13 March 2012

Rastamouse the Racist Rat

I was reading a Guardian article on a new TV programme aimed at teaching toddlers foreign languages.  I've not got much to say about the programme itself short of the fact that experts seem to agree that TV alone cannot teach a child a language.  There is some indefinable "magic" that the real world gives to language.  Until we know what that is, TV can only tickle the edges of the language learning experience.  So the programme will be a moderate success because parents love it, but the kids won't get much out of it in the long run.

But what sparked this post was seeing a reference to "the controversial Rastamouse".  Rastamouse was, in my opinion, controversial for the wrong reasons.  It was criticised for teaching "bad English", because it was scripted in a dialect on the creole continuum between Jamaican English and Jamaican Patois.

Ever since I hit the section on creoles during my university studies, I've wanted to learn Patwa, so I was really excited when I found out about Rastamouse.  But then I watched it.  Rastamouse does not teach bad English, but in fact bad Jamaican Patois.  Most if not all of the actors are English.  Would you have a bunch of English actors record a series filmed in French?  Probably not.

So I looked at the credits list.  All these voice actors... what did they have in common?  They're all black.  Voice actors, remember.  What relevance does skin colour have to the voice?  Rather more important is accent, surely.  And yet the IMDB CV for the actor behind one of the recurring characters only lists "British" under his accent.

In this manner, the BBC undermined their own point: if the speech in Rastamouse is not "bad English" but a separate and legitimate language, how could it be delivered by English speakers?

The implied connection of language with skin colour is abhorrently racist, even though it was clearly a conscious attempt not to be racist.

Language is about people and place, and if you want to make a cartoon series involving Jamaican Patois, you should get Jamaican Patois speakers to voice it, white or black, it doesn't matter.  Just Jamaican.


Anonymous said...

The saddest part is, there are no shortage of Jamaican people in England.

Nìall Beag said...

Yep, and some of them are well trained actors more than capable of voicing a cartoon character.