White Actors No Longer Voicing Cartoons of Color

Another bow to the inevitable.

Slash Film (“‘The Simpsons’ Won’t Have Have White Actors Voice Characters of Color Anymore, Mike Henry No Longer Voicing Cleveland Brown on ‘Family Guy’“):

Back at the beginning of the year, Hank Azaria decided to vacate the role of convenience store owner Apu on The Simpsons after the character became embroiled in controversy for not just encouraging stereotypes of Indian characters, but for being voiced by an actor who was white. Now The Simpsons will be following suit across the board by no longer having white actors voice any characters of color from here on out.

The Simpsons isn’t the only FOX animated series making changes with how they cast characters of color. Family Guy voice actor Mike Henry will be walking away from voicing the role of Cleveland Brown, a character he has played since the beginning of the series back in 1999.

TV Line has word direct from FOX about The Simpsons new policy in casting characters for the show. The network made a brief statement saying simply, “Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters.”

This decision will result in several changes on the show. For example, Hank Azaria has also been voicing the Black character Carlton Carlson, and Harry Shearer has lent his voice to Dr. Julius M. Hibbert, another Black character on the show. Tress MacNeille has also voiced Dr. Hibbert’s wife Bernice and Apu’s wife Manjula, along with the Asian character Cookie Kwan. That will no longer be the case with The Simpsons’ new policy on characters of color. It’s not clear how soon the show might find replacement actors to voice those characters, especially since they don’t appear very often.

This follows a week in which all manner of TV shows, including “30 Rock,” “Scrubs,” “Community,” “The Office,” and “Golden Girls,” are being pulled from various streaming services for having episodes of scenes in which white actors are wearing blackface.

I haven’t watched “The Simpsons” in years and have only seen a handful of episodes of “The Family Guy,” so don’t have a strong opinion on most of the characters in question.

On the one hand, the characters in question are literally cartoon characters. They have skin color because they’re drawn that way. And the norm in the industry from its inception has been to have a handful of actors voice multiple characters.

Still, white guys doing a “black voice” is obviously problematic in ways that every black comedian having a “white voice” simply isn’t. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for the change to happen.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Entertainment, Popular Culture, Race and Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WHITES! (smirk)

    Casting is at the heart of accusations about Hollywood’s racism. A welcome and overdue change.

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  2. CSK says:

    It took them long enough, given that Hollywood for generations has abounded with talented actors of color.

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  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    I recently listened to a bunch of Cheech and Chong routines that I remembered from my youth. Most of it is just as funny as it always was, but there are times when Cheech Marin give voice to an urban “slick” black character, and wow did that make me cringe. Sometimes he also did very street-oriented Chicanos, but I figure he’s entitled.

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  4. grumpy realist says:

    Maybe we can also get actors who can actually speak foreign languages so that we can get the correct accents?

    (Yah, Sean Connery, I’m lookin’ at you and The Hunt For Red October…ouch!)

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  5. R. Dave says:

    Still, white guys doing a “black voice” is obviously problematic in ways that every black comedian having a “white voice” simply isn’t. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for the change to happen.

    I definitely disagree with these moves. The only relevant question, in my opinion, should be whether the character and/or its accent are demeaning stereotypes. If they aren’t, having a white voice actor shouldn’t matter, and if they are, having a black voice actor shouldn’t redeem them.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @R. Dave:

    The only relevant question, in my opinion, should be whether the character and/or its accent are demeaning stereotypes.

    But stereotypes often exist for a reason. Take @Jay L Gischer‘s example: there are indeed “street Chicanos” who talk in a way that can be stereotyped. Having a Chicano actor voice the character is simply different than a white guy doing it.

    Now, I’m not sure where to draw the line. A classic example is Barbara Billingsley’s “I speak Jive” scene in Airplane. Does it play to stereotypes? Absolutely! But it’s clearly designed as parody and not to demean blacks or black culture. I don’t think we should “pull” Airplane or delete that comedic gem.

    But, again, I’m a middle-aged white guy. It’s completely possible that a lot of black people find that scene offensive.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    @R. Dave:
    I agree. This is silliness posing as activism. If carried to the extreme it puts a lid on black talent. They’re 13% of the population and not growing, likely to be repped by a maximum of 13% of fictional characters, and therefore end up self-excluding from 87% of the work. We’re getting perhaps a short-term boost for black actors, but a long-term re-segregation. It’s an example of abandoning principle for a quick fix, when the better protection long-term is to stick with principle.

