Interview by Jeremy A. Rud
Jeremy Rud: Linguists have long called out the language attitudes that perpetuate the myth that racialized, regional, and gendered dialects are supposedly bad English. What does your book add to this discussion? How does your work expand or complicate our understanding of English language variation in the United States?
Lindsey Clouse: My research shows how deeply entrenched these language attitudes are in popular culture, and how they, in fact, have become shortcuts for characterization in film. If a character speaks with a stereotypical blue collar Southern dialect, for instance, it signals to the audience that this character is uneducated and probably racist and/or misogynist. We see an example of this in Four Christmases (2008), in which the main character’s father and brothers are loud, drunk, and misogynist, and all speak blue collar Southern dialects despite the film taking place in San Francisco. The main character himself is smart and likable and, naturally, speaks so-called standard English. And because the U.S. is still very segregated, many Americans are exposed to these stigmatized dialects primarily or exclusively through the media they consume, so it’s no surprise that these language attitudes persist when mainstream film is perpetuating them constantly.
It’s also important to note that the dialects we hear in movies are not, for the most part, true to life. Instead, Hollywood has created mediated versions of these dialects that draw upon their most well-known features, a process known as iconization. The movie version of Black English, for instance, tends to overuse features like habitual be (as in “He be late,” meaning “He is frequently late,” not “He is late right now”) and omit features like questions with no subject-auxiliary inversion (as in “What that is?”). Thus the Hollywood version of Black English doesn’t represent real speech particularly well, though most non-Black audiences perceive it as authentic.
Jeremy Rud: After systematically analyzing nearly 500 films, yet devoting individual chapters to only five dialect groups, what conclusions can you draw about intersectionality from the data set? What is the relationship between visual and oral/aural representations of diversity in contemporary American film?
Lindsey Clouse: First, although improvements are slowly being made, Hollywood still has a serious diversity problem. In the 493 films I examined, women make up less than a quarter of protagonists, Black women make up only 1.4% of protagonists, and Latinx characters make up only 1.5%. And perhaps even more concerningly, there are no queer protagonists at all. And these are the top-grossing films of the last 20 years—the films that are getting seen by the most moviegoers. The stories that Hollywood is telling are still by and large the stories of White, cishet men. Characters with intersectional identities are almost nonexistent in the most popular films and when they do appear, they rarely have major roles.
Some films do make obvious efforts to include visual diversity, but linguistic diversity is completely absent. Shazam! (2019), for instance, features a diverse coalition of orphans-turned-superheroes (though the protagonist is an able-bodied White male), yet these low-income inner-city kids all somehow speak “standard” English. We see something similar in The Matrix franchise and a number of other big-budget franchises including, I’m sad to say, Star Trek.
Speaking a stigmatized dialect will relegate you to a very narrowly defined set of roles in film. Black English, for example, is used almost exclusively by comedic and criminal characters and minor characters with small parts. Will Smith code-switches into Black English to deliver jokes in films like the Men in Black and Bad Boys franchises, and when playing a criminal in films such as Suicide Squad (2016), but uses “standard” English for serious roles such as I Am Legend (2007) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). With very few exceptions, Hollywood simply does not allow serious protagonists or even serious secondary characters to use stigmatized dialects.
Jeremy Rud: What was one unexpected result of your analysis? What most shocked, surprised, or inspired you? Considering each film’s linguistic representations of minorities, what films do you now appreciate more and what films soured on you and why?
Lindsey Clouse: I was expecting stereotypes to be present in the data, but I was surprised by just how prevalent they turned out to be. For instance, almost a quarter of Spanish-accented and Spanish-influenced English speakers in the filmset are inmates, ex-cons, or criminals. I was also caught off guard by the link between grammar and morality in White Southern speakers. White Southern-speaking characters who use “nonstandard” grammar features are almost twice as likely to be bad people in their films, to engage in unambiguously immoral behaviors like murder, rape, adultery, and so on without showing remorse or being redeemed. And this is a trope separate from the stereotypically racist Southern character; White Southern speakers who use supposedly nonstandard grammar are only slightly more likely to be racist than those who use the grammar of the dominant culture.
I was also pretty horrified by the amount of blackvoice and other kinds of mockery that show up in these films. Mainstream Hollywood clearly still considers it acceptable for White standard speakers to use mock versions of stigmatized accents and dialects to mock or harass those speakers or simply to make jokes or elicit a laugh. The Other Guys (2010) contains several scenes in which Will Ferrell’s character flashes back to the time he spent working as a pimp in college, and in these flashbacks he uses Mock Black English, because the stereotype of the pimp is that of a flamboyant Black man, and filmmakers apparently consider it funny to see this White man behave in this way.
There is also a running gag in a series of Adam Sandler films in which Rob Schneider plays a character of another race—East Asian, South Asian, indigenous Hawai’ian, indigenous North American—complete with yellowface or brownface make-up and a correspondingly exaggerated accent and stereotypical characterization. For instance, his indigenous Hawai’ian character, Ula of 50 First Dates (2004), is constantly drunk or high, has numerous children, and is riddled with injuries and scars from his absurd and buffoonish behavior, and his accented English is peppered with gibberish that is meant to represent the Hawai’ian language. Characters like this are shockingly common in the filmset.
I’ve developed a lot of appreciation for those filmmakers who pay attention to language and use it in thoughtful ways. So many filmmakers rely on these stale and inaccurate tropes: White Southern speakers are taken to be backward rednecks; women who use gendered speech patterns are vapid and self-absorbed; Spanish speakers are either drug dealers or maids; and so on. After seeing hundreds of examples like this, those films that subvert the tropes or that use language for more subtle and interesting types of characterization really stand out. Legally Blonde (2001) and Freaky Friday (2003) come to mind as examples that defy the tropes about gendered speech patterns. Straight Outta Compton (2015) is the rare film in which a majority of characters use Black English both authentically and consistently. And over 13% of total Spanish and Spanish-accented English speakers in the entire filmset appear in one film, Coco (2017), which actually presents a rich diversity of characterization of these speakers and is also just a beautiful, gorgeously animated film.
And of course I have to mention the filmography of Quentin Tarantino, who always makes interesting choices with language and who never goes for the easy joke. Django Unchained (2012) was the film that originally started me on this project; the character of Django may be the only serious Black English-speaking action hero in modern film, and the secondary hero, King Schultz, has a German accent—another total anomaly in American movies.
Jeremy Rud: Who should read this book? What do you want academics to take away? What do you want filmmakers to take away?
Lindsey Clouse: The book is designed to be accessible to non-linguists, so anyone with an interest in American English dialects and the unconscious biases that we attach to them should read it, as well as anyone who enjoys thinking critically about popular media.
I hope that academics will take away from this book that although we might think and talk about institutionalized prejudice and unconscious biases all the time, we might not notice the degree to which popular media are reinforcing these things, and they’re particularly easy for middle class White people to overlook. And you can point to a few recent films that have had some success, like Moonlight (2016) or Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) (both of which are incredible and you should watch them) and say, look, Hollywood is working on fixing its diversity and intersectionality problem. But then look at what’s playing at your local theater right now and you will still see a long list of films starring straight, White standard English speakers.
To any filmmakers who read this book, I would ask just that you think a little harder about language in your films. Just as the cishet White male doesn’t have to be the default, nor does supposedly standard English have to be the default. Ask yourself: what kinds of messages is my movie sending about people who speak a certain way? And, can I make a better and more interesting film by making more thoughtful, nuanced choices with language?