Disney’s newest live-action film Cruella has been met with mixed reviews both from audiences and critics alike. Mostly, audiences have been left with similar questions.
How do you make an eventual puppy killer into a sympathetic protagonist? Are we even supposed to root for Cruella? It’s up to audiences to make that decision for themselves, but is it possible that our opinions have been shaped simply because of how she speaks?
Emma Stone is not the first American actress to play Cruella de Vil. Despite being a character that is inherently attached to England, Cruella has been primarily portrayed by American actresses — both in live-action and in animation. Betty Lou Gerson voiced Cruella de Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961, Glenn Close brought her to life in the 1996 and 2000 live-action films, and Wendy Raquel Robinson portrayed the fur-clad villainess in Descendants 3.
Regardless of who is portraying them, Disney has a noticeable trend of creating sinister villains who sport something in common with one another. A British accent. We reached out to the experts at the language learning app Babbel to help us uncover why so many villains seem to hail from the United Kingdom.
Do we dislike Cruella because she’s British?
What is it about the British accent that lends itself to such sinister qualities in a film? Why is it that BRP speakers are typically considered less trustworthy? What is it about their accents that lead people to feel this way?
British Received Pronunciation (BRP) originated during the late 18th century, originally spoken among the upper classes of England, before spreading across the establishment and the far reaches of the British Empire. This “posh” accent was often regarded as a sign of superior social status. It was historically associated with those who went to private schools, such as Eton, and elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge.
Ever since Alan Rickman’s performances in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or Peter Cushing in Star Wars and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs — the default evil ‘movie accent’ of America’s choice is British Received Pronunciation. Disney, in particular, likes to cast female British villains: from the evil queen in Snow White to Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians, their villainesses share a common accent.
Why is the accent so villainous?
This is due to its connotations. Accents and dialects provide cultural shorthand to tap directly into popular stereotypes. The stereotype of British Received Pronunciation is someone smart, suave, and often sneering. The accent comes with a connotation of power, which links to associations with the British Empire. It lends villains in films a certain level of sophistication and gravitas, even if only imagined.
There are, of course, good British characters. How are their accents utilized that help audiences identify them as good characters?
The London-born Cockney accent is traditionally synonymous with “East-End” Londoners, whose way of pronouncing the “Th”-sound in words, such as “I think,” like an “F,” or “I fink.” They also completely drop the “H”-sound in words like “hospital” or “holiday” so that they sound like “‘ospital” or “‘oliday.”
The accent reflects its speakers' down-to-earth and friendly nature and is well-loved across the U.K. and the world. The accent gained celebrity status in America through films such as My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins, where the story’s respective protagonists spoke in it. The association with heroes and “good guys” could be why these accents are often regarded as being “friendlier” than British Received Pronunciation.
Are there other accents that have similar tonal qualities to Received Pronunciation that lends itself to villainous characters?
Cockneys can occasionally be “bad guys” too, like Sir Ben Kingsley’s character in Sexy Beast or the host of nasties in Guy Richie’s Snatch. Still, they are a different kind — brutish, impulsive, visceral — rather than the haughty, evil-genius type. Speaking of Snatch, an honorable mention must go to Brad Pitt’s rendition of an accent that is pretty much unintelligible.
Why do American audiences react so well to British accents?
An attractive accent alone doesn’t explain the American infatuation with Brits. As many linguists point out, the evaluation of an accent is closely tied to the evaluation of the speaker.
A huge amount of the culture Americans consume comes from the United States itself. Still, one of the favorite artistic imports in the U.S. is British music (Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Adele), television (Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Monty Python), and drama.
This cultural importation could be the reason why Americans react so well to a British accent. The accent holds a certain sway over the United States because of its cultural legacy. It has even been called sexier, more pleasant, and more intelligent than the American accent – although whether or not that’s truly the case is still up for debate!
Who is your favorite British villain?