Before we start, please watch this.
The Star War prequels came in for some stick because some aliens were perceived as having been given traits associated with ethnic stereotypes.
The sneaky, mercantlist Neimoidians are given clothing and headgear that reminded audiences of China or Japan, and accents that are also vaguely far Eastern.
Jar Jar Binks appeared to be more mixed, with some reviewers describing his accent as Caribbean while others thought he was an African American caricature. Al Sharpton, for instance, said the Jar Jar “speaks ebonics”. Just to muddy the waters further, he said “muy muy” meaning very.
Watto was one of the more controversial characters. A greedy, cheating slave-owner, he says, “Mind tricks don’t work on me. Only money.” Several reviewers believed him to represent a Jewish stereotype because of his appearance: he has a large hooked nose, a shallow black hat and straggly beard that some authors have said look Hasidic, he has an object hanging from his cloak that one author called a “space-dreidel”.
The clincher for a lot of people was his accent. Bruce Gottlieb of Slate said that Watto’s accent was “clearly Yiddish”, while Max Engel called it “pseudo-Yiddish”. Mary Merkenich of GLW called it a “Jewish accent”. Pop-culture writer C.Coville was a bit more vague, saying it was a “Middle-eastern accent”.
On the other hand, Richard Corliss of Time magazine thought Watto sounded Turkish. Patricia J Williams of The Nation thought he was an Arab caricature. Meanwhile the voice artist who actually came up with Watto’s voice has said he was doing an Italian accent.
The reason I wanted you to watch the video first was to prevent “priming”.
So what’s going on here? How can some authors think that he sounds “clearly Yiddish” while other’s don’t hear it at all?
The (((Einstein)))s at Jewornotjew explain it thusly:
“But if a character has a big nose and loves money and the anti-defamation league or whoever says that makes him/her Jewish, well, that’s not the creator of the character spreading negative stereotypes. That’s the Jews themselves.”
You’re vilifying yourself. Stop vilifying yourself!
George Lucas himself has denied all the accusations about ethnic caricatures in these movies. It is a bit hard to see him sitting down at a planning meeting and saying “We need to cram these movies full of offensive stereotypes” but equally it seems that many people noticed these apparent stereotypes independently. Lucas was heavily influenced by the space operas and westerns of his youth. He originally wanted to make a film version of Flash Gordon, which contains very thinly disguised ethnic caricatures, albeit in SPAAAAAAAAAACE.
For mine, though, Watto does not have a clearly_ Yiddish accent. For one thing, the /w/ is perfectly open without any labiodental business. Despite the voice artist saying that he was going for an Italian accent, it is also not clearly an Italian accent, or any other actual Earthly accent. It sounds a bit Italian, a bit middle-Eastern, even a bit Russian in parts.
All in all there’s nothing clearly Jewish about Watto, but perhaps because there are so many little things that seem to be hinting at that, it “primed” some listeners to determine that his accent was Yiddish, or otherwise Jewish.
But I’d be interested in your views.