Opinion | Normalize use of subtitles


Photo courtesy of Kim Sunjoo/Republic of Korea/Flickr

Bong Joon-ho, director of “Parasite,” with actor Song Kang-Ho during a press conference on May 28. 2019. Senior columnist Andrew Prozorovsky argues that subtitle usage does not limit the movie watching experience and should be normalized.

By Andrew Prozorovsky, Senior Columnist

This year at the Oscars, “CODA,” a movie about a “child of deaf adults,” achieved an upset victory for Best Picture, beating the expected winner, “Power of the Dog.” In 2020, the movie “Parasite” similarly managed an upset victory, making it the first foreign film to ever win the most prestigious film award.

Both these films have something in common: For the average American viewer, subtitles are needed.

In his acceptance speech, the director of “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho, famously stated, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Evidently, young people are heeding Bong’s advice. According to one study, four out of five young adults (18-25) said they regularly use subtitles, while only a quarter of older participants (56–75) use them, despite the fact that this demographic was more likely to have hearing issues. 

The trend is clear: Young people are normalizing subtitles.

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The obvious, aforementioned argument for a needed cultural embrace is that as viewers become accustomed to subtitles, they will start to explore watching movies in other languages.

A shock to some, last year’s most popular TV series was “Squid Game,” a South Korean production. Subtitles aren’t necessary to watch “Squid Game,” and the dubbed version even had higher viewership than the subbed version. Still, VICE found the subtitled version was a more faithful translation than its dubbed counterpart.

It’s not the first time a popular show required subtitles. Netflix’s “Narcos” and “Narcos: Mexico” have mostly Spanish dialogue. The anime community has been arguing over which is better, “subbed or dubbed,” for decades.

But the merits of subtitles extend well beyond non-American media. Ironically, many of these regard volume.

Sound mixing is quite poor in most films and becomes poorer as it transitions from theaters, for which they are made, to home systems. Using subtitles prevents an individual from constantly clutching the remote to increase and decrease the volume as characters’ whispering is juxtaposed with loud action sequences.

Subtitles are considerate. They are useful to those with hearing impairments or deafness. They are respectful in quiet environments, like if a roommate is sleeping or needs to focus.

Or, one can be louder with subtitles on. He or she can overcome extraneous sounds, like music or appliances, to correctly understand the dialogue. He or she can eat loud foods, like chips. Subtitles allow us to resolve this conflict between eating and watching, so no sacrifices must be made.

None of this means there aren’t situations where subtitles diminish the experience. In stand-up comedy, comedic timing can be ruined by subtitles. Others contend subtitles always distract away from the film, but conversely, many argue subtitles help keep those with short attention spans engaged with the film.

People may find themselves amazed at how much more they grasp the story and understand the dialogue. Subtitles can help a viewer understand all of the nuances of dialogue, as it is far too easy to mishear words or struggle through accents. That alone enhances the viewing experience.

Similarly, subtitles can help one to learn the spellings of certain words, especially when a foreign or unfamiliar word appears in the script. Occasionally, if the subtitles include names, it can help familiarize oneself with the characters.

Subtitles help grow certain skills, such as reading quickly, focusing on more than one thing at a time, or, if one is using subtitles of a foreign language, it can help an individual practice comprehending learning an additional language, which yields all sorts of benefits. But be warned — once one is used to subtitles, it can be difficult to adjust back if surrounded by an audience who wants to omit them.

Some erroneously believe film has no value at all — it is a wasteful pastime. But film helps develop a sense of empathy and boosts social awareness. Subtitles help optimize those lessons.

During the silent film era, intertitles were the norm. Now, despite better than ever sound mixing and editing capabilities, on-screen text is fashionable again. 

Subtitles aren’t without drawbacks and they don’t fit into all situations. But now that subtitles have helped millions enjoy two critically-acclaimed films like “CODA” and “Parasite,” it’s a relevant time to have the conversation again: The normalization of subtitles will help expand the Americentric cinema bubble and solve many of the modern problems of consumption of movies and TV.

Fans of film and TV, give subtitles a chance. It’s important to end the stigma and adapt to using subtitles when appropriate. If one is struggling to overcome a barrier that is one inch tall, it is probably for a lack of trying.


Andrew is a senior in LAS.

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