Jake Gyllenhaal discussing his fake accent in Prince of Persia

How come so often in Hollywood movies set in foreign countries in foreign languages the actors speak English with British accents? For foreign actors who are speaking in their normal tongue, that makes some sense. But why the need for the legions of Americans straining to imitate a bad accent when they theoretically shouldn’t be speaking English at all? Does speaking with a British accent somehow make the film seem more foreign?

In some cases, maybe the accent gives the American audience a sense of antiquity. See Angelina Jolie’s bizarre accent in Alexander or Dominic West in 300 (yep, that’s McNulty and that isn’t a Baltimore accent). But when the movie is obviously set in a non-English speaking world, there is no real need for the American actors to speak in anything but their normal American accents. The characters don’t become any more legitimate or compelling when they don’t communicate clearly because of some artificial speech burden. If I’m watching the Reader, it’s fine that Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes speak in their native British accents.

TV Tropes offers a good explanation of “the Queen’s Latin” convention. Britain seems like it has a longer history than America’s 200+ years (although ironically much we would recognize as British accent conventions are relatively recent developments). British accents are also the most understandable to American audiences, even if an Italian or French might be more geographically accurate. Last of all, TV Tropes also cites the Coconut Effect–actors speak in British accents because we’ve just come to expect it! The article also includes an expansive list of iterations of the Queen’s Latin, including notably George Lucas having the Empire speak with British accents and the Rebels speaking in American English.

I wonder if there is any harm in this convention. Since it is normally used in an historic context, I hope no one actually thinks modern Greeks speak English with a British twinge. There’s a rich diversity of accents out there; Hollywood shouldn’t be so afraid to bring them out. Accents certainly add another layer to the film/theater/television/video game, but authenticity sure isn’t  one of them.

Although I believe homophobia is detrimental to society and it is our duty to make an effort to phase it out, this article is actually advocating the end of the use of the term “homophobia” to describe discrimination against homosexuals. Most people’s Latin is basic enough to discern the root of the term and can loosely define homophobia as fear of the same, specifically fear of homosexuals. My problem with this is that most people who are considered “homophobic” are not fearful, whether they admit it or not.

A University of Arkansas study determined that “homophobia originates not out of fear or anxiety – as true phobias do – but from feelings of disgust.” A UC Davis paper described the pitfalls of “homophobia” as characterizing this prejudice as a phobia makes “assumptions about the motivations underlying negative attitudes.” Instead, the paper advocates the use of “sexual prejudice” to describe discrimination against homosexuals. Other alternatives proposed include homonegativity and homosexism (Jung, Patricia. Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge).

Why does it matter if “homophobia” mischaracterizes the motivations of prejudice? Many people who are prejudicial against homosexual exempt themselves from being homophobic because they are not fearful of homosexuality. Instead, their discriminatory mindset is based on disgust or contempt (whatever the source). They are thus improperly excluded by the term. We don’t call racists “ethniphobic”. If a man harbors false assumptions about women, we call him sexist, not “feminphobic.” So why do we have the term “homophobic”?

This comes to some root of the concept of homosexuality as contagion. Homosexuality was sometimes considered a contamination, which could spread and infect others. While this may sound archaic and obsolete, simply look at the Protect Marriage’s commercials in the Proposition 8 campaign. The idea of homosexuality as an infection is still relevant to a substantial proportion of the population. Calling them homophobic only legitimizes their fear. They want to play the victim rather than the oppressor. They’re not discriminating because of irrational animosity or moral reprobation; they’re fighting the good fight against homosexuals. They are the bullies, not the targets. Let’s not give them this angle from which to appeal.

Even many who favor discrimination against homosexuals can at least agree that homophobia does not adequately describe them. I can imagine many hatemongers would violently oppose being called fearful in any capacity. Some are even openly hateful and might enjoy being called “homosexists” than “homophobes.” Hopefully eliminating the term “homophobia” is at least one thing both sides can agree on.