The Voice of Night Vale

Night Vale is Language at it’s finest.

Hello Night Valians (Valers? I’m not sure what the official fandom name is yet) {possibly its Listeners} I’m Danni and I am apparently best known for this one long meta I did about Supernatural Season 9 that everyone thought was well researched. I do, however, like to examine fan reactions of various fandoms I’m in when the opportunity arises. So without further ado:

Unpopular Opinion: The White Vale Problem

Please, consider the following:

Auditory Mediums, Whitewashing, Headcanons, Language and the Apache Tracker.

The Problem

My understanding of this White Vale problem is that the Night Vale fandom has been subjected to the age-old western tradition of whitewashing. And yes, I will admit this is a problem. This has ALWAYS been a problem and is not unique to the Night Vale fandom. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it.

*Note: As of time of writing I am only on episode 24, if something is canonically inaccurate please point it out politely as cecilbuildsthefire did. I will endeavour to fix the inaccuracy.*

If you are interested in my mad ramblings, click read more.

What Makes This Problem So Interesting To ME

Welcome to Night Vale is a radio show about a fictional town. Like all fictional places, Night Vale exists only in our imaginations. What makes Night Vale so unique in this aspect is that everything is completely auditory. There is no ‘official’ established art or indeed visual aid available for Night Vale, except for the logo. Which makes Night Vale, for the most part, completely existent in our own imaginations by our own experiences. What makes this even more problematic is the almost complete lack visual description given by Cecil’s narration.

I’m serious, go back and re-listen to any episode. Cecil very rarely describes what anything looks like, either in great detail or at all, unless it’s a new addition to or in the town and he’s warning people about it or advertising.

The reason for this is because he works in a community radio station and deals predominantly with local listeners. Cecil never has to describe what anyone or anything looks like, except in vague terms like “Old Woman Josie, out by the car lot” because he works on the assumption all his listeners know what or who he is talking about looks like. And if we all lived in Night Vale, we would. It’s small town syndrome at its finest, everyone knows everyone else and where everything is. Cecil doesn’t need to describe visuals because what possible reason is there for him to? The visual aspect is assumed to be common knowledge. Even his descriptor tags are either geographical (Larry Leroy, out on the edge of town) or job related (Teddy Williams, owner of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex). Even Cactus June is only described as Night Vale’s third most beautiful woman. That’s it. it’s up to our imaginations to figure out what he means by that.

In that sense, because we are all Outsiders, Night Vale and its residents are largely up to us to personally create.

The exception to this is the ‘Apache Tracker’. He is the most visually described person in Night Vale, mostly because of Cecil’s (and by extension the town’s) dislike and derision of his cultural appropriation. He is an example of how this whitewashing problem is dealt with, within the confines of Night Vale’s universe and I think it’s very interesting. When the Apache Tracker returns from his disappearance, he has become what he pretended to be on the outside, sort of. He’s still not actually an Apache Tracker, he’s quite literally become a caricature of one. And yet, he speaks a Slavic language and nothing else. It seems as though Night Vale has punished him by giving him the appearance he thought he wanted, but made sure everyone still knew who he was on the inside by forbidding him to complete his transformation by speaking the Apache language.

This is particularly interesting to me as a linguist because the first rule of linguistics is this: A language is the surest reflection of a cultural because it evolved within that culture’s context and thus includes words for ideas, beliefs and symbols unique to that culture.

And the Apache Tracker can only speak in his own language. The culture he tried to appropriate rejected him by refusing him entrance on the most basic of cultural levels.

It’s something to think about.

Television vs Radio

The medium is the message – Marshall McLuhan

Writing for television and writing for radio are very different things. It’s important to keep this in mind, especially in a society that exists with a predominantly visual narrative. We see and observe almost everything. With television, half the story is told through the actors and the sets bringing the universe to life. With visual art, we interpret what we can see with our eyes based on our own experiences. With print, we see and process descriptions of things, let the author fill in the blanks of appearances for us.

