The Aussie Accent Embargo

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You call that an accent? This is an accent? 

Words || Regina Featherstone

Crocodile Dundee has a lot to answer for after convincing the rest of the world we call prawns ‘shrimps’. Paul Hogan’s character has, in an equally misleading fashion, created the ‘tough’ and ‘blokey’ Australian stereotype. Whether we like it or not, our accent in film is synonymous with crocodile wrestling, surf rescue, and bush rangers. This hero narrative, this mythology of generalisation, is something we have created ourselves.

Despite many Australian actors ‘making it big’ in Hollywood, we don’t often hear our accent in film, although we did witness Robert Downey Jr’s woeful attempts in Natural Born Killers and the modern classic Tropical Thunder (you tried, Iron Man). But seriously, why is the Australian accent excluded in blockbusters? And do Mick Dundee’s bleached roots have anything to do with it?

Australian Screen Editors Guild and Macquarie Karen Pearlman, former President of the University Screen Production lecturer, explained that we don’t hear the Australian accent because it’s not part of the norm. Someone like Nicole Kidman, for example, will adopt an American voice because the Hollywood industry seeks to reinforce its norm. These conditions exist to consolidate popularity and deliver consistency.

“The product needs to be standard, complete with the hero’s journey, certain action quota, and sexual banter to meet audience expectations.” Pearlman adds: “when I first saw Mad Max, it was dubbed into American to make it less difficult [to understand].”

It seems as if international films use the Australian accent to signify otherness. Since the American accent is the norm, any departure reminds the audience of stereotypes previously represented in other box-office films. It’s hard for us to rise above the bush brute archetype, recently perpetuated by Hugh Jackman in the creatively titled Australia. Aussie actor/visual buffet, Chris Hemsworth, has even admitted he couldn’t use his homegrown voice when acting as Thor because people would think “That’s Crocodile Dundee!”

croc dundee

Russell Crowe successfully shed the ocker stereotype by using a strong Aussie accent in films like Gladiator and Master & Commander, but, it begs the question: why haven’t we heard our accent more since then?

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Joel Edgerton uses a British accent to portray the ancient Egyptian/Hebrew tale. Really, if the intention was to be historically accurate, Edgerton should’ve spoken the language of the times. But time and time again Hollywood proves that, on their agenda, validity is secondary to entertainment and familiarity. Instead of accurate portrayal, Edgerton reflects the generic British Caucasian, the traditional Hollywood way of narrating epic and historical stories. An Aussie accent would’ve sounded no more jarring than a British one, and certainly have been less out of place than Edgerton’s awful, Kardashian-inspired tan.

Linguistically, our language can be divided into three sections: the cultivated (Cate Blanchett); the general (Julia Gillard); and the broad (Steve Irwin or Fitzy & Wippa). There is no reason why cultivated Australian accents can’t be interchangeable with British ones.

I proposed the idea to Pearlman that Australian accents in film can be a stylistic decision by directors as signifiers of a particular stereotypical character. She claimed this idea was too broad to apply. It can be said, however, that directors like Neil Bloomkamp (District 9) employ specific accents to convey tougher characters. A good example of this is Hugh Jackman’s villainous character in Chappie. In film interviews, Jackman claimed the script used sayings he’d never heard of, and he was intentionally broadening his ocker accent. Similarly, strong South African accents are used to affect toughness in the likes of Copley’s Elysium.

While Hollywood only ever embraces a small part of the Australian accent, Pearlman suggests the Australian film industry isn’t much better. Films like Kenny, Animal Kingdom, and even The Castle are thematically alike: white-centric and not confronting. What we see on our screen doesn’t always reflect the multiculturalism of our country. I acknowledge there are films that cover minority experiences – like Anh Do’s Footy Legends – but rarely do they become roaring commercial successes. Pearlman adds that perhaps we don’t fully understand our own accent or accept the way it can be used in different contexts, such as city-to-city, or suburb-to-suburb.

Many successful Australian actors in Hollywood swap their accents for an American accent in order to comply with the norm. Sometimes, a few non-Australian actors will attempt to adopt the Australian accent, and fail spectacularly (I’m looking at you, Tarantino, for the end of Django Unchained … what the hell was that?) However, it does seem that the Aussie accent has enjoyed an increase in American film, with characters like Rose Byrne in Bad Neighbours and Maybe a change will happen and we will hear more authentic accents coming from actors in mainstream films. Doing so would help to shake up the tired Hollywood formula, not just for Australians, but for everyone.

While Crocodile Dundee may have cast a big, animal-skinned shadow over our accent for years, regular Aussie accents and characters are emerging in film. It will be a slow paradigm shift, away from taboo and toward normality. Hopefully we see diversity in our representation by Australian cinema and – dare I say it – television shows.