Why You Should Turn Subtitles On for Absolutely Everything
I use subtitles all the time. No matter what.
Mark SerrelsEditorial Director
Mark Serrels is an award-winning Senior Editorial Director focused on all things culture. He covers TV, movies, anime, video games and whatever weird things are happening on the internet. He especially likes to write about the hardships of being a parent in the age of memes, Minecraft and Fortnite. Definitely don't follow him on Twitter.
"Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."
That's Academy Award winner Bong Joon-ho, quoted from a Golden Globes acceptance speech all the way back in January 2020. He was talking about subtitles, which, despite being completely necessary and helpful and beyond useful, are apparently hated by some people.
Almost immediately afterward, Bong pulled in a ridiculous four Oscars with Parasite -- a fantastically made, multilayered dark comedy that delves deep into the underbelly of class divides. Parasite was an extremely deserving winner. You should absolutely watch this movie.
Bong's quote was a way of gently chiding those who let subtitles hold them back from enjoying the greatest cinema the non-English-speaking world has to offer. And the man was a goddamn prophet. Because in the wake of his Oscars triumph came a discourse that could only take breath in a social media vacuum addicted to the galaxy brain take. Yep, people got upset about subtitles.
It started with "Dubbing is better than subtitles," a (since revised) piece in Mother Jones. "Of course no one likes subtitles," it boldly states, adding that pretending subtitles aren't an issue is "faux sophistication of the highest order."
The Mother Jones story inspired the online outrage it was designed to create. Because of course (for the most part) no one really minds subtitles and of course subtitles are an absolutely metric buttload of an improvement compared with dubs.
Dubs are an abomination and only useful if you're visually impaired or, for some other reason, unable to read.
With that baseline for sanity now in place, I'd like to take the subtitle debate one step forward into the chaos realm.
So here it is, the galaxy brain take of galaxy brain takes: Subtitles are good. Subtitles are very good. Possibly even always good. No matter what language is being spoken, even if you speak that language, subtitles should be on and visible. At all times.
To be clear: Even when I can hear and understand perfectly the language being spoken on the television I am watching, I want subtitles on at all times, without exception.
I believe this is common sense.
Subtitles do not detract from the viewing experience, they enhance it. If there's background noise, say a plane flying overhead or -- in my case -- two bafflingly loud children fighting over an iPad in the background, it's easy to miss details or subtle dialogue nuances.
What if you're watching The Expanse, a show where roughly 30% of the characters speak Belter, an English/patois hybrid that doesn't always quite make sense to English speakers? What if you're watching The Witcher on Netflix, in which almost everyone speaks in a low, suboptimal grumble?
What if the movie is simply mixed poorly? Anyone with young kids understands the dilemma. You're watching TV, remote in a vicelike grip, stressed about waking the kids up. You're hitting mute during action sequences, but cranking the volume during speaking sections so you can understand what the hell is going on.
Why not just turn on the subtitles? Problem solved.
The idea that subtitles detract from the performance of actors is old-fashioned. My brain, and any brain for that matter, is capable of being present with both simultaneously. The subtitles are simply there to provide more information. I use "behind the lyrics" on Spotify to read song lyrics while listening. All that does is enhance the experience. TV and movies are no different.
If I'm watching a movie and the subtitles are off, it feels weird. I wish we had subtitles in real life.
Look, I'm Scottish. My accent is damn near impenetrable. If someone like me is on screen, don't you want to know what the hell that guy is saying? Trust me, if augmented reality allowed subtitles to appear magically over my head during conversations with Americans, I'd be more than cool with it. Actually, I'd recommend it.
The truth is the one-inch barrier of subtitles isn't a barrier at all. If anything, it's a pathway. Get them on, get comfortable with it. I promise you'll never go back.
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