As audiences celebrate television’s push for inclusion and accuracy in its casting and storytelling, they are also quick to point out when a show struggles in a depiction—or doesn’t bother with it at all.
A great example? Television’s use of the Southern accent.
Some recent programs—like the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit and the Fox comedy Call Me Kat, which are both set in Kentucky, or the New Orleans-set Showtime miniseries Your Honor—mostly skipped using an area-specific dialect. But others—like Walker, The CW’s new reboot of the Chuck Norris-starring Texas Ranger drama, and CBS’s Clarice, which follows Appalachia-raised FBI behavioral scientist Clarice Starling after the events in the movie The Silence of the Lambs—have gone all in.
Not using the accent can come as a relief to those familiar both with Southern regional dialects and how often they are butchered onscreen, especially if the project is one that suffers greatly already.
So if a show does use it? It had better get it right.
Anna Fricke, the creator of The CW’s Walker, says a lot of thought was put into how her characters would sound. And much of that came down to casting. The series stars the San Antonio-raised Jared Padalecki as Texas Ranger Cordell Walker, and includes several other cast members with ties to the Lone Star State. In these cases, she says “they are all talking naturally how they speak.”
Others she says, like family patriarch Bonham Walker (Mitch Pileggi) and matriarch Abeline Walker (Molly Hagan) “have adopted a slight twang.”
“But we are supposed to believe that the Walkers are a fourth-generation ranch family and that Bonham is fairly old school,” Fricke explains.
Still, Fricke says, since the show is set in the “diverse city” of Austin, “we actually didn’t mandate accents for our actors, pretty much across the board.” Cordell’s brother Liam (Keegan Allen) doesn’t have a strong Texas accent. Fricke justifies that it’s been watered down because “he’s also spent the past several years in New York City.”
Rebecca Breeds has an even thinner tight-rope to walk. The Australian star of Clarice isn’t just switching her speech pattern to a West Virginian-Appalachian accent, she’s adjusting it to a version that mirrors the tone and cadence that fans already associate with Lambs actress Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning embodiment of the character.
“I have a very musical ear, so I hear rhythm and intonation,” Breeds told journalists in January during Clarice’s all-virtual Television Critics Association press day. She adds that “it kind of just worked in my mouth in this really magical way. And not only that, it brought the character home to me. So I found Clarice when I found the accent. So the two were synonymous for me. I don’t know if it would feel the same if I didn’t get to do that beautiful West Virginian Appalachian accent.”
Breeds explains that, not only does this help her “switch into the character,” but that “I think people will find that will link the two worlds together in a really beautiful way.” She seems to be right; in her review of Clarice for Paste, Tara Bennett writes that “instead of being a twangy misstep, Breeds […] makes the accent the bridge between portrayals. It gives the audience a familiar tether to the film, which is a helpful shorthand to the myriad of problems Starling is still struggling with from her first-ever case.” (Our TV Editor from Georgia, however, disagrees.)
Hollywood’s usage of regional or societal variants can both help, and hurt, society’s image of the real people who live lives similar to these characters, especially if they play into stereotypes. A fascinating piece by journalist Reid Singer that ran last year in The New York Times ponders “How should Black people sound?” It looks at how the (slowly) diversifying world of accent and dialect coaches can change the public’s perception of the way Black people and other minorities may sound—and the preconceived notions that feed into it.
The Southern accent plays a huge part in this. But it’s also hard to pinpoint a “correct” version of a Southern accent. Examples of TV series with well-received depictions include FX’s Kentucky-set Justified, and Sundance TV’s Georgia-focused Rectify, and the gentle twang of NBC’s Friday Night Lights. (“Texas forever!”)
Generally speaking though, “TV and movies, and cartoons and everything else have been using dialect to do … shorthand for character development,” says Jennifer Cramer, a specialist in sociolinguistics and an associate professor in the University of Kentucky’s department of linguistics. But, she adds, “they’re not just leaning on the dialect; they’re leaning on the perceptions of the dialect.”
She points to characters like Mater, the rusty tow truck that comedian Larry the Cable Guy voices in the animated Cars movies as a dangerous example because “when people hear ‘Southern,’ they think uneducated. And that’s exactly what many Hollywood types are betting on.”
Meanwhile, Cramer says, Hollywood goes for Southern actors “when they really want to do it justice. So you know, you get Matthew McConaughey in there, and you’ll get you a good Texas accent, and you’re good to go.”
But, she says, all humans have “code switching or style shifting” when we’re talking to people outside of our inner circle because we all have “socially marked ways of talking” and “there’s no single person anywhere that talks like a robot.” Teachers talk differently to students than they do their fellow educators; kids talk differently to their parents than they do their friends; surfer dudes speak to non-surfer dudes in a different cadence.
“We have these sort of notions that the social constructs that we find important are things that we reflect in the way that we talk,” Cramer says. “And we also sort of construct that of our identities in doing our talking. If I don’t want you to know I’m Southern, I’m going to work really hard to avoid certain things so that you never figure it out. But if I really care that I’m Southern and I think it’s important, even in contexts where it might not be expected, I might give a little hint of that.”
Plus, seeing depictions of yourself on screen that you don’t deem worthy is by no means limited to people from the American south.
The Americans actor Matthew Rhys joked at the 2017 winter TCA press tour that he gets “so many complaints from the Russian community saying, ‘I don’t know where they’re meant to be from or who they sound like’” when he and co-star Keri Russell would speak their characters’ native language on their Cold War-era espionage show on FX.
Of course, Rhys is a Welsh actor who was playing a Russian spy posing as an American travel agent. So perhaps that was the point.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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