The winds of change are blowing hard through the entertainment industry. Diversity and representation are front of mind for creatives as they seek to redress the offences and oversights of the past. Naturally this has led to passionate reactions among fanbases, ranging from “political correctness gone mad” to “about bloody time” to “not enough, do more”. And some of the fiercest debate has been sparked in the world of animation, where a trend has been growing of white voice actors renouncing roles of people of colour.
The catalyst, of course, was The Simpsons’ Hank Azaria, who gave up the part of Indian convenience store owner Apu after loud and persistent complaints. Azaria’s lead has since been followed by the likes of Mike Henry, who has given up voicing Family Guy’s Cleveland Brown after 20 years with the character, and Jenny Slate, who issued a public apology for the harm she’d done by voicing Missy in Big Mouth.
All of these actors are fine artists who are no doubt responding to the cultural moment in good faith and with only the best intentions. But at such times the focus is generally on who is obeying the demands to Do The Right Thing, and very little on the question of whether The Right Thing will, in fact, make anything better.
One of the first, and most obvious, objections to the movement against what, for want of a better term, we might call “blackvoice”, is that animated shows often feature people of colour voicing white characters, as well as the reverse. For example, Big Mouth, formerly home to Jenny Slate’s portrayal of Missy, also features the voice talents of Jordan Peele and Maya Rudolph, who voice a variety of characters of a variety of races. Should they, in the interests of race-voice matching, refuse to portray white characters?
The obvious answer to this, of course, is that white actors playing black characters is “punching down”, and black actors playing white characters is “punching up”. But in this case, it seems more realistic to say that there’s no punching at all. Voicing a black character isn’t mocking black people, or at least it doesn’t have to be: certainly Slate and Henry’s portrayals weren’t based on negative stereotypes, and while there’s debate about Azaria’s performance as Apu, the same cannot be said of his voices for black characters Carl and Lou. So, the disconnect can’t simply be “white people mocking black people – bad; black people mocking white people – good”. It seems that the prevailing wisdom is simply that the skin colour of a voice actor should always match the skin colour of their character, in the same way that applies to live-action.
But if we followed that rule, what good does it do? How big a dent in racism does this kind of stand-taking make? It is obviously a good thing if actors of colour have more opportunities, and the fact that, in general, movies and TV are gradually getting less homogenously white is a positive development for the industry. But the goal of granting more opportunities for non-white performers is not incompatible with letting long-running characters retain their long-running voice actors. The horizons can be broadened for the industry without insisting that an artist be pushed out of a role they’ve played for decades. All that is likely to do is weaken the show and upset the fans.
But will it have any impact on the wider society? Will the great viewing public, once they know that the names in the credits at the end of their favourite show are racially aligned with the moving pictures they’ve been watching, start to rethink their whole attitude to systemic discrimination? Call me a depressive pessimist, but I suspect not. And there is laid bare the whole problem with a push like this: while doing no material good at all, they hoodwink us into believing something has been achieved. But all that’s achieved by removing an actor from a role is the loss of a gig and an illusionary sense of accomplishment for smug liberals. Focusing less on cartoons and more on real life might be a better way forward.
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