Tag Archives: language

Leon’s custard shop ends English-only policy

After days of defending his English-only ordering policy at Leon’s Frozen Custard, owner Ron Schneider told TODAY’s TMJ4 that he’s dropping the controversial language requirement.

Schneider said he still wants people to order in English and wants his employees to speak English to each another. But he said Leon’s employees can take orders in the language of his customers.

Schneider announced the change after canceling a meeting Friday with the Wisconsin Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which claims the policy violated federal law. According to a spokesperson for the group, Schneider said he needed more time to meet with his attorney.

The group has called for a government investigation.

Schneider drew national criticism last week after a WITI-TV aired a story about a Spanish-speaking customer who was told by a Spanish-speaking employee that she was only allowed to take his order in English. Schneider said the policy had been in place for more than a decade.

Schneider told WISN-TV that he didn’t want to encourage non-English orders because it would be “a problem down the road,” adding that “we can’t be the United Nations.”

He said no customer has ever been turned away.

Dialect coach Jill Walmsley Zager helps Milwaukee Rep actors find their voice

Dialects. Singing. Even a simple shout. 

Those are just a few of the things Jill Walmsley Zager works wit as the Milwaukee Rep’s dialect coach. For the past five seasons, she’s been an invaluable asset to the Rep, ensuring the company doesn’t just perform well, but also sounds good.

Zager’s role goes further than that of the average dialect coach. At most theaters, contractors are hired on an hourly basis, brought in for a single production to meet with actors and teach them the fundamentals of an accent or dialect. 

Zager does that too. Most of her help is delivered in individual hourlong sessions. She instructs actors in the proper pronunciations of words, and also in how to shout or sing without causing undue vocal strain and how to improve vocal clarity so audiences can understand clearly what they’re saying.

“If (actors) are in the moment, the last thing they want to be doing is thinking about something technically. So if I load in that kind of technical work early on in the process, they can just be acting,” Zager says. Sometimes helping actors requires her to focus on their physicality, helping them stand or sit properly, breathe efficiently or move with stronger muscles during stage combat. Physical action can affect vocal quality.

But Zager also is involved heavily in the rehearsal process, which she says is a step above what the average contractor can expect. She helps actors and directors think about a production’s vocal elements consistently, rather than in separate workshops.

“I get a lot of autonomy,” Zager says. “Although I’m not a company member at this point, I feel like my position is respected throughout the organization … as opposed to someone who’s just jobbed in to make sure the R’s are where they should be.”

The most surprising thing about Zager’s position at the Rep is that it didn’t exist before artistic director Mark Clements’ arrival in 2010. Prior to that time, voice work was mostly handled by the resident acting company, whose members would teach each other and visiting actors particular dialects as needed. Occasionally, dialect coaches were called in.

When Clements arrived, he decided to place renewed emphasis on that latter option, taking the onus of the work off the actors and always letting a specialist handle it — something Zager suspects is reflective of the British director’s training.

“I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but the Brits that I know are very voice and speech conscious. That’s just part of their approach to the work,” she says.

Clements’ first show at the Rep was Cabaret, so he needed a dialect coach from the start. By coincidence, Zager had recently moved to Milwaukee from Chicago, because her husband (fellow theater artist James Zager) had accepted a position as head of the theater department at Carroll University. 

Zager had the right background to impress Clements. She began her career as an actor and opera singer, working for about 25 years for companies all over the country. During that time, she, like the former resident company actors of the Rep, often had to teach herself dialects and foreign language pronunciations. Over time, she discovered that she had a facility with languages. 

So when she decided to go to grad school in the early ’00s, Zager set her sights on vocal training rather than performance. She ultimately earned a spot at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London — considered the best program for voice and speech in the world — part of a now-defunct exchange program with Northwestern University. As the only American there, she trained with British colleagues and instructors before returning to the States in 2003 and splitting her time between coaching companies in Chicago and working on the faculty at University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign.

During her first six months in Milwaukee, Zager didn’t attract much interest in her services. But Clements’ interest was piqued after he looked over her resume and he selected her as dialect coach for Cabaret. “He didn’t really know me, but he certainly knew the Royal Central School. And the rest is history,” she says.

