Being expat

What to do when cultural and linguistic stereotyping is fostered by media

Children love cartoons, movies, games and we all know that the vilains, the “bad guys” are not only characterized by features that make them unpleasant, but also by foreign accents.

Sociolinguist Calvin Gidney started to study language patterns in animated kid’s entertainment after noticing that Mufasa had an American accent, whereas Scar, the lion of the dark side, roars in British English in The Lion King. He analyzed 30 shows and 1,500 characters, and is still working on this project. Together with Julie Dobrow, a senior leturer at Tufts who specializes in issues of children and media, they observed 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. They have continued to find these same accent trends through the past few decades, even as the political and social climate changes and the nation’s zeitgeist is marked by different ethnic and global tensions.”

It seems that still today, Slavic and German accents are still the voices of choice for “bad” characters in US and UK.

It seems that this is related with the age and training of the showrunners who “make the decision on the basis of what was popular and successful in the shows they grew up watching” (Rosina Lippi-Green, author of English with an accent).

Stereotyped use of language seems not to be an industry-wide norm, “accent signaling is a more subtle form of ethnic stereotyping” and we all observe this not only in cartoons, movies, video games, but also in TV shows, and in some online forums and social media in general etc.

I grew up in Italy and I noticed from a very early age, that not only villains and odd professors had the typical tscherman accent, but Germans were constantly ridiculed in shows, movies etc. People would make fun of their accent, of their “not fluent Italian” and of other clichés related to German–ness.

I didn’t take it very well to see my friends make fun of Germans while growing up in Italy in TV shows, movies, cartoons, TV commercials etc.. I remember that when show masters stereotyped German actors and actresses, I used to cringe.

I suppose that like many other children growing up abroad I don’t like stereotypes… For a long time I thought that I am the only one feeling odd when it comes to this topic, but the study mentioned above confirms that “language tropes can have far-reaching consequences, both for kids’ perceptions of those around them and their understandings of themselves.”

If in the 90’ies children “used TV as a key source of information about other ethnic groups, as well as about their own ethnic and racial identities”, I think nowadays it’s the internet.

When it comes to language fluency, people tend to “make judgements about their peers’ intelligence and education levels based on language characteristics”.  Those using standard language are generally considered as being smarter than others, and they are treated better. Certain accent are “better” than others. There exists a non-written hierarchy of languages and accents that are a clear distinctive feature.

We should not underestimate the impact on children whose home language is stereotyped by the host society and media, because they “see the correlation between evil and foreignness, between evil and low socioeconomic status” and they will be more prone to internalize negative perceptions of themselves or other groups!


What Lippi-Green suggests to take entertainment as a “spoonful of sugar with a sour aftertaste for in-the-know adults —TV and movies “take [bias] and pour concrete over it,” she said. “They etch it in.”, and that children learn through repetition (“You show them a pattern, you keep showing them that pattern … of course they’re going to assimilate that”), should be extended to internet in general.

We can’t shield our children – and ourselves – from cultural biases, but we can learn to be(come) media-literate viewers.

As for our children, Dobrow suggests “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”.

– What do you think about this topic?
– What are the stereotyped languages where you live?


(to be continued…)


Posts and studies mentioned in this post:

Why do cartoon villains speak in foreign accents?

Children and television

6 replies »

  1. This is very true and not just with cartoons for children but adult films too. From the Eastern European accents of Draculas to Russians during the Cold War. Even the Die Hard movies had Germans and other foreigners as the bad guys in the 1990s. I’m not sure this will ever be eliminated though. I think it is a facet of the well-known psychological phenomenon of in-group bias which I talk about in my TEDx talk. We come together as a community if we’re able to label specific people outside that community as bad or wrong. They become scapegoats and visual representatives of why things are not good for us so that we can believe in our communities and not fall apart.

    • Thank you, Ken, for sharing your thoughts about this. Yes, I remember that you talked about this in your TEDx talk. – I know that one of the ways some groups and societies define themselves is by setting clear rules that separate them from others. But call me idealistic, I would welcome balanced multicultural societies where the “otherness” is welcomed and accepted to a certain degree. It is part of the acculturation strategy that has the healthiest outcome for its members: integration (with inclusion). I will talk about this next week at a gathering and most probably write a post about it on my “other” blog (

  2. I’ve noticed in British drama that the stereotype of the dumb or uncultured or gangster or cowboy or ruthless capitalist American comes up again and again. And its funny to us to watch in the states because the accent and or dialect is often quite unconvincing.

    • The same happens with other languages too. I noticed that the German accent in Italian films sounds unconvincing, and the Italian accent in German films too. – It’s a great topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *