Gidney was inspired to embark on a study of language patterns in animated kids’ entertainment, teaming up with Julie Dobrow, a senior lecturer at Tufts who specializes in issues of children and media, to study how these trends play out on kids’ television shows. They’ve since analyzed about 30 shows and 1,500 characters, and they’re still at work on the project.
For their initial study in 1998, Gidney and Dobrow had a team of coders analyze 323 animated TV characters using measures such as ethnic and gender identification, physical appearance, hero/villain status, and linguistic markers. The coders tested a random sample of 12 shows, which spanned a variety of networks, air-times, and genres. Their findings suggested that lots of kids’ shows use language to mark certain traits in a given character. All but two of the shows studied correlated dialect (a term that refers here to any particular variety of a language) with characters’ personality traits in some way.
The kicker: In many of the cases studied, villains were given foreign accents. A modern-day example is Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, the bad guy in Phineas and Ferb who speaks in a German(ish) accent and hails from the fictional European country Drusselstein. Meanwhile, the study found that most of the heroic characters in their research sample were American-sounding; only two heroes had foreign accents. Since television is a prominent source of cultural messaging for children, this correlation of foreign accents with “bad” characters could have concerning implications for the way kids are being taught to engage with diversity in the United States.
The most wicked foreign accent of all was British English, according to the study. From Scar to Aladdin’s Jafar, the study found that British is the foreign accent most commonly used for villains. German and Slavic accents are also common for villain voices. Henchmen or assistants to villains often spoke in dialects associated with low socioeconomic status, including working-class Eastern European dialects or regional American dialects such as “Italian-American gangster” (like when Claude in Captain Planet says ‘tuh-raining’ instead of ‘training.’) None of the villains in the sample studied seemed to speak Standard American English; when they did speak with an American accent, it was always in regional dialects associated with low socioeconomic status.
Some shows also gave foreign accents to comic characters, though British English was almost never used in this way. “Speakers of British English are portrayed dichotomously as either the epitome of refinement and elegance or as the embodiment of effete evil,” the study concludes. “What general sociolinguistic theory would suggest,” Gidney added, “is that American adults tend to evaluate British dialect … as sounding smarter.” Funny characters, on the other hand, often speak in German or Slavic accents (Dobrow offered as an example the associates of the evil Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget), as well as in regional American dialects associated with the white working class.