Since Cabaret, Zager has done more than 30 shows with the Rep. She originally split her time with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, but after three years she committed to working almost exclusively at the Rep, except for an occasional show in Milwaukee or Chicago. In January, for example, she worked on the Marriott Theatre’s acclaimed production of Spring Awakening in Lincolnshire, Illinois. 

Earlier this year, she worked on The Mousetrap, A Christmas Carol and The Devil’s Music, and is wrapping up the season with two complex shows: The Invisible Hand, a play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar about an American banker kidnapped by militants in Pakistan, and American Song, a world premiere under development at the Rep about a father whose son is involved in a school shooting.

Both plays are extremely different from one another, but that’s fine with Zager. She says one of the most exciting aspects of her job is each show is so different from the last, and each challenges her in a different way.

It’s easy to understand why The Invisible Hand would need a dialect coach: Three of its four characters are non-American and the play’s text is accented and occasionally not in English. To tackle a scene that’s written in English in the script but must be spoken in a language used in Pakistan, Zager contacted experts in Chicago about the Punjabi and Urdu languages. She also consulted with Akhtar, director Lucie Tiberghien and the actors. Ultimately, they all decided that the language would be a colloquial form of Urdu, which is Pakistan’s official language, both because it better fit the backgrounds of the characters and one of the actors spoke a little Urdu and could assist in the translation.

Each of the play’s three non-American characters has a different background, and Zager worked with them to make their accents sound different as well. A well-educated imam speaks with an almost-British accent that suggests a childhood in Pakistan but an education at Oxford. One of the militants doesn’t speak much English at all, so his lines in English are delivered in a disjointed fashion that’s not always grammatical. The other militant was raised partly in London and possesses a Cockney-style speech pattern.

Such a high degree of differentiation begs the question of why the Rep needs to get so specific. That’s a question Zager says she and the rest of the creative team ask every time she steps into a rehearsal hall. They must ask both “What do we gain by having it?” and “What do we lose by not having it?,” she explains. “I think if those questions aren’t asked, then it becomes an effect, and it pulls the audience out of what’s the point of this story.”

In The Invisible Hand, the “gain” is a greater emphasis on Akhtar’s themes: the negatives of capitalism and imperialism in Pakistan and around the world.

Zager always takes care to ensure the dialects she presents come from a place of respect. In plays like The Invisible Hand, an overwrought or stereotypical accent would come across as caricature, undermining the play’s message and possibly offending patrons.

Many of the productions Zager works on with the Rep don’t require such extensive dialect work. American Song is the perfect example. Zager says it’s likely they won’t ask actor James DeVita to take up an accent other than his own.

But there’s still more than enough work for her, director Clements and playwright Joanna Murray-Smith to collaborate on: making sure the right words are chosen, helping DeVita deliver them in a way everyone on the team approves of, working with him to ensure his voice stays strong throughout the 80-minute one-man show.

In a very real sense, because American Song is a world premiere, Zager’s work as dialect coach will help shape the final work.

“(American Song) is uncharted territory in some ways,” Zager says. “It’s always exciting to be part of a new script.”

Zager says she’s excited to see how audiences respond to both plays, but she’s not anticipating conversations about her work on them.

“My work should be like smoke,” she says. “It shouldn’t be something you can put your hands on.”


The Invisible Hand opens at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio Feb. 26 and runs through April 3. Tickets start at $20.

American Song opens at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse March 15 and runs through April 10. Tickets start at $25.

For more information or to order tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit

Finding their voice: Speech clinic helps transgender clients

Sylvia Wojcik was making reservations for a beach getaway in Maine when the receptionist on the other end of the line called her “ma’am.” Nothing could have delighted her more.

Wojcik, 66, is transitioning from male to female. For her, that proof that she sounded like a woman was an important moment. 

“It felt like I had just been validated,” she said. “It just gave me a great sense of being at ease with myself.”

Wojcik has undergone several years of voice therapy, the past 18 months at the University of Connecticut’s Speech and Hearing Clinic, one of a growing number of clinics with programs to teach transgender people how to sound more like the gender with which they identify.

“You can be well kept, present well, but if your voice is masculine, you get pegged right away,” said Wojcik, of Enfield, north of Hartford. “I really didn’t start getting success with my voice until I came to UConn. And I’m sure glad I did, because it’s made all the difference.”

