Just like #heroes, there are certain traits that define villainous characters. They hurt others, try take over the world, lie, cheat, steal and – they're British?
It's true. If you've ever seen a memorable American movie villain, chances are the individual often has a British accent. It's a question that has been the topic of debate for a really long time and the subject has even encouraged actors to speak out, such as Helen Mirren, who said this in 2010:
"I think it's rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British. We're such an easy target that they can comfortably make the Brits the villains."
That's an interesting point, and again...
The Psychology Behind British Villains
Computational linguist, Chi Luu, conducted a study that finally answers the question of why British people are so often picked as evil-doers and it all has to do with accents (in fact, a very specific one) as well as simple psychology. According to her facts, which were found in Lawrence Davis' and Charles Houck's book:
"Speakers of the prestige Received Pronunciation (RP) accent (otherwise known as the Queen’s English or BBC English) are regularly evaluated by non-RP speakers as more educated, intelligent, competent, physically attractive, and generally of a higher socioeconomic class."
I've noticed some people tend to group British accents together as one, the "Received Pronunciation," which is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as "the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England." As mentioned in the study it is often associated with power or a high social status.
However there are many other accents, such as Cockney, which was used by Deadpool's soapy villain, Ajax.
Then there's Jyn Erso's Brummie accent in #RogueOne. The perceived intelligence that comes with R.P., however, is just a part of why movie villains with British accents preferred. The second half is due to the accent making people seem, well, not very nice. As Luu notes:
"At the same time, in terms of social attractiveness, those same posh RP speakers are consistently rated less trustworthy, kind, sincere, and friendly than speakers of non-RP accents. Sounds like a good start for a villain."
It certainly is, and the movie industry has had no shortage of Received Pronunciation-speaking baddies. A few additional examples are Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), George Sanders as Shere Kahn (The Jungle Book), Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), and the list goes on.
Does The Stereotyping Of British People As Villains Point To A Bigger Problem?
This very specific situation of stereotyping is a double-edged sword because it is obviously stereotyping and it implies that people with different accents other than R.P. are not capable of portraying a compelling and interesting antagonist.
A study conducted by itv in 2013 showed that 28 percent of Britons felt they had been discriminated against due to their accent, and 80 percent of employers surveyed revealed they had made "discriminating decisions based on regional accent".
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So accent stereotyping is an issue and there are people who feel inferior because of the way they talk. This is highlighted by the earlier mentioned study on British villains. As it points out, most of us don't do it willingly. It's just a perception. It's our mind subconsciously telling us what's attractive and what feels right for a person with certain characteristics (in this case, a baddie).
While casting roles based on accents may not seem like a serious problem, these actors are being chosen to play antagonists partly based on their perceived social distrust from others.
Therefore, we need to be more aware of the kinds of discriminatory behavior such thinking could make worse, both in and out of the movies we watch.