In defence of Vanille's accent
(Spoiler warning: Final Fantasy XIII and Black Swan)
As someone well primed to North American accents through entertainment, and Australian accent through real life, I can admit that when I first heard Vanille speak, I was as bemused as the rest of the internet. She clearly didn’t sound like rest of the cast, but I had no idea what accent hers was meant to be, beside that the best I could gather at the time was to find a hint of familiarity in her speech.
Before getting to the accent, first, let me talk about Vanille the character. I knew Vanille’s hiding something way in beginning of the game. My first sneaking suspicion about Vanille was half way through the first dungeon with Hope. Somehow she’s driving the whole thing a bit hard, too incongruently cheerful, and that mysterious third ATB bar in battle that no one else had was awfully suspicious. Not to mention that inconsistent as heck, pseudo-American-pretending-to-be-Australian-pretending-to-be-American accent – Oh.
OH. That was what it was.
It suddenly made sense. I was not remotely surprised when, later on in the game, Vanille admits she’s from Pulse, and spends the entire game trying to fit in with the rest of Cocoon with whatever mimickery she can muster, while hoping to somehow fix her massive muck up.
Her role is the faker, the pretender. She needed to cloak herself up as an outsider somehow, and what a better way to do so than to try to speak like a native? Except that unless you’re well trained in theatre or are particularly talented, is never an easy task.
Here’s the other characteristic of Vanille: while she’s the one character with the most to hide, her nature’s far from calculating; she’s really an awfully inept liar. While someone like Fang wouldn’t even bother to hide that abnormality, as it only brings in more suspicion, for Vanille, a less-than-convincing evasion is exactly what she’d choose instead.
And a half arsed job is what we get in her narration of Final Fantasy XIII. People complained quite a bit about it. It’s jarring, alerting, far more suspicious than had she not done it, but Vanille isn’t the sort who’s above making mistakes. It doesn’t take Dr Cal Lightman to notice that she’s a crapshoot liar, one that is far too weighed down by the guilt to tell a convincing anything. I spent the entirety of the first half of the game waiting for Vanille to finally explode. Boy, did she or what?
“But,” you may exclaim, “this exactly what Vanille’s voice actor, Georgia van Cuylenburg, sounds like!”
Yes, I know that. This is where I make the argument that Square Enix made one hell of a smart choice with casting, one that I can only compare with casting Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan. I’ve never been a fan of Portman’s acting as I’ve found her anxiety and acute self-awareness of being a mediocre actor tends to bleed right onto the screen. Yet for the reading role in Black Swan, it worked because that’s the very quality that defines Nina. And Portman doesn’t have to be anymore homicidal (or a dancer for that matter) to nail the role than for van Cuylenburg to be a 519 year old Ragnorak transformer.
What I’m getting at is that both van Cunlenburg and Vanille share a sense of adopted belonging, one that involves altering the parts of them that act as a mark of identity.
“Where are you from?” is the question I’m often asked. The curiosity takes two distinct turns – the people took notice to my physique ask about my heritage, while the people who took notice to my accent ask where I’ve been. My features are what I am. My voice is who I am.
It’s usually a good natured curiosity that means no harm. I know that. But even then, sometimes I wish my “otherness” wouldn’t stick out so much. Sometimes, for that moment, I just want to be “normal” for that setting. Then people might pay more attention to my speech content rather than speech pattern. Maybe it’ll please them more, if I sound a little bit more familiar. Maybe they’ll hate me less, if I don’t constantly remind them I’m an infiltrator. Then one day, this social self-preservation turned into something else – maybe now I’m ready to truly adopt this accent for myself. I am here, I welcome the changes this place is creating in me, and the morphing of my accent is a reflection of that.
What especially linked me to Vanille and van Cuylengurg is that I’m also an outsider, a permanently drifting immigrant. Vanille left her heart in Oerba but still loved Cocoon enough to die for it. Van Cuylenburg commented on how she identifies both as an Australian and an American. As for me? Along the way, each place I lived in imprinted on me. Their language, their dialect, their style, their lexicon; this hybrid of inconsistent accent, this collection of audio scars that’s jarring for many others. But that is who I am.
To a degree, this is a choice. My first stint in immigration was one that I resisted to, being a child I had no other controls in the matter beside for one thing – I refused to alter my accent, I refused to comply. Now I am elsewhere, at a place of my choice, and I am in my new home that I have chosen. Even if I’m doing a questionable job at flawlessly running with the newly adopted accent, this is again, my choice.
I’ve masked enough to “pass” if I really put my mind to it, but sometimes I slip back a little. Wearing contact lenses the first time felt pretty unnatural too, but after a while that unnaturalness becomes the default. What was an intentional act of altering my accent to my location is now a subconscious, if fluctuating, habit. I can’t say that my initial change of accent was without some intentional force to a direction, but at this stage, where I am now, I refuse to take the claim I’m any less genuine because of my hybridising, fleetingly inconsistent accent. Because this is one of the places I call home, too, among a few of my other past homes.