The program at UConn is in its fourth year, with about a dozen people participating at any one time. The typical participant will spend an hour a week in a group session, and another 11/2 hours working one on one with a speech pathologist.

They learn not only how to change the pitch of their voice, but also its resonance (males speak more from chest, females from the head) and delivery (males tend to be more staccato, females more fluid).

It involves a lot of voice exercises — humming to find an ideal pitch, naming five words that start with the letter “T.”

The idea is to condition and change the voice without harming the vocal chords, said Wendy Chase, the clinic’s director.

“Pitch up, shoulders back … whatever you’re doing wrong, she tends to help you correct it,” said 61-year-old Brianne Roberts, also of Enfield. “It really works.”

The majority of the transgender clients at the clinic are transitioning to female.

Hormone therapy will naturally cause a lowering in the voice of someone transitioning to male, Chase said. Many “F to Ms,” as they are sometimes called, need to learn the other subtleties.

But clients transitioning either way need to work on articulation and patterns associated with male and female speech, even how to use their hands differently to gesture and touch during communication.

“There is tremendous irony in the fact that we use information based on stereotype to make people feel better about themselves,” said Chase. “But that’s what we do.”

The clinic also has served some people who are not transgender, such as men who wish to sound less effeminate. And some clients, including people who are only considering a change in gender, want a voice that is more neutral, Chase said.

Literature in the field dates back 50 years, but until the past 20 years only a handful of people were doing voice work with transgender people, and the work is still in its infancy, Chase said.

Richard Adler, who retired this month from Minnesota State University-Moorhead, was one of those pioneers. The field has been growing exponentially and internationally, he said, as the world has become more accepting of transgender people and people like Caitlyn Jenner have shared their stories.

“There are still people opposed to the work we do,” he said. “We still get hate mail, but it’s less and less.”

UConn charges clients $192 for a voice evaluation to determine what needs to be changed. It’s then $10 per session for individual treatment and $25 per semester for the group sessions. 

Some insurance companies may pick up some or all the cost if a doctor gives a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. But Chase said that it is still rare.

A typical patient will spend about 18 months in therapy, Chase said, but the number of sessions varies widely.

Roberts, a freelance copywriter, has been attending sessions since February. She expects to participate for at least another semester.

Before the transitioning process, Roberts was a radio personality, voiceover artist and actor. She is now returning to the stage as an actress and doesn’t want her voice to impede her winning roles. 

“For me, passing is important,” she said. “But, in some cases it’s a matter of survival. There are some places where you do not want to be read as being anything other than female. It’s dangerous.”

The sessions also help in other ways, Roberts said. She’s able to talk to other people going through the same experience about progress and problems. And the environment is supportive and respectful, something Roberts said affirms her decision to transition.

As for Wojcik, she is just happy to be able to order sliced bologna at the deli without getting a strange look.

“I want to just be one of the girls,” she said. “I just want to blend in with the woodwork and people not notice that I’m trans.”

Research links Congress’ low approval to decline in warm, agreeable language

A new study links Congress’ low approval ratings — record lows — to a decline in the use of warm, agreeable language in the House of Representatives.

The study, co-authored by University of British Columbia business professor Karl Aquino, found the use of prosocial words — such as “cooperate” and “contribute” – by lawmakers predicts public approval of Congress six months later.

“If members of Congress want to be viewed more positively by the public, it appears that the words they use matter,” said Aquino, a marketing and behavioral science professor in at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Our study suggests that the electorate is listening and reacts favorably when congressional members use prosocial language.”

The researchers’ results were derived from a textual analysis of 124 million words spoken in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1996 and 2014, using a computer model that searched for words validated as having prosocial connotations.

The words whose decline most strongly predicted a decline in public approval were “gentle,” “involve,” “educate,” “contribute,” “concerned,” “give,” “tolerate,” “trust” and “cooperate.”

Congress’s approval rating has slumped precipitously since 2002, when public approval was reliably over 50 percent. Recent polls cite ratings as low as only 10 percent.

Aquino and his co-authors controlled for factors that may have contributed to declining approval, such as the unemployment rate and governance factors, such as the number of bills passed and presidential vetoes. They found that warm, prosocial language was the strongest single predictor of public sentiment.