Not so with radio. Radio is a person speaking into a microphone addressing a very specific group of people. In Public Relations, we refer to  radio as a ‘self-targeted’ medium. What this means is this: call any radio station in your area and they’ll be able to tell you the demographic they broadcast to in about 3 seconds. Because of this certain radio stations broadcast certain symbols that specific sub-cultural demographics will immediately understand and others will dismiss. Radio stations have their own specific audiences. Radio is an extension of the oral tradition. And it has to be interesting to listen to.

This is why I was immediately intrigued by Welcome to Night Vale.  ”Why would anyone choose to do a fictional radio broadcast in an age of visual medium?” I asked myself. And yet it is a very compelling show. This is partially because of the town of Night Vale itself, and partially because of on-going narrative.

But mostly? It’s because of Cecil Baldwin.

Cecil: The Voice of Night Vale

Cecil Baldwin is the name of the voice actor. Cecil is the name of the NCVR radio announcer-

The most important thing for a radio announcer to have is a great voice. If that voice is dull and uninteresting, very few people are going to listen to anything the announcer has to say. Which is problematic for an aural medium like radio.

Joseph Fink struck gold with Cecil Baldwin. Mr. Baldwin has a fantastic voice. He’s articulate, he has excellent cadence, and most of all his voice is very characteristic. Do you know how hard that is to achieve? We may not all agree on what Cecil looks like, but very few people in this fandom disagree on his personality and character. Mr. Baldwin brings through all of Cecil’s key personality traits sheerly by how he delivers any given line and completely through dialogue rather than narration. Again, do you have any idea how hard that is? Unlike television actors, we can’t watch his body language or face for any visual cues about how Cecil feels. We have to listen for it. We have to listen to his voice change speed, pitch and volume to determine how Cecil feels in any given situation.

And yet we all agree: Cecil is very in love with Carlos, Cecil is scared of Station Management, Cecil DOES NOT LIKE Steve Carlsburg, Cecil is disgusted by the Apache Tracker, Cecil looks down on the town of Desert Bluffs… the list goes on and on.

Mr. Baldwin tells us all this without actually telling us any of it.

Bravo Mr. Baldwin. Bravo.

Headcanons

Which brings me finally to the headcanon problem. Let me first establish a couple of things:

  1. We have no idea whatsoever what the character of Cecil looks like
  2. We have very little information about what Night Vale itself looks like
  3. We have only have a logo for ‘official visuals’ (as in endorsed by the creators)
  4. Welcome to Night Vale is a radio show, and therefore absorbed completely through listening
  5. As human beings, raised in specific cultural contexts, everything we interpret is subject to our own experiences, thoughts, beliefs and ideas in conjecture to whatever the message, medium and the person(s) conveying it

With these things in mind, let us turn to headcanons. I have a rule for what makes good headcanons:

A good headcanon will take into account what the author and text has established as the given information and rules in the context of the universe in question and then will extrapolate on them in possible and probable ways to fill some of the blanks naturally left to its own interpretation of the story.

In the context of Welcome to Night Vale this boils down to pretty much this

Unbreakable Canon:

  1. Night Vale is a small town in the desert
  2. Night Vale is in America
  3. Cecil is the radio host at the community radio station
  4. Carlos is a scientist (edit- who I have been informed is described as having dark hair and dark skin in canon making him irrevocably POC)
  5. Desert Bluffs is a neighbouring town with which Night Vale has some kind of Rivalry
  6. Cecil is in love with Carlos
  7. Stuff that seems strange and weird to us is completely normal to Night Vale and not to be question
  8. The town functions similarly enough to the way we understand towns to function, and contains services and infrastructure close enough to those we understand for us to interpret what exactly goes on in Night Vale

All of this is concrete and has to be accepted as the basis on which we base our personal headcanons of Night Vale residents

