We’re playing cards and I’m new to the group, I only know the hosts. Old friends of mine I almost never see on account of the absurd distances between us. I’m so incredibly thrilled to see them again and get to know them in their own space. The party is a huge success and despite the fact that we’re about 15 too many for this kind of game everyone is having a great time, laughing uproariously. My somewhat caustic sense of humour gels well with this group as it tends to with people who don’t gel perfectly with the word normal, however you want to define that. I’m making successful inroads and pulling down some laughs. I’m having a great time.
“Sorry I’ve just gotta say,” she interrupts with a big cheeky grin on her face. She’s British by birth, though she grew up here, I learned later in the evening. But right now she’s as American as they get. Outspoken, confident. A bit brash; like polished copper. “But you’ve got a really fuckin’ sexy accent.”
“Yep.” The chorus of nods and agreements around me are too manifold for me to see exactly who chimes in and how many. But a lot of them. I smile, I think I said thank you. The night went on. Later I asked her why Americans seemed so fascinated by foreign accents and she protests that she is British. Perhaps it’s an English thing. I haven’t met very many foreigners besides Americans.
She’s not the worst by far and I really liked her, and all of the people I met at that party. But she is not the first and will not probably be the last who comments on my accent and I will never feel comfortable with it, in all probability.
I can’t hear my own accent and there isn’t much left of it. I speak and write English fluently, though my learning is a hopeless hodgepodge of American and British English. I spell like a Brit, but my vocabulary and pronunciation is American.
I am fully cognizant of the fact that most of the time these comments are made in a positive light (except for you, man-in-the-cell-phone-booth when I was a college transfer student. You were a fucking creep). And I often struggle to explain why, so this is my attempt.
It’s not a compliment for me
Where I live the cultural norm is that the less of an accent you manifest in your English the better. This is because people covet being able to pass for American or some part of the British isles. I’m not gonna go into the specifics of how that’s weird or fucked up (it is) but that is how it is and that is a feeling I have internalized, too. So when you compliment my accent you are – by my cultural standards – insulting my English-speaking capabilities.
It’s sexual in nature
It is made clear in one way or another that it’s about the attractiveness of my accent. Not my mastery of the language, my singing ability or anything else that is reasonably of my own doing. It focuses on my voice as something ornamental and make the words I speak with it secondary in importance.
It centres on my otherness
My accent is perceived as something different. Something unusual and exotic. Once people learn where it is from more specifically it will also often be associated to old and rather tired stereotypes of the supposed promiscuity of women from my country of origin. It’s attractive because of it’s novelty, it’s weirdness, for all the ideas that can be projected on it. Like people are attracted to large rare animals on the savannah. It’s got nothing to do with me as a person, only how I contrast to their idea of a more boring normal.
It’s not something I control
I cannot dress up or down my accent. I can’t choose to flaunt or hide it. It’s just there. When I am angry my accent becomes more pronounced. Having people comment on it makes me feel out of control and makes me very aware of the fact that people can choose to perceive me in any way they want to, regardless of how I feel about it. It highlights other people’s capability to objectify me.
It’s a theft of my autonomy
I am a feminist. I value my autonomy and my independence deeply. I speak up for myself. I argue, I discuss politics. I do this with my voice. My voice is my tool against sexism, patriarchy, against objectification. Having my voice treated like an object of sexual gratification undermines me and my capability to be heard and have my words heard.
So, dear Americans, please. Just fucking stop calling my accent sexy.