Instructor: Brian Ganter
21 June 2015
Language And Perception
Literature and language can play a significant role in shaping one’s mind and affect how people formulate their ideas on various topics. This is not limited to a particular age range and in fact, affects young and old to a large extent. Novels and film are two primary modes of communication where language largely determines the audience’s view of the subject. It follows that the language used in literary works and film should be chosen carefully in order to avoid intentional or inadvertent manipulation of the audience. Breaking Bad and Orange Is The New Black are two examples of TV series, and Huckleberry Finn is an example of a novel where one can find instances of shortcomings on behalf of the author in the use of language leading to a potential negative impact on the audience’s understanding of the subject.
In the TV series Breaking Bad, the main character Walter White portrays a high school chemistry teacher leading an uneventful and financially challenged life. Walter’s life takes a dramatic change when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Concerned for the financial future of his pregnant wife and his teenage son in light of his terminal illness, he decides to use his chemistry background to produce pure methamphetamine. In another TV series called Orange Is the New Black, Piper Chapman is a newly-engaged young woman from New York whose care-free adventurous past catches up with her and lands her in prison for 15 months as she was caught carrying drug money over international borders for a former lover. The series primarily takes place inside a women’s prison and depicts Piper’s challenges as she grapples to survive in a foreign and hostile environment. Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn tells the story of a young boy named Huck growing up along the Mississippi River in the late 19th century. Huck’s alcoholic father Pap leaves Huck to fend for himself and to lead a very carefree life unlike other town children whose lives and behavior are regulated by their families and traditional 19th century social norms. Huck befriends Jim, a runaway slave, and the pair share a friendship that sees them thru their adventures.
In “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell suggests that language is not a natural growth and is in fact an instrument that can be shaped for one’s own purposes (1). Although not specifically referred to by Orwell, stereotyping is one way through which language may be used as an instrument for such purposes and to influence the audience’s understanding. Stereotyping also need not be expressed explicitly or overtly in order to achieve such objectives. Implicit use of stereotyping in literature can negatively impact the audience’s understanding not unlike other means listed by Orwell such as dying metaphors, meaningless words, and euphemisms. Orwell indicates “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible” (1). These manipulative uses of language may be more recognizable in formal language, but one can also find parallels in more informal language used in film and TV series. For example, in the TV series Breaking Bad a pair of Mexican young men are used to portray common drug dealers, which is a very well established stereotypical portrayal of Mexican youth in American pop culture. This is a fitting example of use of literature in a screenplay in that it shapes the audience’s mind; namely, it reinforces the view of Mexican American youth as deeply entrenched in a life of drugs and crime (Season 1 Episode 2 45:33). Although Walter White and his partner Jesse, who are both white, are also engaged in the drug trade, there is much more to their characters than drug dealing alone. They both are afforded human relations and families, whose unfortunate circumstances played a key role in forcing them towards the drug trade. The Mexican drug dealers, in contrast, have little else to define their characters that would allow one to sympathize with them and their potential misfortunes that may have driven them to a life of crime.
The TV series Orange is the New Black resorts to similar racial stereotypes. For example, Crazy Eyes is played by a black person who instills fear in others due to her unpredictability, irrationally, and volatile character. In contrast, the prison’s yoga instructor is played by a white person who exudes calmness, peace, and friendliness. This type of racial stereotyping is in line with the “angry black person” characterization permeating race relations in America. For instance, having her awkward romantic proposals rejected by Piper Chapman, Crazy Eyes responds by urinating in front of Piper’s cell in a characteristically crazed and bizarre fashion (Season 1 Episode 3 54:51). Meanwhile, Piper’s former lover Alex Vause’s reaction to Piper’s rejections is decidedly different; namely, she is non-threatening, calm, and intelligent. The “angry black person” is yet again constructed for the audience during Piper’s very first interactions with other inmates. On her first day entering the prison while being transported on the bus, Piper’s first conversation with inmates is met by a very hostile and rude black inmate (Season 1 Episode 18:50). Another instance of stereotyping of a specific ethnic group in Orange is the New Black is the characterization of Red’s former Russian friends who are pictured as a caricature-like group with tacky taste in their appearance and little else to do than trying desperately to use their new-found wealth from a life of crime to gain higher social status. This is in sharp contrast to the characterization of Piper’s family members whose social and economic status is unquestioned and assumed wholly deserved (Season 1 Episode 1 15:10).
The above-mentioned examples of stereotyping certain groups demonstrate a form of language abuse in contemporary film and literature. Although more subtle and implicit than previously common practices, they are in many ways a continuation of such practices that expressed themselves more explicitly in more traditional works of literature such as Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.
Although Mark Twain generally stands in contrast to 19th century common attitudes towards blacks in so far as he sympathizes with the plights of black, his writings are not devoid of stereotypes altogether. For example, when Jim offers up his freedom in order to save Tom, he is described in the novel as being “white inside” (Twain 278). This implies that such noble expressions of self sacrifice are inherently not present in the black race as a whole, and is a trait limited to whites only. Jim’s portrayal in Huck Finn is in line with another stereotypical perception of 19th century blacks which holds all black to be superstitious and lacking intelligence in general. Throughout Huck Finn, there are numerous times when Jim expresses steadfast superstitious beliefs. For example, Jim’s quick to point out the terrible luck one can expect if one is to touch a snake with bare hands (Twain 54). Jim’s irrationality and fictitious beliefs especially stand out as he is intellectually challenged by the young Huck.
Finally, another abuse of language can entail the practice of euphemism which is defined as “a polite word or expression that you use instead of a more direct one to avoid shocking or upsetting someone” (Longman Dictionary 576). Specifically, there is a wide movement today in contemporary literary circles to replace the N-word in Twain’s novel with the word “slave”. This omission serves to undermine the historical truth of the novel and presents a false picture to the audience. This is especially important for those readers who may not be familiar with 19th century American history. Removal of such words from original texts can rob the reader of a true appreciation of prevailing circumstances and realities. In response, there has been widespread and vehement opposition within academia and literary circles to counter such efforts to replace the N-word with the word “slave”. “Slightly crackpot” is how the idea to replace the N-word has been described by Geff Barton, head of King Edward’s School in Bury St Edmunds (The Guardian). Although the use of euphemisms in literature may serve a positive purpose, omission of the N-word lies more along the lines of omission of truth.
To sum up, films and novels, and the language they adopt play an important role in shaping our understanding. It is, therefore, imperative that such language be free from abuse and manipulation.
Breaking Bad. Dir. Vince Gilligan. Netflix, 2008. Netflix. Web. 16 June
“New Huckleberry Finn edition censors n-word”. The Guardian. 05
Jan. 2011. Web. 14 June 2015
Orange Is the New Black. Dir. Jenji Kohan. Netflix, 2013. Netflix.
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Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Vincent Ferraro.
9 Apr. 2006. International Relations portal. Web. 18 June 2015
Procter, Paul. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.Harlow
England: Longman, 1978. Print.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Charles L.
Webster And Company, 1885. eBooks. Web. 15 June 2015.