Accentuate the Positive

A few weeks after The Phantom Menace hit the screen, movie critics from across the country began to slam the film and George Lucas for perpetuating racial stereotypes.  An article in The Nation described the junk-dealing Watto as being “both anti-Arab and anti-Jew”.  The Neimoidians’ dialog comes “complete with Hollywood oriental accents” according to U.S. News and World Report.

Then, of course, there’s the most famous Gungan of all: Jar Jar Binks.  He’s been described by the WSJ’s critic Joe Morgenstern as a “Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen.”  I could go on.

Why am I bringing all this up?  Well, in this latest chapter of A Princess of Mars, we finally get to hear the Tharks—the green Martians—speak.  And I decided to give them an accent.  My thought was: Edgar Rice Burroughs has already given me the words, so how do I give the Tharks a voice?

A Princess of Mars is a story that’s far older than our current notions of political correctness (and I’m not even talking about the antiquated way that women are portrayed in the story; that’s worthy of its own topic). Burroughs, through Carter, narrates how different the green Martians are from the other races of Barsoom.  The Tharks are presented as being tribal and nomadic; their red counterparts are portrayed as (relatively) peaceful and civilized.

Decades of Hollywood stereotyping have carved a trench in my mind, where I think of a “civilized” accent as being something along the lines of, “Pardon me, would you happen to have any Grey Poupon?”, whereas I imagine a “savage” accent to be, “Me want fancy yellow.  You have?”  I did not want my Tharks to be a bunch of ooga-booga Mungos.

So, should I even give the Tharks an accent?  According to Merriem-Webster, an accent is “a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people and especially of the natives or residents of a region”.  Maybe it’s not so much about what the word “accent” means, but what would be the least offensive accent to choose.  Which one would be “correct”?  From a linguistics perspective, all accents are equal; none is above the other in terms of prestige.  I think I agree with this, but only to a point.

Returning briefly to the Jar Jar example, Alynda Wheat of wrote: “Accents in and of themselves may not be stereotypical. But it’s the overall image of Jar Jar that smacks of racism. His buffoonery, gait, appearance […] and word choice all combine to make him offensive.”

Approaching this from a different angle, this is a podcast, an audiobook.  The only thing I have at my disposal to differentiate the various scenes and characters in this book is my voice.  I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) make the Tharks put on a rain dance (or whatever stereotype one would choose for a group of “savages”). Come to think of it, a rain dance on Mars would be a bit ironic in and of itself … but I digress.

I have a couple of other reasons for creating the accent, as well.

This is a race set apart from John Carter, not just an Earthling, but a Virginian soldier from the Confederate States of America.  So yes, they would talk differently than him.

Further, NetherWords is my demo reel, of sorts.  I want to showcase my ability to do voices, whenever the story allows.  Unlike LucasFilm (or Disney, for that matter) I don’t have the time, budget or art department to create my own elaborate vision of Naboo or Barsoom.  I’m just a guy, sitting in my car, recording a podcast.  Sometimes, I need to invent a voice, and, what the heck, let’s make it have an accent.  I don’t know what a Martian accent sounds like, but it’s probably really un-Virginian.

So, I came up with something that’s probably a little French, a lot Caribbean and a little Scottish.  Why not.  I can only hope it does not offend; it certainly isn’t meant to.  Besides, I don’t think I do many accents all that well, so if I screw up “Carib-franglo-scots”, maybe I make it that much more my own creation!  Right?


  1. David says:

    Obviously this is a complicated question, but the thing that makes it even MORE difficult is the fact that the original text IS so racially charged. In the first appearance of the Tharks, Carter notes “I could not disassociate these people in my mind from those other warriors who, only the day before, had been pursuing me.” The warriors pursuing him the day before had been Native Americans, or as he would more likely describe them, savage Indians. The very FIRST time that the Tharks appear, they are DIRECTLY linked to the Native Americans. From this, one could argue that the truest rendering of the text might give them a very stereotypical “Indian” accent, on the other hand, the fact that the author has that connection in mind doesn’t necessitate our agreement with his interpretation.

  2. Charles Logan says:

    What Disney has done, it seems, is to not give them an accent, or at least that seems to be the case judging from the trailer. Tars Tarkas (played by Willem Dafoe) speaks near the end of it, and comes off sounding somewhat sage-like, but nothing more exotic than that. The eponymous Princess, however, is all British, talking in the received pronunciation style, which, I would surmise, is meant to denote her royalty.

  3. Kevin Ingalls says:

    I think we can all tell the difference between Lucas’s Phantom Menace and Logan’s Princess. Political correctness aside, my problem with Phantom is that the stereotypes were instantly recognizable and seemed like lazy story telling. It is bad story telling that distracts from the experience.
    Logan’s Princess, on the other hand, was not. I did recognize (to Charlie’s credit) Jamaican and Scotish, but also something vaguely mists-of-time mysterious. It was 2/3rds recognizable (but not found in nature, unless you know someone who is half Jamaican and half Scotish) and 1/3rd theatric. And that’s good story telling. I loved it. All the more effective while I was flying across the country in the middle of the night on my own journey into the mist-of-time in Cambridge MA.

  4. Russell Bynum says:

    Honestly, I thought it was rather tactful. I did not at first get why you choose what you did but it makes sense now that I have read this post. Granted, before your explanation, it sounded more to me like a Jamaican or Rastafarian take on British english. Any way you slice it, the accent gives the Tharks a rather civilized personification, despite some of the odd verbiage they use. Strange, and informative, how an accent can make a larger difference in reception than the words spoken.

    All this said, from what I’ve listened to so far (for I admit I’ve never read any of the books), the author gives these savages a rather positive description despite their singularly violent habits. So far, the only real point I can have against Burroughs is his portrayal of Indians. This said, I’ve read worse descriptions of “savages”. I guess that is the cultural baggage we call carry, from century-old books to our own modern stereotypes.

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