The research, “A Decline in Prosocial Language Helps Explain Public Disapproval of the U.S. Congress,” was co-authored by Aquino with Jeremy Frimer,Harrison Oakes, Jochen Gebauer and Luke Zhu.

Cats speak with meows, blinks, tails, whiskers

When it comes to cats, those meows mean … well, a lot of things.

With each purr, yowl or even blink, felines are saying, “Hello,” “Let’s snuggle” or “Beat it, Dad.”

For the increasing number of pet owners who want to connect with their often-aloof fur babies, experts say there’s something to gain from those attempts at communication.

Cats are independent, and so they are easily misunderstood, said Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA and author of the new National Geographic book “How to Speak Cat.”

He aims to unravel the mystery by helping people discern what cats are trying to convey.

Crafty kitties can make 16 meow sounds and usually only unleash them when people are around, he said.

Meows can be their way of saying feed me, pet me or let me out, and hardly ever get exchanged between cats.

That’s because cats learn they can get something desirable from people if they meow, said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She wrote the 2003 textbook “Feline Behavior.”

The meaning of a scratch or a hiss is pretty clear, but cats can talk in more subtle ways — with their eyes and tails.

A slow blink from a feline, for example, is like a wink between friends, Weitzman said.

“Blinking is like a kitty kiss,” he said.

And extending their tails straight up equates to a human handshake, he said. A cat perks up that appendage as it approaches to show it’s happy to see you.

Susan McMinn, 55, of Tryon, North Carolina, was eager to try the slow-blinking exercise with her Siamese cat, Jade, after reading the book.

“I sat and blinked slowly at my cat and she blinked right back. I know she loves me, of course, but now I feel I understand her communication even more,” McMinn said.

McMinn has owned Jade for 10 years and has had six cats over her lifetime, but she says it’s clear she still has a lot to learn.

“And I thought I was an expert!” she said.

Even ear and whisker movements signify something worth listening to. If a cat’s ears are flat, don’t get close because it’s scared or facing a fight, Weitzman said.

A kitty is happy, calm or friendly when its whiskers are naturally out to the side. Twice as thick as a human hair and rooted three times as deep, the whiskers guide them, help them with prey and show how they are feeling.

Learning to communicate with cats becomes even important for those who adopt a pet based only on the color or breed they want versus a connection with the animal.

At Happy Cats Sanctuary in Medford, New York, a potential owner might ask for a “white cat with fluffy fur,” said Melissa Cox, director of communications and development.

She tells them not to go by looks alone because the true indicator of compatibility is spending time with a cat and getting to know it.

For McMinn, she says she isn’t done with the book and plans to use some of its training tips.

But now she knows “what to look for in her (cat’s) tail and ear movement, whisker positions and in her eyes.”

UWM French film festival prompts cultural dialogue

Fabienne Bullot knew she had found a city of kindred spirits when she left the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival screening of Earth. The visiting assistant professor of French at UWM had been pleased, shortly after her arrival in Milwaukee, to learn Milwaukee Film would be screening Ukrainian film director Alexander Dovzhenko’s silent Soviet-era film about the process of collectivism, with live musical accompaniment by postrock band Group of the Altos. But she was more pleased when the film received a thunderous standing ovation.

“I immediately thought, ‘This is a city of movie lovers,’” says Bullot. “It seems to me that the political, social, and economic history of the city is what makes it unique in the States. It is a very diverse, open, and lively city where film is right at home.”

Such recognition was critical to Bullot, a native Parisienne who is coordinating UWM’s Festival of Films in French. Now entering its 18th year, the festival offers 17 diverse films from France or French-speaking countries over a 10-day period: Feb. 6-Feb. 15. All films will be shown for free at UWM’s Union Theatre.

The film series, which looks at a variety of social issues, provides an opportunity for significant cultural and political discourse, says Bullot, who established the French Theater Workshop while at Smith College and is currently researching the history of French political cinema. Among the topics addressed are an increasingly multicultural France, women’s lives, the commemoration of World War I and LGBT issues. 

But while those issues are shared by only small groups of films, Bullot says there’s one thread all the films in the program have in common: “They all respond in a variety of ways to the question, ‘How can we represent reality?’”

