Sunday, 20 April 2014

On "Frasier", Accents, and Class Distinctions

In a discussion about class, regional accents, and the way they are presented on television (especially American television)  the most pertinent example, for me anyway, would be Frasier Crane of Cheers and later his eponymous sitcom Frasier.

Frasier Crane is initially introduced in Cheers as a love interest to Diane. He is a haughty, uptight, somewhat pretentious psychiatrist intended as a foil to Sam's 'jus-plain-folks' working-class persona. He was pompous, overbearing, and full of himself, and was not the most popular character on Cheers. As Kelsey Grammar has frequently mentioned, he was often approached during his run on Cheers by fans of the show who would ask "are you that pin dick that plays Frasier on Cheers"? Frasier's Mid-Atlantic accent is supposed to indicate that he is a man of 'good breeding', so to speak, making him removed from his friends at the bar, who are all regular working stiffs from families of working stiffs.

While the Frasier character began life as a typical unflattering upper-middle class stereotype (over-educated, boring, coded feminine, and a distinct clipped and affected upper-middle class neutral American accent) the transition from Cheers to Frasier allowed the audience to see a different side to Frasier following his divorce from his equally chilly and uptight wife Lilith. Namely, the introduction of Frasier's father Martin, a retired cop. While Frasier claimed to be the orphan son of a scientist father in Cheers, it is revealed that he in fact has distinctly working-class origins, as Martin has nothing of Frasier's mannerisms, nor anything close to his accent. (As an interesting note, John Mahoney, who plays Martin Crane, is a British expat who was raised in Blackpool by a family of Mancunians.).

As an audience, we come to learn that Frasier has adopted his upper-middle class persona and his pompous attitude as a defense mechanism against the bullying he endured as a child and as a sort of rebellion against his cop father. He chose to remove himself from his father as much as possible, in order to escape his roots and be better accepted in the world of academia and psychiatry. However,  the living situation that is thrust upon him (taking his father in after an injury reduces Martin's mobility) forces him to accept the reality of his origins. The humour of the show often derives from the conflict that arises between Frasier and Niles and their attempts to be taken more seriously in their fields, alongside their father's lack of pretension and his propensity to foil their social-climbing schemes.

Then we throw Daphne Moon in the mix, who is identifiably working-class as she has a thick pseudo- Manchester accent and often speaks of her formative years in England in a less-than-pretentious way. Daphne and Martin bond over their working-class backgrounds, while Frasier often scoffs at Daphne's tales of childhood or claims of psychic abilities. Niles' infatuation and eventual relationship with Daphne could perhaps be attributed to a desire to re-claim his working-class identity or a way of reconciling what he may view as abandonment of his father and his father's way of life.

Regardless of motivations, the Niles/Daphne relationship represents a destruction of class boundaries, as Daphne is not only identifiably working-class in her accents and mannerisms, but also her profession, because as Martin's physical therapist she could generally be regarded as "the help". For Niles to fall in love with a woman like Daphne requires an acknowledgement of these class boundaries and also an outright rejection of the class distinctions that he has spent his adult life mimicking and affecting. The same can be said for Daphne, as her "Manchester" accent is slightly mangled and Jane Leeves has said that this was intentional on her part to indicate that Daphne has spent quite some time in the States and has probably intentionally taken on a bit of an American twang in order to fit in with her peers in the USA.

It's not to say that Frasier is a perfect representation of class distinctions or that it breaks down any boundaries, as a 30-minute American sitcom. Certainly, any Brit or anyone with British ties couldn't help but laugh at the fact all of Daphne's brothers have wildly differing regional accents. All in all though, I think anyone from a working-class background who has ever struggled with their working-class identity and being accepted in a field that is not friendly to working-class people can relate.


  1. Brief but a very well written analysis.

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