Look, I can scarcely believe I’m weighing in on an Instagram drama around Alec Baldwin’s wife, but it’s been a weird year and I just don’t have the energy to put my feelings about Brexit into coherent words. It seems part of this social media pile-on is fuelled by similar urges — to bury ourselves in a trivial drama when the world is overwhelmingly dark and scary. But there are some complex dynamics at work here, and I think it’s worth a few minutes to unpick them before joining in the Twitter storm.
First, let’s talk accents. Many of Baldwin’s detractors seem to assume that a person’s accent can only change as part of a deliberate performance; that anyone who sounds different from how they did as a child, or in high school, is putting it on as some sort of ‘grift’. Which is one possibility, of course. It’s one that rings true for many of us, stirring memories of teenage friends who tried to mask their lack of confidence by crafting a more interesting persona. But there are equally likely possibilities. Accents aren’t carved in stone based on the place we are born or even raised. They are a reflection of the people who surround us every day. They bend to fit our circumstances, and circumstances change.
I witness this in action all the time, as a Brit living in a Canadian ski town full of Australians. Fresh-off-the-plane twangs have the edges chipped off them by a couple of years in a customer service job. Accents shift depending on who you’re speaking to, and how many beers have been consumed. After an English friend returned from a year in Sydney, I could tell when he had picked up the phone to an Australian hotel guest: “Yeah mate. Gotcha. Too easy.” Other friends sound fully Canadian after a decade in the country and marriage to a local. Are they being fake, because they were born in Birmingham? Of course not. They sound like who they are today. Our speech patterns are one of the many ways we connect to those around us, in the same way we might mirror the body language of someone we feel close to. That’s how regional variations and dialects develop in the first place. Accents, in short, are contagious.
When it comes to speaking a second language, lines get even blurrier. Regardless of which you consider your mother tongue, flipping between two or more languages will usually impact your overall way of speaking. University friends returning from semesters abroad brought with them a strange lilt, an echo of the intonation and vowel sounds they had been trying to master through immersion in Italian, French or Spanish. It took a few weeks (and a bit of teasing) to fade. Some people’s accents are more plastic than others. I’ll always fondly remember attending a trivia night in La Paz, Bolivia, hosted by a middle-aged expat with grammatically flawless and fluent Spanish, delivered in an untouched Essex accent.
When I came across the hubbub over Hilaria, I took the rare step of turning the volume up on my phone to watch the social media videos offered up as evidence of her grift. Given the drama, I was expecting to hear a bad impression of a Castilian accent, or the kind of dodgy homogenized ‘Hispanic’ American accent that a struggling Latinx actor might be asked to affect by a white casting director looking for ‘authenticity’. And what I heard was… a lilt. A soft American accent, with that familiar bending of vowel sounds that I hear from my London-based family when they’ve been nattering in Italian for a few hours. Might she be putting it on for effect? Of course she might. But she says she’s raising her children to be bilingual, an asset that many parents might wish to gift their little ones if they have the ability. Assuming that Alec isn’t a fluent Spanish speaker, that would require Hilaria to speak Spanish consistently with her children. Given that she has five of them under the age of seven (yikes), it seems safe to argue that she spends most of her time doing just that, and has for the past several years. If her family in Majorca now also use Spanish as their default means of communication, then their centuries of American roots are largely irrelevant; English has become her second language, one she must now switch on as required. And it’s perfectly plausible that a trace of her everyday tongue might linger when that switch is flipped.
Now, let’s consider the cucumber in the room. Can you really forget simple vocabulary from a language you were raised in? Weirdly, if Hilaria had struggled for a less mundane word, or mangled an English idiom, I might have found it more suspicious. But food is so firmly part of that domestic sphere where, as we’ve established, Spanish currently reigns for the Baldwin clan. If you only ever use Spanish terms in the kitchen, it could be harder to reach for English in that particular context, especially in the kind of pressurized situations that make us nervous and affect our recall… like, say, a TV spot. I am very much English. Can get by in a couple of languages, but fluent only in this one. And yet, perhaps because artichokes aren’t a massive feature of the Great British Menu, whenever I reach for the bloody word my brain returns only the Italian, carciofi, and it takes a surprising amount of fumbling to replace it. Yes, I am a pretentious Europhile, but I’m not putting it on. It’s just a quirk of contextual vocabulary.
Given the interconnected world we live in, I can’t be alone in having witnessed these slippages of accent and vocabulary, and knowing they can be natural occurrences. So why has everyone been so quick to vilify Hilaria? Flicking through the online comments, it seems she stands accused of two somewhat opposing crimes that play into deeper cultural anxieties.