Two of the films — The Night is Young and Tom at the Farm — are sponsored by the LGBT Film/Video Festival. Their inclusion demonstrates not only the festival’s diversity but also the cross-pollination among various departments at UWM in contributing to the festival’s content, Bullot says.

“(LGBT Film Festival director) Carl Bogner and I share the same passion for film and the same desire for freedom and discovery in film,” Bullot says. 

The Night is Young, featuring a young Juliette Binoche, is director Leos Carax’s second film. Filmed at the height of the AIDS crisis, it is the first French film to reference AIDS, in the form of a similar virus called STBO that affects the lead characters. 

“It became a cult classic because it is a poetic thriller that shunned the commercial aesthetic popular in 1980s cinema and is full of ‘quotes’ from other films that film buffs have had fun identifying,” Bullot says. 

Tom at the Farm is a more recent film by the young filmmaker Xavier Dolan and has never been screened in Milwaukee, although other works by Dolan — including Laurence Anyways — have been shown at the LGBT Film/Video Festival and Milwaukee Film Festival. It’s a psychological thriller about a gay man who visits the family of his deceased lover, unsure if they are aware of their late son’s sexual orientation. The film is set in a rural landscape very similar to Wisconsin, which hides brutal secrets. 

Among the festival’s other highlights are the films of director Jean-Pierre Thorn, whose works are rarely shown in the United States.

Pleasure to the People and 93 Beautiful Rebel, the two films being shown, stress multicultural themes in contemporary France and “the creativity and energy of French youth, whose spirit French society has persistently tried to break through its scorn,” Bullot says.

“Thorn’s films challenge the discourse of the powerful,” she adds. “These documentaries are nothing like the ones shown on television: There is no hidden camera, no voice-over by a Hollywood actor, no specialists next to potted plants talking about the world. Thorn’s camera watches and listens to people and spaces, their desires, their energy. It does justice to its subjects.”

Thorn himself will appear at the festival to introduce his films and participate in talkbacks after their screenings. The showing of 93 Beautiful Rebel, which chronicles France’s contemporary hip-hop culture, will also be accompanied by a live hip-hop dance featuring local Milwaukee groups, what Bullot says is a first for the festival.

Thorn also will travel to UW-Madison to screen his films and lead a master class, Bullot said. The director’s contemporary themes echo the recent terrorist killings of Charlie Hebdo journalists in France, she added.

“I spoke with (Thorn) on the phone after the terrorist attacks, and he said he had been in touch with many of the people who have appeared in his films and who are particularly concerned by the recent events,” Bullot said. “He will share their reactions and his own analysis of the situation as an activist filmmaker who has always fought the good fight with festival-goers.”

Social commentaries always play an important role in the festival, but there are also silent films, comedies, thrillers, a road movie and a film based on a comic book. There will also be a few “crowd-pleasers,” designed as a convenient bridge for those less familiar with French cinema.

“Festival fans will come in great numbers to see films with Catherine Deneuve, Josh Charles or Juliette Binoche, because they know these actors,” Bullot says. “But they will probably be surprised by the performances given by them and the tone of the comedy-dramas in which they appear.”


UWM’s 18th annual Festival of Films in French will run Feb. 6-Feb. 15 at the UWM Union Theatre, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd. Screenings are free and open to the public, and a full schedule can be found at uwm.edu/french-film-schedule. 

2014: Word of the year is ‘culture’

A nation, a workplace, an ethnicity, a passion, an outsized personality. The people who comprise these things, who fawn or rail against them, are behind Merriam-Webster’s 2014 word of the year: culture.

The word joins Oxford Dictionaries’ “vape,” a darling of the e-cigarette movement, and “exposure,” declared the year’s winner at Dictionary.com during a time of tragedy and fear due to Ebola.

Merriam-Webster based its pick and nine runners-up on significant increases in lookups this year over last on Merriam-Webster.com, along with interesting, often culture-driven — if you will — spikes of concentrated interest.

In the No. 2 spot is “nostalgia,” during a year of big 50th anniversaries pegged to 1964: the start of the free speech movement, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the birth of the Ford Mustang and the British Invasion heralded by the landing of the Beatles on U.S. soil for the first time.

Nostalgia was followed by insidious, legacy, feminism and a rare multiword phrase that can be looked up in total, in a foreign language at that: the French “je ne sais quoi.”