    I’m happier with the approach taken by the recent show about Catherine the Great. Russian characters were cast without regard to race. Black Russians? Sure, why not? If Brits can play Germans, why not? The re-segregation approach undercuts this color blind approach which opens amazing roles to black actors.

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  8. Mister Bluster says:

    So who will be the voices of Kang and Kodos?
    (Pay attention Tyrell)

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  9. Gustopher says:

    It would be jarring to hear a different voice for Dr. Hibbert. He’s not perpetrating offensive racial stereotypes, and his race is barely even relevant other than the color of paint on the cels.

    I can definitely see not casting new characters of color with white people, and looking at some and retiring them if they are offensive. But leave Dr. Hibbert alone.

    @Michael Reynolds: A lot of characters don’t have to be any specific race or gender. Ripley from Alien wasn’t written as a woman, for instance. Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four isn’t inherently white*. There should be lots of opportunities for black actors without resorting to non-historical stunt casting.

    That said, Hamilton is great. And I’m very excited about the upcoming version of it on Disney+

    ——
    *: Johnny Storm is Sue Storm’s brother though, so they should be the same race. And, no, you can’t explain it away through adoption as Ben Grimm’s character arc is the realization that despite not being related, he is family, and removing that insecurity just guts his character. That awful most-recent Fantastic Four movie should have Sue black as well, or Reed instead of Johnny.

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  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I expect that the more likely outcome is that the producers will “discover” that characters that aren’t used very much also don’t need to have parts written for them at all. Expect to see some characters simply disappear.

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: For me, there was some cognitive dissonance to overcome in the most recent Fantastic Four movie, but I agree with Reynolds in that if we are really going to move to a colorblind society, casting of the sort that happens in Catherine needs to be a part of the mix.

    On the other hand, I suspect that we will never move to being a colorblind society because of what Jim Brown 32 noted in a post yesterday.

    You can’t start to root out institutional racism…as long as institutions can track your race.

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  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    Abraham Popoola played ‘Rostov’ and Bayo Gbadamosi played ‘Arkady’ in The Great. In this new segregated schema those roles would have been played by white actors. Plenty of other roles just as juicy? Not really. How about Idris Elba as a Norse god? This won’t stand as a one-way street.

    We can hope that Hollywood will create enough specifically black roles, or that they will cast black actors to play race non-specific roles, but I think that’s naive. More likely is that black actors will be pigeonholed in specifically black roles and their access to the wider market will be limited.

    Re-segregation also creates schisms in minority communities, viz the question of whether Kamala Harris is black enough or Asian enough. Or whether Halle Berry is too light-skinned. For that matter, the American obsession with dichotomy, in which only one racial barrier matters – white/black – is ill-suited to an increasingly international audience aware of many more racial divisions. For example, a Korean might be mightily offended by a Japanese actor playing a Korean part. Can a half-Chinese, half-Korean play a Chinese role? Pretty quickly this devolves into updated versions of ‘octoroons’ and ‘quadroons’ of multiple races. We’ve already started to see this in kidlit, with a nasty fight breaking out between a Native American activist and a writer who was only half Native American.

    This is the kind of easy-peasy non-solution to a problem when a better solution is available, but harder to manage in the early stages.

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  13. Console says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The problem is that in America, “everyone does everything” usually ends up being “white people do everything.” No matter how meritocratic we want the world to be, humans are nepotistic and bias towards status quo.
    In short, “re-segregation” implies that America successfully integrated in the first place.

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  14. Mu Yixiao says:

    Still, white guys doing a “black voice” is obviously problematic in ways that every black comedian having a “white voice” simply isn’t.

    That’s a slightly racist premise.

    It requires that we accept that black people and white people speak differently–because they’re black or white. Even worse, it insists that American Standard English is inherently “white”.

    And I’d like to point out the way you present the two sides: White people “do a black voice”; black people “have a white voice”.

    How, exactly, does the color of a person’s skin define how they speak?

