understanding of the industrial revolution and who really killed Kurt Cobain. But a larger part of my TV education occurred subconsciously. Like most kids, I was an avid consumer of cartoons and animated films. And while at face-value, stories about Peter Pan and Dumbo the flying elephant seem to have little to teach one about the real world, they have a lot to say about the subliminal biases and prejudices of their producers and our society at large. In fact, studies have shown that prejudice and stereotypes are baked into many of the Disney films that my generation grew up on. You might be wondering how a cartoon about elephants could have anything to say about race or class. But while Dumbo’s cast is largely made up of unrealistically dressed animals, biases and stereotypes nevertheless get through to the audience via the characters’ dialogue. By associating certain dialects and accents with villains, idiots, and lay-abouts, Disney constructs a world in which the heroes speak ‘good english’ while bad guys and side-kicks use grammatical forms common to racial minorities and the working class.
Take the case of a children’s classic, the animated film The Lion King. For a film set in the plains of Africa, surprisingly few of the characters speak with an African accent. In fact, the only character with a Swahili accent is Rafiki, the wise baboon and internet meme sensation. And a deep-dive into the accents of the The Lion King’s cast reveals more than a lack of African representation. Aside from the villain Scar, the movie’s most unpleasant characters are the three hyenas, who spend the majority of their screen-time trying to kill young Simba. The hyenas, who serve as Scar’s incompetent henchmen, each reference marginalized social identities. Shenzi, the leader of the trio, is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg (the only other African American voice actor in the cast) and slips in and out of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Another of the hyenas, Banzai (voiced by Cheech Martin) offers a Latino-accented English, at one point even throwing in the Spanish “¿Que pasa?” Ed, the third hyena, communicates in grunts, further emphasizing the hyenas’ inhumanity. Some critics have also pointed out that the hyenas’ home in the ‘elephant graveyard,’ a desolate, dangerous place on the outskirts of the kingdom, is reminiscent of tropes about the ghetto — especially when populated by those with African American and Latino accents.
Race is not the only identity trait (mis)represented in The Lion King. Scar, the central villain of the story, has an effeminate, British accent — one which plays into the common anti-homosexual trope of the queer-coded Disney villain (think Jafar from Aladdin, or Hades from Hercules). Coincidentally, Scar is also the only lion with a black mane. In contrast, our hero Simba speaks General American English with an accent which effectively codes him as white despite his supposed African descent.
Another infamous example of racial stereotyping crops up in the Disney movie Dumbo. The aimless, lay-about crows who advise the baby elephant speak and sing in a stereotypically African-American dialect, exchanging phrases such as “You ain’t up in no tree” (use of the double negative) and “I seen all that too” (omission of the auxiliary ‘have’), linguistic constructions common to some forms of AAVE. Astonishingly, one of them is actually called Jim Crow.
For a few more examples of disturbingly racialized cartoon characters throughout the decades, take a look at this video compilation.
Disney’s Profiling Problem
At first glance, one might think that the use of different dialects and accents in The Lion King and other Disney films is simply meant to differentiate characters or produce comedic effect. But in her book English with an Accent : Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States (2011), the linguist Rosina Lippi-Green points to a broader pattern of Disney films associating marginalized accents and dialects with evil or idle characters. Lippi-Green examined 371 characters in 24 full-length animated Disney ﬁlms (which represented everything available on VHS at the time). Of the 371 characters, she found that 69 percent were male, and that females were generally depicted as waitresses, nurses, nannies, or housekeepers. She also found that while 91 of the 371 characters appear in roles and contexts where they would not logically be speaking English, only 34 speak with a foreign accent.
Anyone who’s seen a Disney movie knows that the plotlines generally revolve around a battle between good and evil, in which the hero and heroine (after a few tussles with the villain) live happily ever after. When Lippi-Green took a look at character motivations, she found that while only 20% of U.S. English speakers in Disney films were bad characters, around 40% of non-native speakers of English played villains — a proportion twice as large as that for U.S. English speakers, and one which accounts for nearly half of the total foreign-accented characters.
Disney has been bad about representation in the past — but what about the present?
Although The Lion King and Dumbo are arguably racist in their linguistic representation of marginalized groups, they were made a long time ago (in fact, Dumbo was made in 1941, decades before Jim Crow laws were abolished). Surely America and the media industry have changed in the interim? Let’s take a look at a more modern example of marginalized representation in Disney movies: the colorful animation The Princess and the Frog. In this reimagining of a classic, the lead roles are all played by people of color. And to the producers’ credit, the main character, Tiana, does have an African American accent — there are also speakers of Southern American English, Cajun, and Creole. But while accent (one’s style of pronunciation) is a key part of linguistic coding, there’s another salient element to a person’s speech — dialect, or one’s general vocabulary and grammar.
If you watch The Princess Frog with an eye to dialect, you’ll notice that the African American characters’ voicing differs only slightly from their white counterparts, largely due to restrictions on the voice actors’ intonation patterns. The dialogue is also missing any AAVE grammatical constructions that would have made the racial differences salient, and the strongest AAVE speaker, Tiana’s father, dies before the story even gets going. To top it off, the African American characters spend most of their screen-time in the guise of hoppity green frogs. As cultural commentator Scott Foundas put it in the Village Voice, “It ain’t easy being green, but it’s certainly a hell of a lot easier than being black.”
Language and Ideology
So why is this effect so wide-spread? The answer may lie in a theory called Standard Language Ideology. Lippi-Green defines Standard Language Ideology as a bias towards an “idealized and homogenous spoken language” that is imposed and propped up by dominant institutions, and is used to suppress and minimize linguistic variation wherever possible.