The Springfield, Massachusetts-based dictionary giant filters out perennial favorites when picking word of the year, but does that formula leave them chasing language fads?

“We’re simply using the word culture more frequently,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster. “It may be a fad. It may not. It may simply be evolution.”

Sokolowski noted that the reasons words are looked up aren’t just about not knowing what they mean. Sometimes, he said, we seek inspiration or a way to check in on ourselves. Of an estimated 100 million lookups on the website each year and a similar number on the company’s app, culture enjoyed a 15 percent year-over-year increase.

Percentage-wise, it doesn’t sound like much, but the raw number in that stratosphere is large, Sokolowski said. He wouldn’t disclose actual numbers, though, citing the proprietary nature of that data for a company still privately held.

Sokolowski is a lexicographer, not a mind reader, so his observations about why any single word takes off in terms of lookups is well-informed but theoretical.

“The word culture’s got a cultural story. We have noticed for years that culture has a cyclical spike every year at around Labor Day. That is to say back to school time during the month of September, so we’ve been watching this word spike at that time for years,” he said by telephone from Springfield. “In recent years we’ve seen similar spikes at the end of semesters during finals.”

But traffic throughout the year indicates that culture is a “chameleon,” Sokolowski said. “When you put it next to another word it means something very different. For example, ‘consumer culture’ or ‘rape culture,’ which we’ve been reading about lately.”

There’s the “culture of transparency” in government and business, and “celebrity culture,” and the “culture of winning” in sports, he noted. “It’s a word that can be very specific, like ‘test prep culture,’ or it can be very, very broad, like ‘coffee culture.””

One standout reference that caught Sokolowski’s eye in The New Yorker’s December issue is from a new book, “How Google Works,” which includes a description of a software fix by a few engineers that made ads more relevant on the search engine:

“It wasn’t Google’s culture that turned those five engineers into problem-solving ninjas who changed the course of the company over the weekend,” wrote the authors, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former head of product development Jonathan Rosenberg.

“Rather it was the culture that attracted the ninjas to the company in the first place.”

Before the word culture exploded, Sokolowski said, “we used to talk about ‘society’ a lot. Certain groups are taking ‘society’ out of their names now. It seems to be receding. Part of that seems to be because it’s elitist. We’re using the word culture more frequently in that place.”

Not all lookup spikes are quite that complex. The reason “je ne sais quoi” landed at No. 6, for instance, is “dead simple,” he said.

The fast-food drive-in chain Sonic, known for TV spots featuring two goofy dudes eating in a car, had them munching on boneless chicken wings in September.

“I’ve finally found myself a wingman,” goofy guy No. 1 says of the wings he hopes will make him a chick magnet.

“Oh right,” sneers goofy guy No. 2, “gonna give you that certain je ne sais quoi.”

Responds No. 1: “Jenna said what?”

They mine the word play a couple more times, but you get the picture.

“Since September when this ad came out this word has been close to the Top 10 or in the Top 10 of our lookups almost every single day,” Sokolowski said.

Fast-food aside, he called this year’s list a relatively sober one.

Insidious, for example, received a bump early in the year when a new trailer was released for “Insidious: Chapter 3,” a prequel in the horror film franchise “Insidious,” out in June. The word surfaced in a big way again, on Oct. 8, when a Texas hospital released a statement on the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first confirmed Ebola patient in the United States.

The statement spoke of his courageous battle and the hospital’s profound sadness when he “succumbed to an insidious disease, Ebola.”

Rounding out the Top 10 are innovation, surreptitious, autonomy and morbidity.

“This is a fairly sober list. It was a fairly sober year,” he concluded.

Motion picture group defends movie ratings system

Under increasing pressure over its threshold for violence in PG-13 films, the Motion Picture Association of America is defending its often-criticized rating system.

A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Ohio State University recently published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that gun violence in the most popular PG-13 releases since 1985 has tripled in frequency. The number of scenes featuring gun violence in PG-13 films, the study found, has come to rival or even surpass the rate of such sequences in R-rated movies.

The association’s ratings board is no stranger to criticism, but the study — seemingly lending evidence to a long-held claim that the board is softer on violence than sexuality or language — has set off calls for reform.

In the MPAA’s first response to the study, Joan Graves, head of the MPAA’s ratings board, told The Associated Press that the MPAA is in line with parents’ standards.

