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“Minority Voices and Languages in English-Speaking Cinema and Television”

Université de Lille, France, October 12-13, 2023
Nathan Buisson et Eloïse Dentreuil

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1The two-day bilingual conference “Minority Voices and Languages in English-Speaking Cinema and Television” took place at the University of Lille’s Pont de Bois campus on October 12th and 13th, 2023. The conference was organized by Mikaël Toulza (Université de Lille) and came together seamlessly, despite needing to be rearranged the day before due to unforeseen cancellations. These changes meant the reorganization of the conference into six panels instead of eight, with each panel comprising two to three speakers. Thanks in no small part to the organizer and panelists’ resourcefulness, this did not impact the quality and pertinence of the presentations, which resulted in two days of thought-provoking analyses that often fueled one another. This conference, which brought together international scholars and specialists in various fields of study––visual studies, linguistics, communication, journalism, to name a few––allowed for a close examination of the visual and linguistic devices used to convey both identity and ideology.

Day 1: October 12th, 2023

2Mikaël Toulza started the conference by warmly thanking the University of Lille, as well as his research lab team CECILLE, his colleagues on the scientific board, and the conference’s numerous chairs and panelists for the quality of their work. The basis for the discussions that were to follow revolved around his previous work on the interrelationship between racial, linguistic, gender, and religious identities in film and television. This in turn raised questions regarding the meaning of terms like minority and majority in these studies, hegemonic norms and perceptions of otherness, the place of marginalized artists, and the francophone distinction between the concept of “langage” and the socially constructed tool that is “langue.” With the rise of what some have labeled “fourth-wave feminism” since the 2010s and the democratization of a simplified intersectional framework, production companies have sought profit in representing minorities; despite this, linguistic minorities have remained on the margins. The presentations that were to follow would therefore question the complexity of minority languages in English-speaking film and television.

Panel 1: “Minority Languages and Politics of Representation in Cinema and Television”

3Carole Darmon (Université d’Angers) opened Panel 1 with a presentation entitled “Features and Ideologies of Language ‘mastery’ by Members of the African American Community.” She studied radio and television programs produced by Edward R. Murrow, of which she selected three that illustrate racialized archetypes along with the purpose of diction and syntax regarding African American voices. In a radio report, the minority voice of an African American soldier’s mother is subordinated to dominant voices, as Murrow narrates the reports and includes excerpts of speeches delivered by army and city officials. However, while dominant decoding emphasizes the soldier’s sacrifice story as propaganda, negotiated decoding denounces the family’s low income and unsuitable living conditions. In a television broadcast named “Harvest of Shame” (1960), interviewees’ replies and enunciation are barely comprehensible and journalists repeat their words so that white urban viewers may understand them. Darmon contrasted these depictions with one of an “emancipated professional,” whose complex language demonstrates that African American schoolchildren are not doomed to follow Jim Crow etiquette. According to her, while Murrow’s programs acted as progressive calls, they conformed to cultural norms and subservient stereotypes that contributed to a tradition of racialized typecasting in 1950s and 60s news reporting.

4Yvelin Ducotey (Université d’Angers) followed with a discussion called “Blindspotting (Carlos Lopez Estrada, 2018) : résistance langagière et assertion identitaire face à la gentrification.” Estrada’s film tackles issues of identity and gentrification in Oakland through the prism of race. Ducotey began by highlighting the relevance of language in defense of identity, and the role played by African American musical productions in the fight against topographic erasure. He examined the film’s introductory scene as evidence that Oakland is in crisis, stuck between construction and expropriation. The film also parodies clichés associated with the world of rap, such as chains, drugs, and firearms, as a hyperbolic means to challenge viewers’ stereotypes and subconscious expectations. He then spoke of the notion of resistance. The two protagonists of Blindspotting, Miles and Colin, are played by artists and producers who both hail from Oakland, thus lending the film an insider’s perspective on the acculturation at play in the city. The film also questions whether a white speaker should be afforded the use of African American slang; while Miles is white and can choose to play-act, Colin is Black and has no choice but to be perceived as such. Ducotey argued that a more deconstructivist cinema was likely necessary so as to enable minority languages to be better heard.

