So, at last week’s American Music Awards we all watched as Gigi Hadid made fun of Melania Trump's accent. Should we have been impressed by her ability to transform her face into Melania’s high cheeked pout and her portrayal of Melania’s accented English pronunciation. Or should we have seen this as the mocking of an accent for a cheap laugh? In this case the backlash was instantaneous. Gigi was derided for her so-called racist bullying with her loudest detractor, predictably being Melania’s husband, the President Elect himself. I found it somewhat hypocritical that he found it racist when his wife’s English pronunciation and accent were mimicked but found nothing wrong with his attempted mimicry of an Indian accent, not to mention his offensive imitation of a New York reporter with cerebral palsy.
Mimicking someone’s accent to make fun of a person or a cultural group, is simply not nice. However, not all imitation is so clear-cut. A study conducted at the University of California, Riverside found that people subconsciously mimic other people’s accents as a result of "the chameleon effect". The study reported that the chameleon effect refers to our subconscious instinct to “empathise and affiliate” with other people. Lead researcher, Professor Lawrence Rosenblum, found that in addition to imitating body language and facial expressions, we also imitate each other's speech patterns, including English pronunciation, intonation, speech rate, and speaking time. “Sometimes we even take on the foreign accent of the person to whom we are talking, leading to embarrassing consequences."
So, at what point do we cross the line from imitating someone as a form of flattery, making fun of them because of the way they speak to downright racism? Is it okay when we subconsciously mirror an accent in order to relate to someone? It seems clear that as long as the other person does not mistake this imitation of their accent as mockery or bullying then it’s okay, even flattering. When the intent is to make fun of or humiliate the person then imitation of an accent and their English pronunciation not okay. But as we saw when Trump imitated an Indian accent he was mocking an entire cultural group, which is downright racism.
So when Madonna imitated a British accent when living in London with her British ex-husband this was her attempt to assimilate. Gigi, however, took it a step too far when she purposefully imitated Melania’s accent to ridicule her. But mockery of an accent for racist intent, like President Elect Trump did, is clearly crossing the crossing the line .... or rather, should we say the wall.
For more information on accents and accent reduction contact us at Change Your Accent.