“We try to get it right,” Graves said. “The criticism of our system is not coming from the parents, who are the people we’re doing this for.”

The association has five ratings classifications, from G to NC-17, but the continental divide is between PG-13 (in which parents are “strongly cautioned” that some material may be inappropriate for children under the age of 13) and R (in which children under 17 are required to be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian).

In between, battle lines are drawn over violence, language and sexual content — a fraught distinction because it determines what kids can see on their own, thus heavily influencing a film’s potential audience. Critics claim that the MPAA is far more permissive of violence in PG-13 films than fleeting nudity or a handful of expletives.

“It may be time to rethink how violence is treated in movie ratings,” said Dan Romer of the Annenberg Center.

But Graves claims PG-13 “is not a namby-pamby rating,” but intended as a strong warning to parents.

The MPAA frequently points out that it doesn’t police films, but assigns warning labels for parents so that they can make their own choices about what their children see. The ratings system is a voluntary one for theatrical released films that the movie industry founded in the 1960s to replace the far more restrictive Hays Code.

But the current ratings system has persistently drawn criticism for its perceived prudishness, while yielding more easily to the violence in big studio releases, such as Christopher Nolan’s PG-13 rated “Dark Knight” trilogy. Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” leveled claims of censorship at the MPAA ratings board.

Harvey Weinstein was waging his latest battle with the MPAA over the R-rating of the upcoming Weinstein Co. release, “Philomena.” While one expletive is generally allowed for a PG-13 rating, the two in “Philomena” were enough to make it rated R. Weinstein has enlisted the film’s stars, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, in a series of comedic online videos protesting the MPAA’s decision.

Graves said parents more frequently object to language or sex in movies, and that “they feel they’re getting the correct information about the violence.”

“We’re certainly listening on the sexuality and the language,” Graves said. “We’d be very interested in adjusting violence if in fact we were hearing from them we’re getting it wrong. They don’t seem to think that.”

But violence in film and video games has become an increasingly hot topic in the wake of numerous school shootings. Studies have shown conflicting results on whether watching violent movies has any effect on real-life violence. In January, President Barack Obama called for further research on the connection between media and violence.

Graves said the association is aware of school shootings and other violence and the debate on the possible connection to violence in movies. She said the association is open to making adjustments.

“Certainly, it’s always under consideration. It’s not a static thing, ever,” she said.

Playboy launches Hebrew language edition

Israelis can now read Playboy “for the articles.”

A U.S. emigre, Daniel Pomerantz, on March 5 launched the first Hebrew language edition of the popular men’s magazine.

Playboy has been widely available in Israel for years, but this marks the first local edition of the magazine. It features Israeli models and articles by Israeli writers.

It’s not clear how well the magazine will be received in the Holy Land, where religious sensitivities simmer under the surface and observant Jews and Muslims live by strict modesty rules. Adult magazines and videos are freely available, but not with local models and not in Hebrew.

Playboy was launched in 1953 with the iconic Marilyn Monroe centerfold. It peaked in popularity in the 1970s. Circulation has declined since the rise of adult Internet sites.

Spain’s dictionary updated to include gay marriage

Spain legalized gay marriage seven years ago, but only this month has its official dictionary been updated to include a definition.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Royal Spanish Academy, which regulates the Spanish language, expanded the definition of marriage in its online dictionary, defining it as “under some laws, the union of two people of the same sex.”

The change is one of 1,700 made to Spain’s dictionary since 2001.

“Blogueros” are now officially recognized typing away on their blogs. The “Popemobile” is now known en español as the “papamovil.” And the mingling of English and Spanish? That’s “espanglish,” the Times reported.

Spaniards can get “friki” on the dance floor, “chatear” online, play “sudoku,” or “okupar” their cities in protest. They might identify themselves as “cienciologos” – what Californians know as Scientologists.

Perhaps most tellingly in this uneasy year for the euro, the academy has now christened “euroescepticismo” as “distrust for the political projects of the European Union.”

The Academy “doesn’t promote words,” its secretary, Dario Villanueva said when the changes were announced. “It records what people use.”

Earlier this year, a U.S. citizen began a petition drive to encourage dictionary.com to change its definition of marriage to include same-sex marriages. Read more.

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