I was six years old, sitting on the couch with my mother as we watched a Korean drama.Then a scene appeared where the main female lead spoke English in a Korean accent. I remember cringing and then saying, “Why can’t she speak normally?” Then my mother, a Korean immigrant who only knew the basics of English turned to me and said “I speak like that when I speak English.”
Now I am 21 years old, and last month I saw Diego Luna, a Mexican actor, play a hero on the blockbuster hit Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and speak in his Mexican accent. I was already excited for this movie due to the amount of diversity in the cast, but it was how Star Wars embraced the diversity and allowed there to be a Mexican in Space, accent and all, that made me feel emotional about watching this movie.
The next generation of Star Wars movies are not shy about adding diversity into their cast, whether that be a black stormtrooper (which somehow garnered controversy) or having the last two movies have strong female characters leading the plot. But the reason why Diego Luna’s performance was able to touch so many people of color was because he gave a voice to fans that probably never heard a Mexican accent come out of the mouth of a major character from global franchise. That’s why fans were getting emotional about this movie. This was revolutionary because it was a voice that needed to be heard in Hollywood, it was the voice for fans that never heard a hero speak with their accent.
There was one particular fan account that really showcases why diversity in accents is important. It was about a Mexican father who had a thick Mexican accent and was surprised when he saw Diego Luna play Cassian Andor, a hero, someone who wasn’t simply a minor character, play someone who also had his accent. Not knowing that this was a Star Wars movie and what that meant, he asked his daughter, if she heard the accent, or if this movie made was a success. He was excited at the idea that people with his accent could play a hero in a global hit. This is the power that representation has, it allows a group of fans to feel like they aren’t simply typecasted as just the gardener, a maid, or if it is a major role, a drug lord.
And while this was a great win for people of color, it is not the norm. Selma Hayek, an academy nominated actress, was denied roles because studios did not want an actress that reminded the audience of their maids and that it was unimaginable to see a Mexican in space (even though there have been at least a dozen Latinx astronauts in space). And that’s the ignorance of Hollywood.
In Hollywood,not all accents are deemed equal. And when I say this, I do not mean the way they are performed rather the roles in which these accents are attached to. An American or European (mainly British) accent can play numerous roles from the frat boy to the educated professor, from Catwoman to Indiana Jones, while someone with an Asian accent or Latinx accent are stereotyped. I ask you to pause here, to think of how many roles you’ve heard an Asian accent or a Latinx accent be utilized in a major movie or tv show with a character that wasn’t a minor character and the accent was not offensive. I can hardly name five.
One of my best friends, Marina, is Brazilian (and I’m sure I’ll mention her numerous times on this blog) and she explained to me why it hurts to not see proper representation in accents.
“Whenever our accents are used they are done as a stereotype, and a form to degrade and put us apart from the rest. Because we don’t talk the right English. Because some words can’t quite form correctly or that sometimes we say the “ed” on the end of a verb with a lot of focus. Our accents are done in movies to make us lesser, or make a comedic point because it’s just so funny to hear a silly voice try to speak English. It’s not funny, it’s disrespectful. And those same ‘proper’ English speakers, don’t even bother to learn the languages of different countries.”
And I couldn’t have said it better myself because that’s the same reason why at six years old, I thought hearing a Korean actress speak in English with a broken accent ‘ was not normal.’ I didn’t hear an Asian accent in Powerpuff Girls or Kim Possible. When I watched movies, there were virtually no Asian characters with an accent and if there was one, they were minor and sometimes simply an awful character. So, by that time in my consumption of media, I was told subconsciously that to have an accent that was not “White” was an embarrassment. I internalized it and began hating the idea of even having a small bit of an accent which is unavoidable because I do speak a different language which has different intonations. I didn’t want to be a stereotype or sound like I didn’t know English. To have an Americanized accent was right, it would bring me respect, it would let me be heard, and to have an Asian one, well you don’t see that on television for a reason.
Hollywood taught me that my mother’s accent was bad and wrong and I shouldn’t imitate it. And that makes me feel ashamed and angry that I thought this way at six years old.
The Hollywood Reporter did an article about how important representation was and why Diego Luna’s accent was so important. One of the key points that the author writes about is about the panel she attended where Constance Wu, an actress who plays Jessica Huang from the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, answered the question of why the parents had to speak in broken english.
“I get that, because I was used to people reducing my parents to their accents, and that taught me to be ashamed. But there’s nothing inherently shameful about knowing two languages and having an accent…Just because your English isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice.”
And she’s right, I know she’s right because I still listen to my mother. Because the majority of the world, does not speak in an American or British accent and yet I can still understand them when they speak English. The accent is not the problem, it is the perception of them. Of how they are contorted to make minorities feel smaller and that if you want a job in a blockbuster, the first thing that you’ll have to learn is to speak English without an Latinx or Asian accent. The problem is when actors of color are asked to be in a movie, they are told that their natural accent reminds them of their maids.
Whether you agree or not, it is discrimination with racism attached. It is Hollywood stereotyping but done under the table so it doesn’t seem like racism or that studios can only picture Latinx as maids or thugs and Asians as emasculated males or exotic geishas. This media portrayal allows for us to take that into our real lives and apply it to people outside of the screen. An Asian woman is told that she has virtually no accent or speaks English very well, despite the fact that she grew up in America. And when someone does have an accent and are struggling to find the words, they are told to learn English better or the recipient begins speaking louder and slower as if that helps with the fact that English may not be our first language.
Diego Luna’s accent is a big deal because it was Star Wars, a global blockbuster. And the Studios didn’t think that him having a Latinx accent drew away from his performance as Cassian Andor rather it added to it. It added to the diversity and depth of the Star Wars universe. If people believe Harrison Ford and Jabba the Hut are from the same universe, it shouldn’t be strange to hear another human being speak in a different accent that wasn’t just British or American. I just hope and pray that Hollywood would see this as an example and see the power good representation has to the fans that support their films.