5Sébastien Mignot (Université de Caen Normandie) concluded the first panel with an engaging talk entitled “Traces of a Forgotten Language: Closet Grammar in a Post-Closet Era?” He argued that closet narratives have not entirely disappeared from twenty-first-century fiction, but rather been reconfigured. He began by tackling ambiguity and periphrasis in the video game The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) and its subsequent television series adaptation by HBO in 2023. While in the game, the use of terms such as “partner” only serve to infer certain characters as crypto-gay, HBO stepped away from periphrasis and allusions and instead turned these same characters’ relationship into an explicit love story. He then studied “unhooking” or “disjunction” in Riverdale (The CW, 2017) and in Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul (AMC, 2015). In the former, Kevin, a gay male protagonist, suddenly becomes a closet case when the show’s seventh season goes back to the 1950s; in the latter, archvillain Gustavo Fring goes to a restaurant and flirts subtly with the sommelier, which questions why his sexuality was not dealt with in the original show. Lastly, Mignot spoke of a visual grammar of the closet in Euphoria (HBO, 2019). Episode three of the show’s second season features a flashback of closeted antagonist Cal Jacobs in which he learns that his girlfriend is pregnant, while the dark rectangular frame of his bed acts as a visual closet.

Panel 2: “Southern American English As Minority in the U.S. Film Industry”

6Panel 2 opened with a presentation by Claire Dutriaux (Sorbonne Université) titled “Another Protest Sent to Hollywood About So-Called ‘Southern Speech.’” She argued that while silent films such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) had avoided differentiating Southern language, the advent of sound film in the 1930s meant magazines such as Screenland and Picture Play were now filled with letters written by Southern spectators, who were irate at depictions of “inauthentic” Southern speech in Hollywood. According to her, accents were seen as signs of race and social class; while aristocrats were allowed to sound Southern, poor whites were not as they made the South look backwards and uneducated. Those who protested were concerned that accents they associated with Black people would make them appear abnormal and monstrous, and their letters often featured blatantly racist remarks and idealized both segregation and the desirability of whiteness. Dutriaux argued that because Hollywood considered the South as being capable of making or breaking national cinema, an effort was made to promote films like Gone With The Wind (1939) as “properly Southern” to gain audiences to their cause. She also considered The Three Faces of Eve (1957), a film which renders the white Southern woman desirable and redeems the accentless Southerner by discarding the two accented personalities of its protagonist.

7Marine Soubeille (Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3) then closed out this second panel with an arresting presentation entitled “‘Alright, alright, alright’ – Matthew McConaughey Revamping White Southern Voices.” She argued that the image of the American South in visual studies has long suffered from a “white trash” stereotype associated with illiteracy, conservative values, and poorer social class. She considered the case of actor Matthew McConaughey, who successfully turned his Southern heritage into an increasingly political brand, and whether he is a mere exception to that stereotype or instead provides Southerners with a symbol of potential desirability. McConaughey resists the “white trash” stereotype rather than embodies it in that his characters are never physically repulsive or dimwitted. Soubeille subsequently examined his modulation of “Southernness” through his sex appeal, his wit, as well as his voice and accent, and contended that he was canonized less as a Southerner than as a sexually appealing man. Lastly, she studied McConaughey’s ability to mix stereotypes into a new star image through his career choices, and addressed his political voice. As a liberal man in a Southern red state, he is able to advocate for “gun responsibility” with a varied vocabulary while still being representative of the people he aims to touch. According to her, McConaughey’s persona arguably conveys the emergence of a modern Southern man.

Panel 3: Round table “L’apport des langues et langages dans la recherche et dans l’enseignement : discussion interdisciplinaire”

8Panel 3 consisted of an interdisciplinary roundtable discussion chaired by Corinne Oster (Université de Lille) and Mikaël Toulza, during which participants Laura Benoit (Aix-Marseille Université), Julie Loison-Charles (Université de Lille), and Claire Hélie (Université de Lille) were encouraged to reflect on the subject of language in academia. The assertions made during this interdisciplinary panel fell under a variety of subjects, including film, translation, literary, and cultural studies. It was argued that dialects never come alone, but rather that they exist in relation and/or in opposition to one another. Questions were therefore raised regarding the concept of Otherness and the use of the term “minority language” when describing one spoken by a white community. With respect to language, films are a particular form of soft power as they are exports inherently filled with a diversity of accents, identities, and linguistic codes. A point was made to highlight the ways in which stereotypes depend on viewers’ pre-existing perceptions. It was also asserted that learning the vernacular could serve as a leveling and disinhibiting experience, as it allows us to name things we were previously only aware of.

