I need to tell you about something that has bothered me for a long time. It’s something that makes me want to start a grassroots movement to raise awareness and sensitivity about it so that people aren’t so quick to stereotype and condemn. We all make snap judgments; it’s natural. But we need to remember that our first impressions are not necessarily the truth.
I became aware of this particular issue when I was in high school. I went to see Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Great movie, even though Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan really is the best one. This is the scene that triggered my epiphany. Watch and listen closely:
Did you catch the accent on the one guy? I’m sure it’s supposed to be New York. The actor does a really crappy New York accent, but it’s evocative enough that I get the point. He’s a blue-collar worker, so he has a blue-collar accent to match. Despite the fact that this movie is set in San Francisco.
The other day I was watching a rerun of NCIS. The episode involved mob guys in Virginia. They had New York accents. (Does the Mafia even operate down south? I have no idea.)
Fonzie? Motorcyle-riding greaser in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. New York accent. Same for Lenny & Squiggy, Carmine, Laverne, and Mr. Di Fazio. Apparently dumb punks and Italians have New York accents regardless of where they live. It could have been the influence of Garry Marshall, a New Yorker with an accent so thick you could slice it, but still.
I won’t even get into all the other movies, TV shows, and commercials where the cop, bus driver, cab driver, construction worker, waitress, criminal, hooker, or [fill in your favorite non-white collar worker here] have New York accents—no matter where they’re supposed to take place. You’re casting for a movie where one of the characters is a two-bit thug? Make sure he sounds like he’s from Brooklyn, even though the film is set in Texas.
Everyone associates a New York accent with a certain type of person, with a certain socio-economic level and intelligence level. People do it with other accents too—the southern accent, for example. But southern accents aren’t often deployed like that in shows or movies set in non-southern areas. (Or maybe they are and I just haven’t noticed them as much.) And over the past 50 years we’ve had four presidents with southern accents: LBJ, Carter, Clinton, and W. Not one who sounds like Joe Pesci.
I mean, there’s nothing at all wrong with doing blue-collar work, but we can do other things credibly too, you know. Imagine hearing a hardcore New Yorker take the Oath of Office as president, saying, “So help me Gawd”? Doesn’t that instill massive amounts of confidence? Wouldn’t you go all dreamy and swoony if you saw a production of Romeo and Juliet in which the two main actors spoke the Queens English? Just think of how reassured you would be by a doctor who spoke in a Bronx lilt: “Ya got KEEAN-suh butcha gonna be foin.”
So please, the next time you hear a New Yorker talk and automatically think, “What an imbecile,” remember that we’re people too. It’s just a matter of appreciating the unique beauty and music of our cadences. As Shakespeare said, If you prick us, do we not say, “What the fuck, asshole?” If you tickle us, do we not say, “Whaddaya doin’a me, knockit ooowahff”? If you poison us, do we not say, “Shit, what the fuck didja put in here?” And if you wrong us, shall we not cut you? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. Fuhgeddaboutit.