The first and most common accusation is that she is trying to elevate her status by pretending to be European. America’s relationship with the Old World has always been a complicated one. For some, the deep cultural heritage of the continent is aspirational in contrast to their young and ‘uncivilized’ nation. The great American writers and artists of centuries past worked hard to shake off this perception. But in this age of American exceptionalism, the reverse of this kind of snobbery probably holds more sway. (And the US is far from alone in this; again, don’t get me started on Brexit…) Too much interest in other countries, when you have any connection to the greatest one on earth, is pretentious at best, treacherous at worst. Someone who chooses to emphasise the non-American parts of her life and downplay her US roots is a particular threat to an American identity that demands unending pride and celebration. Coupled with the obvious privilege of Hilaria’s very visible 1% lifestyle, she’s an easy target for the gleeful scorn that flourishes online. Social media requires the willing suspension of disbelief. We know that influencers cannot be as perfect as they appear in their carefully curated images. The lip fillers and starvation diets that lurk beneath the surface are hardly a secret. But we choose not to care, until some transgression is too large to ignore, or touches a particular nerve. Only then do the accusations of being ‘inauthentic’ start to fly. The feeling that Hilaria Baldwin is choosing not to be American, might even think a Massachusetts background beneath her, makes it easy to cast her as a villain: a basic b*tch trying to fake it.
Hilaria’s actions have of course played into this narrative. Choosing the Latinate version of her name over the Anglicized Hillary; though changing names is far from uncommon. Many people use different versions in different circles, particularly those in the public eye. Allowing false assumptions around her history to persist, perhaps even encouraging them, with vague phrasing and misleading assertions. I’ve held off from calling them lies, simply because I don’t have enough information to fact-check everything she’s ever said. But if her identity is a lie, my instinct is that her audience have constructed much of it based on their impressions of Hilaria, and she is guilty mostly of feeding, rather than correcting, those assumptions. Some of her justifications are faintly ridiculous — the amount of Spaniards at her wedding, for example — and it’s clear she could have been more transparent about her background. But it’s also quite possible that nobody ever asked the right questions.
The other and more serious charge is of cultural appropriation, a white woman assuming an ‘immigrant’ identity for personal gain. This is understandable in context. Dominant US discourse racializes those with roots in Mexico, Central or South America, and often lumps them into a single homogeneous ‘Hispanic’ group. As the USA’s closest neighbours, and thanks to border wall and migrant caravan hysteria whipped up by the far right, these are the people many Americans picture when they think of ‘immigrants’. Spanish language, and the corresponding accent that may carry over into English, are signifiers of this group, even if they have their roots in European colonization. If you have suffered discrimination your whole life for your culture, language and accent, seeing an extremely wealthy white woman seem to adopt a version of them in order to stand out from the crowd or gain sympathy would be enraging. There have been comparisons to Rachel Dolezal’s treatment of the Black community. As a white woman, I can only empathize with the hurt that might cause. Ale Russian’s piece for People captures an important counterpoint to any of my arguments here; that many native Spanish speakers have been forced to erase that part of their identity to be accepted in the US. Even if she comes by it natural, Hilaria clearly never felt a need to suppress her accent.
Cultural appropriation is real. It’s right to interrogate these scenarios accordingly. But reviewing the facts here, I haven’t seen enough to find Baldwin guilty. She has only ever claimed a connection to the language and culture of Spain, which seems to have genuine foundations even if she wasn’t born there. Unlike what I will clumsily term Latinx Americans, Spanish citizens are not an oppressed group in the USA. There may be no actual difference between immigrants from Europe and those from other parts of the world, but the way they are perceived and treated is poles apart. If you believe, as I do, that cultural exchange becomes cultural appropriation when the balance of power is fundamentally unequal and the oppressor takes from the oppressed, then I don’t think Baldwin fits the bill. That said, there are always grey areas. Is Baldwin at fault if parts of her audience have a tendency to confuse Spanish culture, to which Americans in general have much less exposure, with Latinx cultures, which may be more familiar (if poorly understood)? No. But if she was aware that she was being coded as Latinx, and sought to take advantage of that misunderstanding to further her own interests, then a line would have been crossed. I’ve seen no evidence of this, but some might well be out there; whatever the truth of the matter, to my mind these nuances are important. Would there have been as much upset, for example, if Baldwin’s family had moved to Paris instead of Majorca?
At the end of the day, this is a storm in a teacup that will quickly fade from our memories. The artist formerly known as Hillary Thomas is just a yoga teacher married to a successful but, by many accounts, rather unpleasant actor. But the questions it raises will continue to haunt us, especially in the face of rising nationalism around the globe and the evolving discourse often called identity politics. Is our identity defined by where we were born, who are parents are? Or can we shape it through our own choices? Can we ever become part of a culture if we approach it from the outside? And where do we draw the line between engagement and exploitation, appreciation and appropriation? Coming to a fair agreement on these questions will take a lot of careful, collaborative discussion with multiple perspectives. But in the meantime, in a world where celebrities name their children after all manner of inanimate objects, perhaps we can at least give the Baldwins a break for choosing Eduardo…