The world of animation has always been a colorful and imaginative industry. Yet it still faces several challenges when it comes to racial inclusion, especially behind the scenes.
Recently, however, there’s been a change in front of the camera… um, well, in front of the mic. Shows in the past have cast white voice talent to bring to life characters of any and all ethnicities. But because of the Black Lives Matter movement, several white voice actors resigned from voicing characters of color.
Let’s take a look at how this change is for the better and how the animation industry can work toward better opportunities for voice talent of color.
Homer, We’ve Got a Problem With Apu
Let’s start with a character familiar to anyone with The Simpsons — Apu. This is a painful one for many in the South Asian community. So much so that comedian Hari Kondabolu created an entire documentary on it, called The Problem With Apu.
Kondabolu explores how Apu was, for a time, the only representation of his culture on TV. Here’s what he says about actor Hank Azaria, who isn’t South Asian at all, voicing Apu:
“…a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
Apu is both a racial stereotype and an insult to the South Asian community. In Kondabolu’s film, other South Asian performers recount their disappointment and frustration with the character. Describing Apu as an affront to their upbringing and culture.
So what did the producers of The Simpsons do to resolve this? Introduce a variety of different South Asian characters to balance out the show? Get a South Asian voice actor to take over the role from Azaria?
Nope. They just vanquished Apu to the cartoon cornfield and retired him from the show. Complete and utter erasure of the character and South Asians from the show. The reason: the show’s producers didn’t want to reignite the hate the South-Asian community had for the character.
While the removal and addressing the problem is a change the studio decided to make (in its 30-year life-span) it is not enough to have fans and critics feel satisfied. If anything, the removal of the character sends the opposite message of what people wanted to be changed about the character.
#TheSimpsons completely toothless response to @harikondabolu #TheProblemWithApu about the racist character Apu:
"Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect… What can you do?" pic.twitter.com/Bj7qE2FXWN
— soham (@sohamberlamps) April 9, 2018
Erasure Isn’t The Solution to The Apu Problem
As a South-Asian American, I’ve always felt that if Apu changed careers from his stereotype convenience store owner and was voiced by a South Asian actor, then it would be a better representation of his ethnic background.
A different career could help people come to realize that not all South-Asian people work at a gas station or manage a convenience store. I’d personally like to see Apu tackle maybe a psychiatry career or become a politician. Breaking the barrier of what the average person feels someone of color can do is something a show like The Simpsons should be focusing on with all their characters.
However, Apu’s exaggerated accent can still be a trigger for those who felt his character was already a racial insult. Changing it to someone who’s background culture is the same as someone who lived in South-Asian and moved to America can give the voice more authenticity and maybe feel more welcoming to other individuals of the same background. Making those types of changes instead of erasing Apu would go a long way to bringing representation back to the show’s mostly white cast of characters.
Kristen Bell Departs Central Park
The Black Lives Matter movement is instrumental in awakening Hollywood to the unfair bias towards BIPOC that still exists today.
Probably one of the most “woke” moments for the animation world was when actress Kristen Bell resigned from voicing her character on Apple Plus’s Central Park. As she posted on her Instagram:
This is an admirable move on Bell’s part. But more change is needed to open up more opportunities for diversity and inclusive casting.
Insights from a Voice Talent Casting Director
We reached out to casting director Linda Lamontange for insight into the casting process. She’s helped cast several animated shows, including The Powerpuff Girls, Ben10, and Netflix’s BoJack Horseman.
Lamontange spoke to us about how she ensures diversity and inclusion in her casting choices:
“I have always been open, unless it specifically is requested/needed for the story line, to look/be open to everyone. If the role is PATIENT, i try to bring/search for as many options as possible as it’s not specified. If it’s DRIVER but the producer requests Queer and Asian then I am relegated to fulfull that request but it there’s someone special who is the polar opposite, I would bring that choice as an alternate option to the others.”
She also told us about her philosophy when it comes to blind casting:
“ I’ve always believed in it. I’ve been known to bring “too many choices” to the table.”
We further asked her on how the industry has been affected by the current social and political climate, especially regarding racial justice and the pandemic:
“There are very conscious decisions made for inclusion to reflect what the world looks like from an international perspective. I feel content is now made for a broader crowd and so it needs to be relatable hence the push to be more open to various ethnicities and the bi-tri-racial mixes. I am bi-racial myself which I feel akin to different sides of me at different times. I never could check off that one box White, Black, Hispanic, Asian so I know it made me more aware. It’s great that we aren’t always beholden as in voiceover there is more freedom yet at the same time I/we want to make sure that all are represented. There is still lots of room for improvement as it just doesn’t happen overnight.
Finally, Lamontange offered these parting thoughts:
“Hopefully, we are always shifting forward and not backwards. I do feel there’s a more conservative tone and maybe because there’s no magical book of rules and not everyone is so game to change. It’s like booking the first person on a project or getting talent to lend their voice to an episode of a new series. Most want to know who else is doing it before they get involved. It’s those fabulous bold people who take into consideration the material, staff, crew, etc and have the support of their reps who also must have good instincts, insight, knowledge, and TRUST. I can name just a few and they are craftspeople whom I will always be loyal too!”
We Speak With Some Voice Talent Next…
We sat down recently with actors Suzie McGrath (Star Wars Resistance), America Young (Gotham Knights) and Christopher Sean for our first Chai and Cocktails panel, a discussion on voice talent and diversity.
Tomorrow, we’ll have some highlights from that discussion.