You know when someone is about to do something they shouldn't and they have one moment for a pithy remark, so they always say something like, "I'd rather ask for forgiveness than get permission"? That's basically how Hollywood has always operated when it comes to casting white people in roles that could go to a person of colour. The same goes for voice acting, though many find it irrational to throw judgement because it's just someone's voice, not their actual person. Then, when the societal climate changes and the industry tries to meet the moment by rectifying their mistake, they usually get the same two responses: praise for making a change and vitriol for succumbing to the "agenda."
Most recently, folks have been getting up in arms about Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell's decisions to quit their voice work on Netflix's Big Mouth and Apple TV+'s Central Park as Missy and Molly, respectively. In an Instagram post announcing her departure, Slate explained that when she began the show, she thought it was reasonable to voice Missy because the character's mom is white and Jewish, which the actress is herself. "But Missy is also Black and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people," she wrote on Wednesday, June 24.
"I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed," Slate added. "It existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing Missy, I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people."
Bell echoed similar sentiments in several tweets the same day, which she shared along with Central Park's official statement on her leaving the show. "Playing Molly in Central Park shows a lack of awareness of my pervasive privilege. Casting a mixed-race character w/a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed-race & Black American experience," she wrote. "I am happy to relinquish this role to someone who can give a much more accurate portrayal and I will commit to learning, growing, and doing my part for equality and inclusion."
The decision to cast white actors to voice biracial children comes from the same gumption that spurs a popular band to change their name without googling if someone else already has the same moniker.
It's swell that both shows acknowledged their mistake and have moved to correct it, but here's the very obvious question: why did they cast white voice actors in the first place? Sure, Slate and Bell are recognisable names with fan appeal that will get people to watch the shows, but they aren't the only actors who can do the job. The decision to cast white actors to voice two biracial children comes from the same gumption that spurs a popular band to change their name without googling if someone else already has the same moniker.
It's not like the issue of white actors voicing characters of colour is a new controversy; Mike Henry voiced Cleveland Brown on Family Guy since 1999, Alison Brie voiced Diane Nguyen on BoJack Horseman, and there's an entire documentary about the repercussions of having The Simpsons' recurring character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon voiced by actor Hank Azaria. The Problem With Apu, written by and starring comic Hari Kondabolu, came out in 2017 and though it was dismissed by the show's creators (who are white), Azaria elected to step down from voicing Apu after almost 30 years.
Neither Slate nor Bell's portrayals were culturally offensive like Azaria, Henry, or even Brie's work, but they simply didn't make sense. The creators behind Big Mouth and Central Park had an opportunity to hire someone who matched their characters' profiles or to diversify their casts with a Black actor or actor of colour, and instead they went the easy route of hiring people they've already worked with or wanted to work with. It's not as if they can say that these figures don't exist in the industry (Tiffany Haddish is just one Black Jewish voice actor who has done great work on Tuca and Bertie) or that either actor was better than the rest. They didn't do the work of actually looking for other actors.
As Senior TV Editor of Collider Liz Shannon Miller pointed out on Twitter, members of the Central Park creative team defended the decision to cast Bell as a Black character at a TCA panel back in January. Creator Loren Bouchard said that "Kristen needed to be Molly, like we couldn't not make her Molly. But then we couldn't make Molly white and we couldn't make Kristen mixed race, so we just had to go forward."
So, this isn't a case of hiring "the right person for the job." It's a case of being known by those in the creative chair and getting in despite not being a fit for the role. The "right person for the job" excuse is usually a cop-out anyway because it largely ignores the possibility that access to those kinds of opportunities are often limited or erased as people have already had specific actors in mind for certain work. But then again, the phrase usually comes from people who never like it when the situation is reversed and they're asked, "Well how do you know this Black actor or actor of colour isn't the right person for the job?"
Many of the fans who objected to the actors stepping down wondered why Slate and Bell had to quit if both characters are biracial. There are many complex answers to this question, but I'll provide two. First, while both Missy and Molly have white mothers, they're visibly Black. This means that whenever they go out into the world, they're seen as Black children, first and always. If fans had never seen their white mothers on screen, they would (and often still do) simply refer to those characters as Black. So, why shouldn't the role go to a Black voice actor?
Second, if we lived in a fair and equal world, it wouldn't matter who is voicing what character. But people need to be honest about how the world, and especially Hollywood, rarely have equal opportunities for employment. Black people and people of colour disproportionately face obstacles that keep them from getting gigs — especially big jobs like a Netflix series that's been renewed through to season six and has a spinoff in the works.
Why did worldwide protests addressing police brutality and racial inequality have to spark the change?
Sure, it's nice that Slate and Bell finally recognised their part in the mean machine that keeps Black actors and actors of colour from nabbing gigs. But does it count when the damage has already been done? Why did worldwide protests addressing police brutality and racial inequality have to spark the change? Why did it take four seasons — which is more than long enough to firmly establish Slate as the voice of Missy and make it near impossible for whoever comes next to truly make their mark as a voice actor — for Big Mouth to make this change? Why did Slate and Bell, two people who have prided themselves on being progressive and aware of their privilege, not see how their choice would fall down the line? The answer is, very simply, white privilege.
When BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg was asked by Slate's Inkoo Kang about hiring Brie to portray a Vietnamese-American character, he described his thinking process in a way that I imagine is relatable to many people who believe themselves to be "woke."
"I didn't want to cast a show with all white people, [but] I was surprised by how easily it happened. I understand that I'm taking a frustratingly passive voice there, but that's how it felt to me," he explained. "I was casting all these people one at a time, sometimes several months apart, [and then] it dawned on me: Oh, these are all white people. I wish I had been paying closer attention at the time. You can be a 'good, woke person' who cares about this kind of thing, but if you are not actively making it a top priority, it doesn't happen. The way the industry's set up, the people you're gonna get on the acting side and the writing side are going to be white people."
So yeah, it's good that Black actors and actors of colour have these two new roles out in the open now. But they should have been the top priority for them in the first place. It's 2020 and it's time for people to realise that the fight of antiracism happens on all levels, even the seemingly innocuous occupation of voice acting. Let's hope other animated show creators learn from this and ensure they're proactive about doing the work to be as diverse behind the scenes as their characters are on the screen, instead of being reactive and trying to meet the moment when it's too late.