Day 2: October 13th, 2023

Panel 4: “(De)Constructing Stereotypical Representations of Arabic-Speaking Communities”

9Sara El Majhad (Aix-Marseille Université) opened Panel 4 with a presentation entitled “Language and the Construction of the Hollywood Arab.” In this talk, she studied how the American film industry has frequently reduced Arabic cultural pluralism to a monolith through linguistics––a tendency she ascribed to an orientalist bias. In film, the dominant language is often that of the colonizer while local dialects become a part of the exotic background. In her corpus-based analysis, she asserted that Hollywood scarcely draws any distinction between the different varieties of Arabic, thus leading to the emergence of a fictional single Arabic language. El Majhad put forth four strategies used to depict foreign languages in fiction: elimination, signalization, evocation and presence. These all represent the Arabic language differently depending on the narrative function it is meant to fulfill. She also mentioned a fifth strategy, which she referred to as “simulacre” or non-representation, meaning the resort to a “mock Arabic” gibberish by non-Arabic characters. She explained that through these strategies, Hollywood signifies the catastrophic danger of Otherness by portraying Arabs as a threat.

10Benjamin Campion (Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3) concluded the fourth panel with a talk “Nul n’est prophète en son pays : Ramy (Hulu, 2019) ou les tiraillements d’une famille égyptienne installée aux États-Unis.” The show’s eponymous protagonist is a first-generation American whose Egyptian family settled in New Jersey. In his presentation, Campion described it as an emphasis on the dilemmas posed by a bicultural upbringing and on Ramy’s subsequent feeling that he has no real homeland. The series therefore relies on Ramy’s introspection and on his exploration of his different identities and cultures. Maysa, his mother, is rendered equally compelling by her seeking refuge in American stereotypes whilst reveling in orientalist clichés, as she attempts to conciliate her double identity. Campion observed that Ramy is also premised upon a quest for identity and sociocultural integration that stops short of simply flattening all differences. His analysis of the series illustrated that universalism does not necessarily require cultural productions with lowered standards. By regrouping ethnicities and problematizing cultural differences, Ramy provokes viewers into rethinking not only their own biases but also their perceptions of uprooting and integration.

Panel 5: “Representing the Ostracization and Resistance of Linguistic Minorities”

11Panel 5 was opened by Anita Jorge (Université Toulouse 2 – Jean Jaurès) with a discussion entitled “The Silent Village (1943) by Humphrey Jennings: Welsh as a Nexus of Political Claims, in Between Propaganda Principles and Language Policies.” The film is set in the Welsh mining village of Cwmgiedd, yet its plot is based on the infamous massacre perpetrated in Lidice, Czechoslovakia in June 1942. She therefore analyzed the linguistic aspect of compositing two languages and cultures that seem different from one another. In the film, the townspeople of Cwmgiedd converse in Welsh whilst Nazi invaders speak English, the dominant language associated with power and decision-making in the United Kingdom. Jorge clarified that Jennings decided to use Welsh not only because it would be perceived as more authentic, but also because it may pass off as Czech-sounding. The two languages also bear cultural similarities in that both were being gradually erased from the curricula in effect at the time. She also emphasized the changing soundscape in sequences where the invaders are displayed, and identified silence as a repercussion of Nazi invasion rather than as a trait innate to the townspeople. She ended her presentation by characterizing the language and sounds associated with this community as a potential representation of their struggle for cultural and linguistic diversity.

12Camille Chane (Aix-Marseille Université) then closed out this fifth panel with a talk titled “Yellow English : racialiser l’Extrême-Oriental par l’accent et l’hyperpolitesse dans le dessin animé comique américain.” He began by describing the term “Asian accent” as inherently troublesome due to its polysemy, often resulting in confusion and misunderstanding. He described the fiction of a single Asian language as the archetype of “Broken English,” as it is rooted in non-standard grammar and a thick accent that stand as evidence of non-assimilation into American society. Chane’s presentation analyzed what he called the “hyperpoliteness” of Asian individuals in cartoons through the overuse of markers such as “please” and “so sorry” for comedic purposes. It emerged that there is no Asian ethnic dialect, but rather a linguistic performance of ethnic and racial identity. He argued that Asian characters’ heavy accents in American cartoons act as proof that they do not belong, and that “hyperpoliteness” is an orientalist trait used to racialize them. As a result, it was made clear that these verbal tropes and social conventions are transposed from real bodies onto animated ones, which are thus equally incapable of striking a balance between politeness and violence.

