Family Guy and The Simpsons are the latest animated shows to announce recastings, promising characters of color will be played by people of color.
Last Wednesday, Jenny Slate announced her decision to step down from her role as biracial Missy Foreman-Greenwald on the Netflix animated series Big Mouth. She explained, “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.” Shortly thereafter, Apple+’s Central Park announced they’d be recasting the role of Molly Tillerman, a biracial girl voiced by Kristen Bell.
Two days after Slate’s announcement on Instagram, Mike Henry, a white actor who has voiced the Black character Cleveland on Family Guy and its cancelled spinoff The Cleveland Show, announced he was surrendering the role.
It’s been an honor to play Cleveland on Family Guy for 20 years. I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role. pic.twitter.com/FmKasWITKT— Mike Henry (@mikehenrybro) June 26, 2020
Presumably, this also means Henry will no longer voice the role of Consuela, a racist stereotype of a Hispanic housekeeper who speaks in broken English.
Also on Friday, a Fox spokesperson announced, “Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters.” This presumably includes Dr. Julius Hibbert, voiced by Harry Shearer, Carl Carlson voiced by Hank Azaria, Bumblebee Man, also voiced by Azaria, and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, also voiced by Azaria. Now, Azaria said in January he’d no longer play the racist stereotype of an Indian convenience store clerk. However, that came after years of public outcry, which culminated in 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu.
In the doc, comedian Hari Kondabolu explores the detrimental cultural legacy Apu left for people of Indian heritage trying to make their way in American entertainment.
At the time, Kondabolu and the doc’s director Michael Melamedoff got pushback from Simpsons’ fans, who insisted—like some have of Slate’s character—there was nothing wrong with having a white person play a character of color in voice acting. After all, such behind-the-scenes whitewashing is common in animation and has been for ages. Aside from Big Mouth, Central Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, consider Disney’s Aladdin (1992), where the roles of Aladdin, Jafar, Jasmine, the Sultan, and Genie were voiced by white actors, Scott Weinger, Jonathan Freeman, Linda Larkin, Douglas Seale, and Robin Williams. In King of the Hill, Hank’s Laotian neighbor Kahn Souphanousinphone was voiced by Toby Huss.
Right now on Ricky and Morty, Rick Sanchez is voiced by the show’s co-creator Justin Roiland, and a recent ep has Asian therapist Dr. Wong voiced by Susan Sarandon. On Bob’s Burgers, beloved Marshmallow, a trans woman, is voiced by Dan Herman, who is white and cis-gender. Avatar: The Last Airbender and its spinoff Avatar: The Legend of Korra is set in a world where whiteness doesn’t exist, and yet its cast is filled with white actors, including Mae Whitman, Janet Varney, David Faustino, J.K. Simmons, Kieran Shipka, and Mindy Sterling. Then, there’s the critically acclaimed BoJack Horseman, which had Vietnamese-American writer Diane Nguyen voiced by Alison Brie.
Though the show has closed its run, Brie took to Instagram to share her regrets about taking the role.
For some of these parts, it may be easy to point a finger and say, “Well, that’s wrong. That’s a white person exploiting a racist stereotype for laughs!” However, many of these characters were richly created with depth and without overt stereotypes tripping up their arcs. Many were voiced with passion by talented performers. That has fans of these shows turning to the defense that voice-acting should not be about what you look like, but who’s voice is best for the job. However, as Nicole Edyr pointed out last week, this comment suggests there’s a level playing field when there is not.
Many of these shows have white creators. Perhaps on some level, a white creator feels more comfortable casting a white person in a role of color because there’s less fear they’ll question the characterizations or complications therein. Regardless of why, casting this way literally silences people of color, and thereby makes inclusive representation in animation only skin deep. And who’s to say a person who can connect to the heritage painted onto these characters couldn’t have done a better job bringing them to life?
Header Image Source: Fox