Possible Extrapolations

  1. Because Carlos is a Spanish name we can be 99% sure that Carlos is of Hispanic heritage. Which makes him a Person of Colour. We are not given a last name, but it is also likely of hispanic origin.
  2. Because Carlos is a Scientist though t is never explicitly stated in what field, we can assume he was given some sort of grant to do research in Night Vale, and is leader of his team due to the fact he gave the press conference rather than another scientist, rather than Cecil’s fixation on him.
  3. Because Cecil is a name with ancient roman origin and Welsh roots, that is popularly used predominantly by the caucasian population, (though it does have derisions in Spanish and Portuguese)  but as those names are never spoken in canon, we must assume Cecil is the form and pronunciation used to refer to our favourite radio show host. From this it is not unreasonable to assume Cecil is caucasian.
  4. Because caucasian names are used by non-caucasians in America all the time and canonically in Night Vale (ie Michael Sandero), Cecil could also reasonably be of non-caucasian descent.
  5. Because Night Vale is in an American Desert it is probably located somewhere in the Southwestern United States.
  6. Because of this, it is not unreasonable to assume Night Vale contains a mix of hispanic, first nations and caucasian groups as residents.
  7. It also not unlikely some of these residents are of mixed descent.
  8. Because Hiram McDaniels is literally a 5 headed dragon, some of Night Vale’s residents can also include any mixture of fantasy and sci-fi creature or addition to the human body you can imagine

* Baldwin is an english germanic surname, and attached primarily to caucasian individuals, but as Cecil’s last name has never been used canonically I don’t consider it viable as an extrapolation. Baldwin is used as an indication of the actor rather than the character 

All of the above are good possibilities to base your own headcanons on and all of these example show just exactly how one person can have an African-American Cecil, or a Hispanic Cecil, or an Asian Cecil, or a Caucasian Cecil or even an Eldritch Abomination  Cecil etc… (If I haven’t mentioned your Cecil please do not be offended, I just browsed the tag and picked the first five Cecils as examples) and none of us would be wrong because canonically Cecil is never described. A caucasian Cecil is not racist, nor is it whitewashing.

A caucasian Carlos on the other hand, is another problem entirely. Carlos is a Spanish name, and most (but not all) people named Carlos are hispanic or are at least of hispanic descent. Making Carlos caucasian is genuinely problematic for this reason. Canonically, Carlos’ ethnicity is never mentioned, but realistically, and interpreting through our own understanding and cultural contexts most people are going to make the assumption he is hispanic.

And this is where the problem truly lies.

Whitewashing

Here’s why the fandom is in an uproar: Some people are promoting head canons of a primarily caucasian cast for Welcome to Night Vale.

While, technically, these headcanons are not incorrect because canonically we have no official art or descriptions of the Night Vale cast  buta primarily caucasian cast speaks to a larger problem:

As a society, we still tend to ELEVATE CAUCASIANS IN STORYTELLING.

In our visual stories, most of the actors are caucasian. Most of the main characters are caucasian. And most other ethnicities still play to certain stereotypes when characterizing non-caucasians.

It’s better than it was, but it’s still a problem.

And it especially angers this fandom. As I said, Welcome to night Vale is unique because of its lack of visual description. It means, until Cecil says otherwise on NVCR, appearances and physical descriptions are ours to describe (with reason and linguistical contexts, again look at the first and last names of mentioned characters, that’ll tell you how likely it is for them to be a certain ethnicity).

It means that because America is a melting pot of diasporic cultures all the Night Vale residents (who are again, never described canonically) could potentially be POCs just as easily as they could be caucasians.

To make them all caucasian seems kind of, well, boring and normal for such a fantastical place.

Conclusions

So listeners,

We acknowledge we live in a problematic society and  get rightly angry over the representation of culture in the media. We as a fandom and as individuals can be upset over a group of individuals choosing to believe particular characters are caucasian, especially if its unlikely for that character to be caucasian. We can even speak out against that and try to make our voices heard. Sometimes we are…less than polite about it, but we should try to forgive each other because its only happening because we are frustrated about this immediate concern that is only a symptom of a larger cultural problem. Let’s just not all forget why we’re here.

We all love Welcome to Night Vale.

Cheers,

Danni

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