Panel 6: “Minority Languages, Intersectionality and Representation”

13The last panel opened with a presentation by Ksenia Efremova (Université Jean Monnet – Saint-Étienne) entitled “Phonetic Means of Imitation of Russian Accent in English-Speaking Media,” which consisted of a sociolinguistic analysis of its manifestation, perception, and emulation. Through her case study of French and Russian, she highlighted the significance of foreign accents and their perception by native speakers and listeners as “listeners’ judgments are the only meaningful window into accentedness” (Munro & Derwing, “Modeling Perceptions of the Accentedness and Comprehensibility of L2 Speech: The Role of Speaking Rate,” 2001, p. 468). The focal point of her presentation was an advertising campaign launched by the website comparethemarket.com, which first aired on British and Australian television in 2009. The ad itself features a Russian meerkat voiced by English actor Simon Greenall, whose accent is meant to sound explicitly Russian. Efremova questioned whether this accent was in fact native-like. She then expounded on her methodology––which involved comparisons between what she dubbed Reference British and Reference Russian, an assessment of vocal quality, phonetic descriptors of accents, frequency of occurrence, and disparities in terms of vowels and consonants, as well as a comparison between their respective phonetic charts. Her conclusion was that Greenall’s superb imitation of a Russian accent was not comparable to a Russian accent per se.

14Hélène Charlery (Université Toulouse 2 – Jean Jaurès) gave a presentation titled “(Not so) Accidentally Black and Female? Intersectionality in Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow.” She examined whether the issue of race in the film could serve as an entry point to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s basement metaphor. I Will Follow (2010) is a semi-autobiographical story that follows Maye as she mourns the death of her aunt Amanda. According to critic Roger Ebert, its focus was shifted more towards women’s experiences and less towards race. In emphasizing gender and deracializing the film, Ebert debunked the necessity for an intersectional reading of the story. Contrary to him, certain critics placed Black subjectivities at the center of the narrative. As Charlery argued, these readings go beyond the director’s original intentions as she simply aimed to tell a Black person’s story. DuVernay’s film was released prior to the 2013 renaissance of Black film and she clarified that race was not meant to be its focus, but rather that it was simply embedded within Black people’s lives. Charlery also studied an interview during which DuVernay was asked what proportion of her film was about race as well as women––a question which the director answered without once using the term “race,” as it was always present in the background.

15Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed (University of Georgia, USA / University of the Free State, South Africa) concluded this conference with a presentation entitled “Using African Epistemologies to Disrupt Historical Silences in the Mediascape.” She began by describing the decolonization of knowledge in media and communication studies as a means to embrace the perspectives of marginalized communities, while also opening avenues to reconceptualize contemporary media. Her theoretical framework was centered on the use of intersectionality as a tool to deconstruct marginalization in Global South countries like Ghana. To do so, Mohammed put in field work in Ghana, and familiarized herself with the field by monitoring three Ghanaian television stations. She asked whether intersectionality could be reconceptualized to understand the political economy of media in the context of Africa. She then contended that because the media is a site of cultural education, affirmation, and social change, centering the experiences of marginalized individuals could amplify the voices of systematically disenfranchised communities, thus making of Indigenous languages on television a site of resistance to colonialism.

16This two-day conference emphasized explicit connections between fields of study that may at first seem hermetic, and shed light on the many tools and devices used to govern minority languages in film and television. The perspectives provided through its variety of panels and presentations challenged the audience’s preconceived notions on the subject, and afforded them insights into subjectivities different to their own. The panelists and the discussions that ensued from their presentations questioned language not only as a concept and tool in constant evolution, but also as a potential conduit for power and exclusion, thus delineating the relevance of intersectional readings in film studies.

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Nathan Buisson et Eloïse Dentreuil, « “Minority Voices and Languages in English-Speaking Cinema and Television” »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 11 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22587 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11x2k

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Auteurs

Nathan Buisson

M2 Langues et Sociétés, Parcours Études anglophones, Faculté des Langues Cultures et Sociétés, Université de Lille

Eloïse Dentreuil

M2 Langues et Sociétés, Parcours Études anglophones, Faculté des Langues Cultures et Sociétés, Université de Lille

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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