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How Netflix’s increasing use of foreign language content is helping to fight xenophobia

From Narcos to Altered Carbon, the streaming service is finally making moves to cater to a global audience

Ximena Larkin
Saturday 14 April 2018 14:42 BST
The Cloverfield Paradox - trailer

Netflix’s increasing use of foreign languages is building a global community where English isn’t king.

And it’s about time, as we need every tool we have to fight rising xenophobia.

Narcos may have kicked off this trend, but it goes way beyond just reading the subtitles. An audience of 104 million Netflix subscribers are devouring content in Spanish, German and Arabic.

Nielsen released viewer numbers on two original Netflix programmes that debuted the same week: the sci-fi movie Cloverfield Paradox drew in 5 million viewers in the first week, and Altered Carbon, a television series based on an English book, brought in 2.5 million viewers.

In both instances, leads spoke a language other than English throughout its run time. Chinese actor Zhang Ziyi plays an engineer in Cloverfield, and all her lines are recited in Chinese. Mexican actor Martha Higareda’s dialogue in Altered Carbon is primarily English, delivered with a hint of accent. However, she frequently reverts to her native Spanish in the series, as do the actors who play her family members. Co-star Waleed Zuaiter, who plays her partner, also speaks Arabic in key scenes.

The streaming service is producing popular programming depicting foreign and first-generation English-speaking actors, each communicating in their native tongue. The English speakers simply respond without skipping a beat. The implication is that they understand one another and choose the language they’re most comfortable responding in.

Up until 2014, Hollywood prioritised US audiences. Every now and then tokenism occurred in which a foreign actor, popular in another market, was cast. However, the actor was usually relegated to the background, with little to no speaking lines. Fan Bingbing, a Chinese actor in X-Men: Days of Future Past, ironically played a mutant called “Blink,” in a “blink and you miss it” role. She might not be a household name in the West, but according to Forbes, she is one of the world’s top five highest paid female actors, alongside her X-Men co-star Jennifer Lawrence.

A shift occurred when movie studios saw that 70 per cent of their revenue originated from overseas markets, predominantly in China and Russia. With this insight, Hollywood studios began working to cater to non-English speaking audiences by casting foreign actors and filming overseas.

Using this approach creates an opportunity for diversity and inclusion. Why hire actors to fake a foreign accent and risk the backlash associated with it (a la Jennifer Lawrence’s Red Sparrow), when Hollywood can simply employ actors and writers of various nationalities?

An excellent case study is Chinese actor Donnie Yen, who was cast in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as a warrior. Instead of whitewashing martial arts, they cast Yen, a wushu (martial arts) expert from China. Yen is a revered action star, thanks to the box office success of Ip Man – a film based on a grandmaster of Wing Chun and teacher of Bruce Lee – which I discovered after starting to practise kung fu. Casting Yen in the Star Wars film seems like there’s a real, symbiotic relationship between the East and the West. It’s not simply a scheme to profit off a certain demographic. Yen may speak in the film in accented English, but it’s a step in the right direction when it comes to eliminating cultural appropriation.

There is no doubt that English is a dominant language, spoken throughout the world. However, we need to stop acting as if it’s the only one that matters. More people speak Chinese and Spanish. It’s time for what’s on screen to accurately reflect a global community that includes 244 million immigrants. Why do we set the bar at English instead of requiring more people to learn Chinese and/or Spanish?

Hollywood cinema may have seen an opportunity to capitalise on a foreign market, but pandering to an audience is always a risk. Emerging markets are realising their purchasing power and it’s refreshing to see Netflix break the mould and meet them halfway, instead of force-feeding the same homogenised English content. The company’s churning out of original programming is made to satiate our appetite for binge-watching content. Encompassing other cultures keeps things fresh and viewers engaged.

This positive move has another purpose: to contribute to the fight against xenophobia. By exploiting our desire for a steady stream of new content, the company is subtly exposing us to new languages and cultures. The end result is millions of viewers who learn that human nature is universal and we are more alike than we might have thought.

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