Watto’s accent
Posted: 17 January 2017 06:47 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Before we start, please watch this.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lq3WtfxMaI

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.
https://youtu.be/xEAc1ot7w_g?t=55s

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”.

wattohs.jpg?w=228&h=300

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”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lq3WtfxMaI

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.

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Posted: 17 January 2017 07:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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In the adventure stories of the pulp era, ethnic stereotypes were a given, especially for the villains and the comic relief.  In the science fiction (or, more properly, space opera) of the period, which Lucas has drawn inspiration from and lovingly tried to recreate on screen, aliens took on these roles. Hence Jabba, Watto, Jar-Jar Binks et al.  They may be annoying, but they are a legitimate part of Lucas’s homage to Planet Stories and its like.

To me, Watto’s accent sounds like a mixture of Italian and Eastern European, and his headgear suggests a doughboys helmet, not a yarmulke.

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Posted: 18 January 2017 05:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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When I first saw The Phantom Menace, without the influence of any priming, my reaction to the Watto character was “My God, how could Lucas think this blatantly anti-Semitic character was a good idea!”

The overall impression is based on vague characteristics, and can disappear when you analyze the individual elements. For me, the clinching elements are the combination of the hook nose, the avarice, and the hat (which on it’s own does resemble a WWI doughboy’s helmet, but combined with the nose creates the effect of a Hasid). The accent didn’t really enter into it to me, other than to emphasize the character was “other.”

Similar factors create the impression that the Neimoidians are Asian. As you say, in their case its the clothing, headgear, and accents. Jar Jar is Jamaican, based on accent and his stereotypical carriage. (In his case, not so much an insult to Jamaicans as an insult to the audience who has to watch him.)

And going back to the original, A New Hope, Vader’s helmet and the stormtroopers evoked the Nazis, while the imperial naval uniforms resembled those of the WWII Japanese army and navy.

I don’t think the ethnic stereotypes are deliberate. (Although I suspect the WWII allusions in the original are.) But as Dr. T said, may be callbacks to pulp fiction or may simply be stereotypes that are unconsciously dredged up and put on screen without the artists realizing it. That’s the problem with racism, it pervades everything and is often unconscious. That doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain it. For the later movies, few people could contradict Lucas and those that might have the power to challenge him wouldn’t come into the decision-making process until long after primary filming had been shot, making changes too expensive. So once Lucas approved a particular character’s look, that was it.

(As you may have guessed, my opinion of Lucas as a filmmaker is not very high. He’s a creative guy who had one massive hit—A New Hope—but was unable to replicate it. His other successes (e.g., Indiana Jones) were largely the work of others (i.e., Spielberg). He contributed creative elements, but his bad impulses were reined in. When given complete creative control he made a hash of it. And yes, you may say “what about American Grafitti?” It was well timed to appeal to a post-60s nostalgia for an earlier, more innocent era, but really isn’t a very good movie.)

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Posted: 18 January 2017 06:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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To me, Watto’s accent sounds like a mixture of Italian and Eastern European, and his headgear suggests a doughboys helmet, not a yarmulke.

I agree, and I think this is a classic case of seeing what you’re looking for.  If you’re primed to see anti-Semitic caricatures, that’s what you’re going to see.  (I am reminded of Woody Allen’s classic “Jew eat?” bit.)

As you may have guessed, my opinion of Lucas as a filmmaker is not very high.

Preach, brother.

A New Hope

Please don’t do that!  Star Wars is Star Wars, regardless of Lucas’s crazed reworkings and retrofittings.  (And yes, Han Shot First.)

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Posted: 18 January 2017 07:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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When seen side-by-side with a stereotypical caricature, the similarity is very, very obvious

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Posted: 29 January 2017 08:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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languagehat - 18 January 2017 06:20 AM

(And yes, Han Shot First.)

Stereotypical Chinese perfidy. ;-)

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Posted: 30 January 2017 04:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I apologise for not following instructions, and hence being primed. I’d never seen anything from the Star Wars series, and it’s worse than I thought, going by that.)

I think the yarmulka and dreydl are far-fetched, but it’s clearly in the tradition of Jewish swindler. The accent, as has been noted, is Eastern European mixed with Italian, but there’s more crossover there than one might think. I can’t remember who wrote an article comparing the habits, stereotypes, etc. of American Jews with those of compatriots of Italian descent, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn there was more than one. Growing up in NYC, I had a Jewish teacher married to an Italian-American and an Italian-American teacher married to a Jew. Think of Chico in the Marx Brothers films, the archetypal ‘Italian’ Jewish spiv.

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Posted: 30 January 2017 06:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Bensonhurst (in Brooklyn) is the locus classicus—I had a Jewish friend who grew up there, and he said the Jews and Italians were both separated and intermingled, mutual friends, enemies, and role models.

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Posted: 30 January 2017 07:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Think of Chico in the Marx Brothers films,

Now I have a most unlikely-to-be-satisfied desire to see Watto play the piano.

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Posted: 30 January 2017 04:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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He’s even got a Marxist format name, _ _ _ _ O.

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Posted: 02 February 2017 11:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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He sounds nearly identical to a Greek fellow who has run various businesses in our town over the last thirty-five or forty years – except that Watto is easier to understand.

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