Merida Brave

Ralph Breaks the Internet and the problem with the jokes about Merida's accent

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Sep 27, 2018, 4:52 PM EDT (Updated)

"I gave my mum a cake and she turned into a big bear and my dad tried to kill her. If that's not a mess then I don't know what is."

That's a rough translation of Merida's one line in the trailer for Wreck-It Ralph 2, also known as Ralph Breaks the Internet. Kelly Macdonald, who plays Merida, says the line with a stronger Scottish inflection than the character has in her solo movie, Brave, but all in all, it's very easy to understand what she says. Perhaps that's why it stings so much when the follow-up line from Moana is "We can't understand her," which alleviates the uneasy look on Vanellope's face.

The brief scene became fodder for Scottish Twitter, and the meme quickly took on a life of its own in other international circles. Merida’s angry screen-capped face became the internet vessel for Trainspotting quotes, badly spelled Scottish colloquialisms, and just random gibberish. The crux of the joke was simple — she’s angry and unintelligible and doesn’t talk “properly,” so it’s funny. Half the time, the tweets don’t even need to make sense or invoke real Scots. We don’t say “fook,” for one.

Being mocked for your accent is not exclusive to Scots. I would hazard a guess that a significant portion of people reading this post have experienced that moment where a stranger smugly smiles at them and jokes about how “odd” they sound. It’s an experience that becomes even more fraught if you’re not white. However, in my experience as a Scottish person who writes about pop culture for a living, I am keenly aware of how my accent and cultural experience is coded, especially when it’s done so by Americans.

Scottishness is typically coded as primal, as of a different time from the rest of the world, almost inhumanely magic. Think of every Highlander romance novel you’ve ever read where the stoic hero grunts or growls or has dialogue written with half the letter missing. Think of how Groundskeeper Willie in The Simpsons is positioned so frequently as a brute or uneducated swine. Think of how Scots tend to be shown either getting into fistfights in pubs or rolling around in the heather as bagpipes play. Modernity is not a frequent feature of Scottish-driven stories in the mainstream cultural consciousness, and a way that is strengthened is through dialogue and dialect.

Words go missing, letters disappear, and eventually the rich textures of the varied array of Scottish accents are smudged into an indecipherable stew of sounds. It’s no coincidence that Merida suddenly sounds way stronger in her accent in Wreck-It-Ralph 2 than she ever did in Brave. Indeed, the surprisingly deft dialect complexities of that film are ignored altogether in favor of the easy joke.

Brave is not widely considered a great film, by general or Pixar standards, but it does something that even most Scottish produced films don’t do: It demonstrates different dialects of Scots. No two Scots in that film — and the fact that its cast is made up of mostly Scottish actors is its own minor miracle — sound the same. Kelly Macdonald is a Glaswegian woman whose accent as Merida echoes that of Billy Connelly, who plays her father but is refined enough to remind the audience of her regal roots. Emma Thompson adopts a Morningside accent (a notoriously posh Scottish one) that harkens back to Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Julie Walters invokes a giddy Northern twang to her character, evoking memories of the Hebrides. Then there’s Kevin McKidd, an Elgin boy, who adopts the Doric dialect of North-East Scots for his character. The joke there is that even other Scots struggle to decipher him, and that’s true of so many of us. It’s not a mean joke and it works because it’s surrounded by such a rich selection of Scottishness. Ralph Breaks the Internet lifts the joke out of context and repeats it for a cheap laugh, only now the joke is Scottishness itself.

This isn't just an issue of bad writing or lazy shorthand either. This is a topic of immense cultural importance. Scots is a minority language, even in Scotland, and is one that has historically been maligned and discriminated against. Like many minority languages, it was pushed out of schooling systems and considered the "wrong" way to speak. It wasn't considered its own language but a "bad" way of speaking English. In contemporary linguistic conversations, Scottishness and its language are almost exclusively tied to being working class. It's not "proper" so it must be on a lower level. Even in that moment, Merida's accent and choice of words code her as not being like the other princesses. The joke here is that she's from the other studio, Pixar, but that's tied so inextricably to the way she speaks that it just emphasizes how Scottishness equals the "other".

This is a problem that extends far beyond the mere lazy comedic shorthand of Disney. The cultural landscape of Scottishness in entertainment, both made by us and outsiders, has a long and complicated history in reinforcing negative stereotypes, particularly related to language and dialect. Scottish actors go overseas and lose their accents so they can get roles outside of limiting tropes. Americans play Scottish icons and talk like they’re midway to a hernia because that’s what people expect Scots to sound like. Scottish stories must be highly romanticized Highland lore or heroin stained tales of misery because that’s what people expect and what producers will give money to. Gaelic will almost never feature. Scots don’t get to be British but they still have to adopt the language of refined Englishness to get ahead and be classified as speaking “properly.” Merida’s a princess, one who changed her own fate, but she’s the one the others turn into a one-joke figure because she’s an “other”.

Scots language has been actively and passively suppressed for hundreds of years and it's taken a good many years for action to be taken to preserve it. A positive way pop culture can help to legitimize its status as a minority language is through taking the time to truly respect it beyond the urge to mine something one doesn't understand for a quick laugh. Merida, like all Scots, shouldn't be exclusively defined by how others perceive her way of talking, but our language is at the core of our culture. Surely it deserves better than cheap memes and condescension?

If you're interested in finding out more about the Scots language, check out the website of the Scots Language Centre.

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