Here’s something I’m sure you’ve been wondering about for a long time. If you see a lot of movies, you may have noticed many villains have British accents, even when no one else in the cast is British. These range from Peter Ustinov’s Prince John in Disney’s animated Robin Hood (pictured) to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs to Darth Vader. What gives?
Linguist Chi Luu says that the accent simply lends itself well to qualities that make for a compelling movie villain.
Research has shown that speaking in the received pronunciation (RP) accent — the “posh” British accent known as the Queen’s English — makes people appear “more educated, intelligent, competent, physically attractive, and generally of a higher socioeconomic class.” On the other hand, RP speakers are also generally considered “less trustworthy, kind, sincere, and friendly.” The resulting effect is someone with a high intelligence and low morals — the perfect villainous combination.
But there’s another factor. Luu said there’s a concept called “standard language ideology,” the belief that there’s one ideal form of a language and then various accented offshoots:
Speakers of the standard form are considered the ones that “have no accent” and any dialect that strays from that is stigmatized in one way or another. Believing in this concept legitimizes the institutional discrimination of those who don’t use or didn’t grow up with the standard language. The reality is of course that everyone has an accent.
But many people in this country think the American accent is no accent at all, so giving a villain the sound of another place helps cast them as some deviation away from the norm — a threatening outsider. In other words, who wants a villain that sounds like us?
Read about Chi Luu’s research at JSTOR Daily. The information for this article came from “Why So Many Movie Villains Have British Accents” at http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/01/why-so-many-movie-villains-have-british-accents.html?. The photo came from that website.