Villains in films having a British accent has been a long established source of entertainment - or disparagement, depending on your take on the matter. Gary Oldman, the ultimate British baddie actor in my opinion, has credits that span both live action and animated genres, suggesting it is more than just ‘his look’ that gets him cast as the villain - it’s also his accent. So since even an animated antagonist in the form of a peacock from China (Gary Oldman as Lord Shen in Kung Fu Panda 2) has a British accent, I snooped around to find out what the perception of the British accent is when creating a character and just how badly we fare in the accent-to-moral reprehensibility association game, according to animated TV.
Perceptions of British accents
The British opinion of various British accents differs greatly from that of non-Brits. With more accents per square mile in Britain than in any other part of the English-speaking world, it is possible that we as Brits, judge the various accents based on a list of subconscious extra factors. At a guess, I reckon factors include socio-economic prejudices, cool factor and pop-cultural associations that are more ingrained within us due to geographic proximity. Whereas without these influential factors being at the forefront, very different assumptions about British accents become apparent. For example, the Brummie accent has regularly been voted the least sexy accent according to Brits whereas Americans often rate it as pleasant sounding.
Linguist, Chi Luu, suggests that the research shows it is specifically the RP English accent that carries a handful of commonly held perceptions that come together to create a compelling villain, that goes beyond a suitably ‘evil’ look and dialogue. He explains that the RP accent carries with it the impression of a person being “more educated, intelligent, competent, physically attractive, and generally of a higher socioeconomic class” but on the flipside, also “consistently rated less trustworthy, kind, sincere, and friendly” than someone with a non-RP accent. In other words, while the accent alone isn’t enough to ensure a villain, these perceptions are lurking not far beneath the surface for the audience, meaning you quickly have a character with fierce intellect and low morals - a classic baddie. No doubt, the repetition in the trend of posh RP English villains over the years has further cemented these stereotypes of the British accent and it’s associations.
Disney villains over the years
I found plenty of compilations of British antagonist characters in Disney on the likes of Reddit, IMDB, City-Data etc. However, of the extensive list, there are several examples that don’t quite fit with the theme of contention for casting Brits to play the baddies. For example, Prince John in Robin Hood and the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland - while they both have British accents, so do the heroes in the respective stories - and RP accents at that - as they are set in England. I would even let Edgar from The Aristocats off the hook as his posh RP accent is befitting of our notion of a refined butler, thanks to Wodehouse’s Jeeves, before we associate it with any evil connotations.
The occasions in which the British accent is clearly used to define a villain is when it sticks out like a sore thumb and doesn’t make a huge amount of sense for them to even be British. The likes of Scar from the Lion King and Jafar from Aladdin are perfect examples of this. In Scar’s case, he is the brother of Mufasa and uncle of Simba who both have American accents - therefore intentionally marking Scar’s accent as different, despite having grown up in the same place, amongst the same animals. However, the unusual inclusion that Disney made in The Lion King was to also cast a RP English accent for one of the more comical characters - Zazu (played by Rowan Atkinson). While the RP accent is a common go-to for villains, it is rarely used for endearing, comical characters - but that is column for another day!
The Lion King and Aladdin were part of the Disney Renaissance and interesting to note that with the exception of The Little Mermaid at the very beginning of the period, all the villains during this period were men. However, prior to that, it has been noted that Disney had a particular penchant for female British villains - such as, the Queen in Snow White, Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Cruella de Ville in 101 Dalmatians to name a few. Linguistics lecturer, Bob Kennedy, explains that there was already “an established kind of prototype of the mature female villain” by the time Cinderella was released in 1950, and part of that prototype was a British accent, which held connotations of power.
What does the research say?
A frequently referenced study that I came across while looking into the subject was research by Julia R Dobrow and Calvin L Gidney. Their initial study, entitled ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Foreign: The Use of Dialect in Children’s Animated Television’ analyzed 323 animated TV characters using various measures such as appearance, ethnicity, gender and of course, linguistic markers. From their findings, all but 2 of the shows had characters that used these language markers and dialect to correlate with the characters’ personality traits in some way.
Their results also showed that the accent most often employed by villains was British English. Runners up included German and Slavic accents - while not used quite as frequently for bad guys, they were apparently considered more versatile since they were also often found portraying comedy characters voices. If you are interested in reading a more in-depth analysis of this research from the late 90’s and the issues that it raises with regard to the message it sends to kids about diversity, I recommend reading this piece from The Atlantic - Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak In Foreign Accents?
While the British accent has a long history of being used for villains, I think there have been some massive changes in opinion and representation over the years, even since Dobrow and Gidney's initial research study. For starters, the RP English accent is not what it used to be, with even the Queen’s accent “losing some of it’s polish - a change that reflects some fundamental changes in British society”. Perhaps it is the changes that have happened within the UK that have led to shifts in the perception of the accent outside of the UK. Or perhaps it is hits like Peppa Pig which have been so influential that even kids in Canada are now speaking in a British accent! As a voice over artist, it is interesting to be aware of the role you play in the wider picture of influence and opinion as well as how character portrayals can shape a generation.