    Do Halley Berry, James Earl Jones, Josephine Jobert, and Idris Elba “have a white voice”? Or do they just speak like everyone else where they grew up?*

    I lived in Portsmouth, VA for a year. One block towards the river were all high-end townhouses. One block away from it were salons featuring “Nubian styles”.

    All the kids went to the same school. All the kids had access to the same media (TV, radio, etc.).

    When I wanted to get McDonald’s (2 blocks from my house), I had to walk in rather than use the drive-through. Because the young black people there couldn’t speak intelligible English. I understand about 5 words in French, and I was better able to communicate with the server at BK in Quebec** than the one at McD’s in Portsmouth.

    English is the most fluid and adaptable language in the world–the one spoken with the most accents and dialects bar none. There is absolutely no reason for American English to separate a “black” and “white” voice.

    I applaud efforts to open up the entertainment industry to more people, and to acknowledge where groups are currently under-represented and make appropriate corrections.

    When it comes to VA work, I strongly believe that the voice should fit the character–and a personal/cultural background similar to the character is highly valuable. That means that the talent pool should be a lot more diverse than it is.

    But a blanket ban saying “You can’t do this voice because of your race” is a step backwards. It’s segregation. I thought we’d progressed past that.


    * With the exception of James Earl Jones. He speaks with the Voice of God.

    ** My food for the week consisted heavily of grilled chicken sandwiches, large fries, and a Coke—because that’s all I new how to say in French.

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  15. Mster Bluster says:

    I wish I could remember who the black, female author was that told this story. She was being interviewed about her recent book. This was sometime in the last 15 or 20 years on some radio broadcast.
    The issue of race came up. The author told how her mother raised her to be colorblind.
    The author stated that when she was 5 or 6 (?) years old a man came to the door and she told her mom.
    “Is he colored or white?” her mom asked.
    The author said she had never heard her mother use those words before and she did not know what they meant.

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  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Console:

    In short, “re-segregation” implies that America successfully integrated in the first place.

    Integration has been inadequate, but it’s wrong to pretend no progress has been made. 50 years ago there was exactly one black star: Sidney Poitier. Now we have Idris and Michael B. Jordan and Oprah and Queen Latifah and Will Smith and Denzel and Angela Bassett. 50 years ago, zero major black directors. Now we have Jordan Peele and Ryan Coogler and Steve McQueen. That’s an improvement by any standard.

    Absolutely every bit of progress takes longer than I would like. But you don’t throw away a valid and defensible ideal for a short-term sugar rush.

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  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Mster Bluster:
    I had a similar experience with my kids (one white, one Chinese). I was picking them up from day camp many years ago. We were looking at a group of their counselors, the kids were talking about one in specific, and it never occurred to them to say, ‘the black one.’ The counselor wasn’t ‘the black one,’ he was, ‘the guy who was nice.’

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  18. Console says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Voice acting is funny because its a very insular community. Once you’re pegged as a voice actor, you can get all the voice acting roles. The same dozen people end up working on every project. Occasionally you’ll get a black actor that gets in the group. Phil LaMarr, for example, is one of the biggest voice actors out and has played characters of all races. But the problem is that for every Phil LaMarr, there is a million Tara Strongs

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  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher:

    There should be lots of opportunities for black actors without resorting to non-historical stunt casting.

    Without getting into whether mythical characters are historic, IIRC the makers of the Thor movies felt they had to do something like casting Idris Elba as Heimdahl to distance the movie from neo-Nazi use of Nordic mythology.

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  20. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    For example, a Korean might be mightily offended by a Japanese actor playing a Korean part.

    That isn’t even new. There was some controversy years ago when Chinese actors were cast in Memoirs of a Geisha. I also remember the movie Selena, all the way back in the 1990s, coming in for some criticism for its casting of Jennifer Lopez, a Puerto Rican, as the Mexican-American singer.

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  21. grumpy realist says:

    @Mu Yixiao: I’ve always felt that if any accent is considered a “black” accent, it is simply a Southern accent, dragged north by the diaspora of black people from the South up to places like Chicago and Detroit.

    The best accent for a dark-skinned person to jump social barriers with in the U.S. is a proper British accent. The locals won’t know WHAT to think of you. (One of my fellow physics grad students was very very black and from Birmingham, U.K. Boy do I have some stories.)

