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 Salon.com 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?