In his book Language and Power, the linguist Norman Fairclough describes the way that sets of behaviors which originate within a dominant subgroup can serve to separate the powerful from the disenfranchised. He writes that “ideological power, the power to project one’s practices as universal and ‘common sense,’ is a significant complement to economic and political power, and of particular significance here because it is exercised in discourse.” In short, if those with power can manage to establish their own practices as “common sense,” they are able to sanction those who don’t adhere to them (read: marginalized communities). By establishing a certain dialect of English as the ‘standard’ or ‘correct’ form of the language, and by judging any deviation from these grammatical rules to be ‘incorrect,’ the dominant group can wield control over national discourse and culture.
One of the most pervasive cases of Standard Language Ideology is the news media. Through language-conscious reporting and prescriptive approaches to dialect, the media often actively discriminates against those who speak “non-standard” forms of English. For example, the news coverage of Hawai’ian Governor John Waihee, who code-switches between HCE (Hawai’ian Creole English) and accented English, made a point of correcting his grammatical “errors’’ in print. This type of public sanction demonstrates an understanding that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to talk, and that those who don’t conform should be censored.
One result of Standard Language Ideology’s hold on public discourse is that ‘standard’ dialects are attributed greater status than ‘non-standard’ ones under the guise of ‘good grammar.’ The down-stream effect of this is that dialects and accents that did not originate in white, dominant communities are treated as less socially acceptable, and may even come to be seen as undesirable by their own speakers. Lippi-Green writes that “if an individual cannot find social acceptance for her language outside her own speech community, she may come to denigrate her own language, even while she continues to use it.” These negative attitudes towards non-standard dialects ultimately bleed into the entertainment industry, in which ‘non-standard’ English speakers are portrayed as less moral or sympathetic. Both the mainstream media and Disney films internalize the Standard Language Ideology latent in society, and then rearticulate it back to us. By consistently aligning marginalized dialects with evil characters, Disney cartoons reinforce the idea that ‘non-standard’ accents and grammars — and those who speak them — are dubious at best and criminal at worst.
From Cartoons to Attitudes
Despite this ideological function of language, one might still question whether light-hearted cartoons can affect how children perceive race and class. But children are not the passive observers they sometimes seem — what children see on the screen is processed as data about how people and things should be categorized and described. In a study conducted by Rice & Woodsmall (1988), 3- and 5-year-olds watched two short, animated clips which included 20 words that the children had not previously come across. After viewing the clips once, 3-year-olds gained an average of 1.56 new words, and 5-year-olds gained 4.87. Young children consume words and ideas at an astonishing rate, and the social information they’re exposed to can produce unanticipated outcomes.
It’s well known that adults categorize and make judgements about others on the basis of accent. But when and how do kids acquire this kind of bias? A study by Kinzler & DeJesus (2013) investigated how children form views about Southern- and Northern- accented American English speakers. The researchers found that children of all ages preferred speakers who were perceived as part of the child’s native community and spoke a local dialect. But they also found that children aged 5 and 6 didn’t endorse the linguistic stereotypes common to adults — they hadn’t yet learnt to discriminate based on language. The researchers then performed the same study on nine- to ten-year-olds, and found that children from both Tennessee and Illinois endorsed the stereotype that Northern-accented individuals sound ‘smarter’ and more ‘in-charge’ than Southern-accented speakers. Even kids raised in the South had picked up that those with Southern accents are judged to be less intelligent. And while Southern accents are often looked down on as sounding “uneducated,” other dialects such as Jamaican English experience even greater derogation. The researchers suggest two main causes of the children’s bias: implicit social bias communicated by their parents, and media caricatures that reinforce linguistic stereotypes. It remains to be discovered exactly what neural mechanisms encode linguistic information as stereotypes and biases, and how much children learn bias from their immediate communities as opposed to from representations on a screen. But for now, promoting more humanizing portrayals of minority groups in the media is an important stride towards reducing unconscious prejudice.
People aren’t born with a tendency to discriminate against certain accents and dialects — it’s something we pick up over time, and is largely constructed by information we absorb during childhood. Although Disney movies are primarily concerned with entertaining viewers and deepening investor’s pockets, they are also engaged in a larger, unintentional project of socializing children and producing conceptions of identity — both one’s own and others’. While Disney is not entirely to blame for Standard Language Ideology, it does contribute to its continued hold on society. Next time you watch a Disney movie, consider the reasons underlying the choice of a particular character’s accent, or the way dialect is used to connect concepts such as good and evil to a character’s ethnicity or class. And if a character is called Jim Crow, you should probably just change the channel.
References and further reading:
Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent : Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States, Taylor & Francis Group, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Lippi-Green, R. (2011). Teaching children how to discriminate (What we learn from the big bad wolf). In English with an Accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. Taylor & Francis.
National Public Radio show “All Things Considered,” September 12, 1990; also verified by the show’s reporter William Drummond, p.c.).
Kinzler, K. D., & DeJesus, J. M. (2013). Northern= smart and Southern= nice: The development of accent attitudes in the United States. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66(6), 1146–1158.
Giles, H., & Billings, A. C. (2004). Assessing language attitudes: Speaker evaluation studies. The handbook of applied linguistics, 187, 209.
Aboud, F. E. (2003). The formation of in-group favoritism and out-group prejudice in young children: Are they distinct attitudes?. Developmental psychology, 39(1), 48.
Stroman, C. A. (1986). Television viewing and self‐concept among Black children. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 30(1), 87–93.
Rice, M. L., & Woodsmall, L. (1988). Lessons from television: Children’s word learning when viewing. Child development, 420–429.
Fairclough, Norman (1989). Language and power. London: Longman.