In a shocking turn of events, one of the best pictures of the year actually won “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards this year. This was a decision so good that it immediately sent the worst parts of the internet into terrifying, xenophobic rants. Pro tip: If you’re going to vomit ugly hatred into the world on YouTube because Joaquin Phoenix’s “underpants dance” movie wasn’t crowned king, don’t do it while wearing a beret. That’s just tacky.
A better discussion broke out among some non-hatemongers who were curious about the first foreign film to win Oscar’s biggest award. The conversation was the age-old “dubbed vs. subtitled” debate. A depressing amount of folks still prefer English-language voiceovers. This is an objectively bad way to watch a foreign film. In fact, I’m about to take this opinion one step further: I think subtitling should be the default standard, both in theaters and at home. That’s right, word-phobes, I’m talking about all reading all the time.
I’m going to make my case for this by starting in reverse. That is to say, I’m going to use the reasons people give for hating subtitles as the very reason why everyone should use them. Gird your word loins.
The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Arguments Against Subtitles
The most common attack levied against the use of subtitles is the most profoundly awful: “I don’t want to read while I watch a movie.” That’s right, I guess some people just don’t want to fly twice as high as butterflies in the sky, do they LeVar Burton?! The fact that English-language dubbing strips so much of the original performances away is simply inarguable. To do so because “reading is hard” feels like humans are destined to one day ride along in those floating pods from Wall-E because “walking is hard.”
In the same way that we put fluoride in the water so people’s teeth don’t rot out because they wouldn’t choose to consume it on their own, so, too, should we force audiences to ingest subtitles. Not just on foreign films but on everything. Because here’s the thing: They are actually really, really good for you.
You know how, at some point during every single movie you’ve ever seen, either you or someone you’re with has to ask “What did they say?” That will never happen again, yo. I’m not saying movie screenings will suddenly be miraculously quiet. Some yappy jamoke is still gonna squawk while trying to impress a date or something. I’m just saying that we live in an age when theater owners are desperate to try anything to make the moviegoing experience better. Cough, MoviePass, cough. Why not try making it so everybody always knows what everyone on screen is saying?
The other big argument against subtitles is that having words on the bottom of the screen are distracting. I’d call that malarky, but Joe Biden has purchased all copies of that word. So I will say both poppycock and balderdash! At first, yes, there is a slight adjustment. But we live in a world where everyone is multitasking all the time. Our brains and attention spans have adapted to the point where doing just one thing at a time feels gross and wrong.
Honestly, subtitles quickly become a comfort. Going from my home, where closed captioning is on everything all the time, to the theater feels jarring and weird now. I am unsteady and uncomfortable without them. You will be shocked at how fast they go from a perceived obstacle to a beloved tool. And I should know, as I am nothing if not a somewhat beloved tool myself.
The “Subtitle Challenge”
With the two major “cons” against subtitles met by better “pros,” here’s one more plus that should take it over the top.
Movies are the single most popular modern art form. Why not make them the most inclusive? For the millions who are deaf or hard of hearing, how much more welcoming would it be to have subtitles as the default? For those who have ADHD or other mental or cognitive conditions, being able to read the dialogue while watching the action is often incredibly helpful. For once, instead of being the exception, why not have more accessible art become the norm?
If an online hoax about NASA and gravity can get everyone to play with broomsticks, maybe a good #SubtitleChallenge will get everyone to see the inherent value in this strategy. Try it. Not just for one movie or one show, but for a few full days. I promise, it won’t be as jarring as you think. You already consume so many subtitles on social media and videos on mobile, this will feel like a natural extension. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. Join me, and feel the power of the force . . . of words.
Will the #SubtitleChallenge lead to an explosion in people also reading books? Will everyone get exponentially smarter being exposed to all those printed words? Will Americans viewing non-dubbed foreign films bring about an age of greater tolerance and peace? Duh. This will fix basically everything. You’re welcome.
Hyperbole aside, this is one of those small changes that can have a deceptively large impact. In a flawed and broken world, during an exceptionally chaotic and stressful time, little unifying things can have such a big impact. Thank you for reading.