A question I often ask when I’m watching a movie’s depiction of local speech, a stigmatized dialect or mock-worthy speech act is, “Is this realistic?”
How could one possibly answer that question?
Would you find a “real” speaker of that local or stigmatized variety or notable swatch of talk and check with them?
Who might that be? And who am I to label that variety “local,” “stigmatized,” or “mock-worthy” anyway?
From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective, one route to go is to look at the comments on-line. Take a look at a stretch of movie dialogue on YouTube—inevitably you will find an example—and see what commenters say.
Here are a couple examples to illustrate:
Example 1: Akeela and the Bee.
This movie is about Spelling Bee competitions and an unlikely competitor, Akeela, who comes from a predominantly African American neighborhood in Los Angeles. The movie makes a big deal about ways of speaking, as illustrated in this clip, where a Professor criticizes Akeela for her use of “ain’t”:
I like this depiction of Akeela’s snappy retort to the obviously lonely and socially awkward professor. As the movie proceeded, I kept wondering how this clash of language attitudes and lifestyles would unfold.
Then, in another pivotal scene, Akeela’s brother tries to weasel out of helping her learn spelling words, but is peer-pressured (by an older and cooler guy from the neighborhood) to help her. The scene seems almost goofily Hollywoodish, as it depicts, in a heartwarming way, the neighborhood rallying around Akeela to help her learn crazy-hard words like staphylococci.
After I see this, the “is this realistic?” question kicks in big time. Here’s when I start scanning the comments. And the commenters seem to answer, “yes!” While some chime in simply criticizing (“Fuck this wake ass shit”[sic]) or loving it (“Love this Movir so bad”[sic]), the more specific comments remark on its authenticity:
These commenters rally around the positive depiction of Akeela as a flexible speaker of both a local African American variety in Los Angeles and Akeela’s prowess as a spelling hero for the community.
Example 2: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Straying far from Akeela and the Bee territory, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off throws intense shade on anything having to do with school. In one of its most quoted and widely circulated scenes, an Economics teacher (played by Ben Stein) bores the class with his “discussion” of The Great Depression, tariffs, and supply-side economics (aka voodoo economics). In this clip, his “Anyone? Anyone?” refrain is featured as a non-question, a feeble bid to get students talking:
This clip, like the Akeela clips, while entertaining, smacks of Hollywood overkill. Teachers aren’t really THIS BAD are they? And again, I find myself asking the question, “Is this realistic?” It does seem to illustrate a recognizable and much-mocked speech act, often referred to in educational research circles as the “guess what I’m thinking” question. But does this really happen in schools anymore?
To answer that question, I turned again, as is the Citizen Sociolinguistic way, to the comments. Of course, many commenters recognize and appreciate simply the hilarity of Ben Stein’s performance. But, additionial comments pile up in painful recognition of the “Anyone? Anyone?” speech act:
For these viewers, Ben Stein’s performance smacks of today’s dysfunctional classrooms. Part of the hilarity of his performance, I suspect, comes from its pinpointed realism.
Some of you astute readers might be questioning this Citizen Sociolinguistic method of gathering evidence of the “realistic” quality of these Hollywood performances. Why grant any credence to YouTube commenters? Why even believe what they say? They might even be being ironic! Yes—and perhaps some readers will interpret these comments this way. And yet, even the existence of these comments (ironic or not!) illustrates that these ideas are circulating out there in the real world. And, as soon as they get put down in YouTube, they continue to circulate. The comment regarding Ben Stein’s performance, “This never gets old. I still have classes like that,” for example, has (so far) received 45 likes. Viewers seem to identify with this perspective. This performance of “teacher” seems to be a recognizable prototype; his much-maligned questioning style is one that students out there recognize and loathe.
And Akeela’s neighborhood peers, rallying behind her spelling training, seem to also be illustrating recognizable attitudes about ways of speaking and studying language.
These performances resonate. That’s why they are up on YouTube. That’s why they garner comments and why those comments garner thumbs ups (in some cases, many thumbs ups). Those comments and thumbs ups perpetuate an understanding of these as recognizable ways of speaking—and attitudes about those ways. Is something realistic? It never starts out so. It becomes realistic in how people, subsequently, display their answers to that question.
What movie depictions of speech have you wondered about? Do Citizen Sociolinguistic investigations shed light on those wonderings? Please comment below!