January 25, 2010

Boston in cinema - Part II

I have already written about the dismal state of my home city/state on screen, focusing mostly on the city itself and trying to dispel the myth that it is all a thug-ridden shithole. Now, due to a series of pop-culture and personal events, I feel the need to be vocal again - this time about the Bay State's population.

I had a job interview recently in my current home of Portland, Oregon. The interview went well, and at the end the woman noted my place of origin from my resume and then said, "Wow, you totally got rid of your Boston accent."

She skipped right over "did you ever have an accent?" to go straight to "the only explanation is that you had one and then it went away." I blame movies.

I explained to her what I call the "Boston Accent Ring." You make a dot - that's Boston. No one is from Boston proper, in the same way that virtually no one is from Midtown Manhattan. It's all professionals and students. Now, there's a ring of smaller towns around the metro Boston area where people DO have the accent (also, a few scattered towns nearby and parts of New Hampshire). And then beyond the ring, nothing. Massachusetts has about 6 million people in 351 towns/cities. Scanning a list of towns, I could only come up with about 17 that definitely (or probably) produced the accent, some very small. And that has to assume that parents of child have to have the accent as well, so the family would have to be in that area for at least two generations. Plus the greater Boston area, due primarily to its acclaimed colleges, draws mostly people from other parts of the country and/or world.

With that math in mind, how does it make sense that EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN EVERY MOVIE SET IN BOSTON has this accent? Did they all grow up in these 17 towns? Let's use New York to give some perspective: that's like saying that every person in New York State is from Queens, or giving every cinematic New Yorker a Polish accent because New York has a bunch of Polish people. Actors are making themselves look stupid and producers are spending money on all these dialect coaches for NO REASON. (I'm only referring to modern-era movies - the accent started cropping up in the 70s and by the end of the 90s no Boston film was without it).

Why does this matter? It's just a silly accent, right? Well, yes and no. The Boston accent, unlike, say, a British one, has really bad connotations. It implies that you're a near-illiterate douchebag whose head is so clouded with love for the Red Sox that you literally cannot form another thought. You're rowdy, impulsive, dumb, trashy. And, if you're in the movies, you're probably also a criminal. The accent carries with it a whole persona. (Slate writer Jessica Grose suggests "Massholes" as a follow-up to "Jersey Shore." Hey, it makes sense.) When the woman at the interview expressed her amazement that I got rid of my accent, she said in a weird way that seemed to contain echoes of "Barack Obama is really eloquent for a black person."

In a way, the onscreen Boston/Massachusetts goon evolution somewhat parallels (parallels - it's not nearly as bad, I'm aware of that) what happened to African-Americans in movies. In both cases, a stereotype/archetype was born that the audience couldn't get enough of, and became so pervasive that people thought it was actually true of everyone in that group. Now, these Massholes do exist, but again their numbers are so small that it's ludicrous to have them represent a whole population.

Where's my evidence that people can't enough of the Boston goon? The first episode of this season of American Idol, that's where. It was the Boston audition round, which I feel especially qualified to discuss since I was there. Yup, I was a PA at the first round of auditions. So anyway, they shuffle the locations for the auditons each year. For example, they wouldn't go to Boston and New York in the same year because they know that people from one will go to the other and vice versa. So essentially, we had the entirety of the East Coast hopefuls in attendance up to where the next audition spot, Atlanta, started taking over. I watched the episode only because I worked on it, and I noticed that aside from the really good people, they showed a disproportionate number of Boston goons. They must have really hunted for them, because I stood behind one of the tents (they don't show this on TV, but in the first round you sing for a couple of producers in one of 13 tents) for hours and hours and don't think I saw a single one. Why? Why can't you have just generic weirdos? My only explanation is that they're trying to give America what America thinks Boston is. And there's no sign of slowing down, with Edge of Darkness and Shutter Island on the horizon and Julianne Moore's absurd representation on "30 Rock" (where I guess admittedly, they do mock everyone). Are producers afraid of having their films called inauthentic because their audience doesn't know the truth?

As I mentioned in my other post, I can't think of another city has this representation problem. Aside from Chicago in the 30s, when the movies would have you believe it was comprised entirely of sneering gangsters, every on-screen city has hoodlums, intellectuals, professionals, losers, winners, uglies, hotties, everything. Even the South, which a lot of people thoroughly and honestly believe has nothing but toothless incestuous people in trailer parks, has the rich and restless suburbanites of sex, lies, and videotape, the pretty young lovers of The Notebook, and the pimps and thugs of Hustle and Flow, among others.

It's a stupid stereotype that somehow completely erases the fact that Massachusetts is somewhere between first and third most educated state in the nation (whether you count it by bachelor's degrees, college graduates, advanced degrees - it's always in there), and has historically been really progressive. We wouldn't have all the history, accomplishments and notable figures to our name if we were all just a bunch of meatheads.

Lest you think I'm being too sensitive, I can totally laugh at my own people - I always thought the SNL sketches with Rachel Dratch and Jimmy Fallon as screaming Massholes were hilarious. It's just an oversaturation issue that's actually causing America to think badly of a state that doesn't deserve it. I don't want to live my life in other states perpetually explaining that I didn't escape from Planet of the Sox-Obsessed Apes. We gave America basketball, the birth control pill, the telephone, the liquid-fueled rocket, the Kennedys. We're on the cutting edge of medical and scientific research. We had the nation's first public library, high school, compulsory school attendance law, planned industrial city, public park, subway, college, and right for gays to marry. We're kind of a big deal. Let's hope these caricatures don't erase that.

P.S. - In researching for this article, I heard about Next Stop Wonderland again, which appears to be the only modern-era Boston film where people are normal? It's definitely on my to-see list now.


Jess said...

Growing up a "Connecticutlet", I would say that "Masshole" is definitely an established moniker- though usually used in terms of driving habits! The douchebag film representation doesn't reflect our perception, anyway. We always get the "rich snob" representation ourselves, when really, CT is mostly country/farms!

Kurz said...

"The Boston accent, unlike, say, a British one, has really bad connotations. It implies that you're a near-illiterate douchebag whose head is so clouded with love for the Red Sox that you literally cannot form another thought. You're rowdy, impulsive, dumb, trashy. And, if you're in the movies, you're probably also a criminal. The accent carries with it a whole persona."

Actually, the first person that comes to mind when I hear a Boston accent is the late President Kennedy. Also, if you're gonna complain about accents, don't lump all the different British accents together as one.