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  22. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08:

    Without getting into whether mythical characters are historic, IIRC the makers of the Thor movies felt they had to do something like casting Idris Elba as Heimdahl to distance the movie from neo-Nazi use of Nordic mythology.

    So, not colorblind casting at all… there was a purpose to the casting. And there’s always a purpose to the casting, and one should consider whether the race and gender matters.

    In universe, Thor and then aren’t the Norse gods of myth exactly — they are the inspiration for the myths. The Nords could easily have white-washed their myths, while the actual aliens were of varies races and species.

    My only objection to Iris Elba as Heimdahl was that he didn’t get much to do.

    Both Dr. Strange and the Danny Rand Iron First have problematic origins — white guy goes off to Asia, learns mystic Asian arts and is better than the Asians at it (implicitly because they are white, but that isn’t stated). It’s more than a little offensive. The Dr. Strange movie doubled down on it by casting Tilde Swinton as the Ancient One.

    I’m willing to give them a pass on Tilde Swinton because you should always cast Tilde Swinton.

    But there’s nothing in Dr. Strange’s story that requires him to be white. That’s a decision that was made likely because no one thought about it.

    Danny Rand… if they had wanted to do a Power Man and Iron Fist series, the fact that Danny Rand is a very privileged white guy who doesn’t see a lot of the problems in the world is very relevant. And in his own series he was an insufferable idiot. If you want to make a story where the protagonist is an insufferable idiot basking in his own privilege and causing as many problems as he solves because he doesn’t understand… ok, but there might be a reason this show didn’t catch on.

    Daredevil and Batman, at least in Batman Begins, dabble in that origin as well. (Comics Batman at least travelled the world, learning from great detectives and great fighters in a variety of places, and was never the equal of any of his teachers, just had a broader set of skills… A-minuses in everything)

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  23. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    For example, a Korean might be mightily offended by a Japanese actor playing a Korean part. Can a half-Chinese, half-Korean play a Chinese role?

    Garrett Wong, the actor who played Ensign Harry Kim on Star Trek: Voyager, was apparently annoyed that the producers didn’t even realize the Ensign Kim was Korean. He had said something about the lack of Chinese representation, and was told that Kim was the Chinese representation…

    Better than what happened with Chakotay. They hired a consultant to really make sure the character was authentic, but failed to realize that the consultant knew nothing and was just making stuff up, resulting in a weird hodge-podge of various First Nations cultural references.

    I expect that Voyager will one day be viewed as deeply offensive.

    Pretty quickly this devolves into updated versions of ‘octoroons’ and ‘quadroons’ of multiple races.

    I learned these words from Brave New World. What a terrible book that was, but at least I got some old-timey miscegenation terms out of it.

    And the new word “sexaphones” — it’s a saxophone that you play by humping.

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  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Console: No, re-segregation can happen in a partially desegregated setting.

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: It’s too bad that the McD’s in Quebec didn’t have a menu board. Having those really helped me when I went to walk up restaurants in Korea. (Or maybe you don’t phonate in French?)

    @Michael Reynolds:

    and it never occurred to them to say, ‘the black one.’ The counselor wasn’t ‘the black one,’ he was, ‘the guy who was nice.’

    That’s a good thing (and a nice story); I hope they’ve been able to hang on to that ability. It’ll help make the world we’d like to see come to pass.

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  26. An Interested Party says:

    @Gustopher: Talking about Star Trek, in the reboot movies, John Cho, an actor of Korean descent, plays Sulu, a character of Japanese descent…

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  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: I imagine that you do indeed. From Malcolm X:

    That’s right, go anywhere you want. Just stop being a Negro. Change your name to Hoogagagooba. That’ll show you how silly the white man is. You’re dealing with a silly man. A friend of mine who’s very dark put a turban on his head and went into a restaurant in Atlanta before they called themselves desegregated. He went into a white restaurant, he sat down, they served him, and he said, “What would happen if a Negro came in here? And there he’s sitting, black as night, but because he had his head wrapped up the waitress looked back at him and says, “Why, there wouldn’t no nigger dare come in here.”

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  28. Slugger says:

    It is common for symphonies to audition candidates behind a curtain. Perhaps, some similar Turing test could be done for voice actors.

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  29. Jan Kert says:

    What about black educated actors playing stereotypical street hiphop ebonics african americans?

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