In the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality, calls for change have reached far into the corners of pop culture, from old comedy shows removing blackface episodes to an infamously named football team finally ditching its racist moniker to surprising upheavals within the TV voice acting industry. Several white voice actors from popular TV shows, who were originally cast to play characters of color, have stepped away from their roles in order to encourage the show’s producers to recast them authentically. In doing so, they’ve acknowledged the long-standing problem of whitewashing in the voice acting industry, and the detrimental effect it’s had on actors of color and the quest for meaningful representation in Hollywood.
The trend arguably ignited in late June, when actor Jenny Slate decided to step away from her role as a biracial character on the popular Netflix animated comedy Big Mouth. She’s since been replaced by comedian Ayo Edebiri. Slate’s decision — inspired by the racial tensions provoked by the police killing of George Floyd nearly a month before — opened the floodgates. In the intervening weeks, a wave of similar decisions by white actors like Kristen Bell and production teams like The Simpsons to recast their characters of color made headlines. With them have come questions about whether the trend of race-conscious recasting should extend to include any role, whom it impacts, and whether it’s anything more than a cosmetic change in the long term. But then there’s the biggest question of all: How does the animation industry give Black, Indigenous, and other actors of color a better shot at landing diverse roles when those roles barely exist to begin with?
White actors have been walking away from roles they now say were miscast all along
Creators in the animation industry have for years hand-waved away any problematic implications of having white characters play nonwhite ones. From the minstrelsy-inspired Mickey Mouse to the Latin-accented Speedy Gonzales to characters of color on more modern shows like King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers, and BoJack Horseman, white voice actors have been the de facto choice for decades, no matter the character.
“I was definitely aware that that was an issue and that was a problem. But if you look at animation, the precedence feels a little different,” BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg told IndieWire in 2018. One of the Netflix show’s major characters, Diane Nguyen, was voiced by the white actress Alison Brie. “Part of the issue is, when it comes to animation you convince yourself, ‘Anybody can play anything so it doesn’t matter.’”
Even as recently as this past January, Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard took a “what can you do?” approach, telling Variety that he “needed” to cast white actress Kristen Bell as a biracial character on his upcoming Apple TV+ cartoon Central Park. “Kristen needed to be Molly; we couldn’t not make her Molly,” he said. “But then we couldn’t make Molly white and we couldn’t make Kristen mixed race, so we just had to go forward.”
The nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in late May forced people throughout Hollywood to reconsider that attitude virtually overnight. Jenny Slate’s decision to walk away from her Big Mouth role reflects how the surge in anti-racist rhetoric throughout society came to bear on the voice acting industry. “I have come to the decision today that I can no longer play the character,” Slate posted June 24 on Instagram. She went on to say that while she believed her Jewish identity made it okay for her to play the character of Missy, whose mom is Jewish, she now understood that “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people … I was engaging in an act of erasure.”
Now prepping the show’s fourth season, the show’s co-creators, Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett supported Slate’s decision. In a follow-up post made to Kroll’s Instagram, they apologized for “our original decision to cast a white actor to play a biracial character,” and vowed to recast her.
Slate’s decision was surprising news, as was the support her show’s producers issued for her decision. It was also precedent-setting: Shortly after Slate encouraged her Big Mouth producers to appropriately recast her biracial character, Bell followed suit. The same day Slate announced her decision, Bell tweeted that she’d be leaving her Central Park role.
“This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity,” Bell tweeted. “Playing the 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 accompanied her post with a message of support from the show’s core creative team.
This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity. Heres 1 of mine. Playing the 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. pic.twitter.com/8AL8m4K7Uk
— Kristen Bell (@KristenBell) June 25, 2020
“We profoundly regret that we might have contributed to anyone’s feelings of exclusion or erasure,” the team wrote. “Our show will be better for respecting the nuances and complexity around the issue of representation and trying to get it right.” Bell will remain with the show, voicing a new character.
Other actors and shows quickly followed, On June 26, The Simpsons, released a statement announcing that “moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice nonwhite characters.”
The show, which enters its 32nd season this fall, first made headlines because of its non-diverse voice casting as far back as in 2017. Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu criticized the show that year in his documentary The Problem With Apu, which argued that the Indian convenience storeowner Apu is a troubling racist stereotype. A 2018 episode of The Simpsons offered a begrudging response to Kondabolu’s critique, and the debate over whether Apu was offensive continued. It culminated this past January, when cast member Hank Azaria announced he would no longer voice the character. It’s still unclear whether The Simpsons will completely retire the popular character, but if they recast him, it won’t be with another white actor.
Actor Mike Henry, who played the Black character Cleveland Brown on Family Guy, announced that same day that he, too, would be vacating the role for a Black actor to take over instead.
Henry, who had voiced Brown since the show’s debut in 1999, said on Twitter that while “It’s been an honor to play Cleveland … persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.”
The impetus for these changes seems to be the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and subsequent calls to examine underlying problems of racism in many industries, including Hollywood. Speaking in more detail about her decision to pass on the role of Missy to a Black actor, Slate told BuzzFeed on July 2 that it was “something that needed to happen. … I looked around my life and I could see very clearly where my reasoning was flawed and racist.”
For an increasing number of white voice actors, it’s time to share a responsibility to pass the microphone to actors of color. “For the time being,” voice actor Allegra Clark (Sailor Moon, Fortnite) told me in an email, “it’s important for white actors to take a step back and pass on auditions for characters of color, so that those opportunities are going to the right people to begin with.”
Those opportunities, however, have been vanishingly rare. Animated storytelling in Hollywood has been non-diverse in the extreme, and ethnic and racial stereotypes are seen across the long history of children’s animation, from Song of the South to Looney Tunes. Cartoon villains overwhelmingly had foreign accents throughout the early days of TV animation — and they still do today. When actors of color were hired to work on cartoons, they often had to perform those demeaning stereotypes; for instance, Disney cast Black voice actors to perform broadly racist minstrel caricatures throughout the 1940s, like the crows in Dumbo or the aforementioned Song of the South.
The racism inherent in these roles made actors of color increasingly reluctant to play them. So rather than write better parts for the actors, Hollywood grew more reluctant to write parts for people of color at all. This ugly cycle increased the rarity of diverse parts for diverse actors. In children’s animation, however, because the voice actors weren’t visible, the stereotypes persisted — just often with white actors voicing the parts, as if that were enough to ward off complaints of prejudice.
Additionally, animation studios tend to hire a small sample of character actors to voice multiple parts, including any ethnic roles a show may need filled. The prevalence of this practice has led to a hugely whitewashed profession that continues today.
Longtime screen and voice actor Dante Basco (Hook, Avatar: The Last Airbender) told me it’s taken a long time for voice casting to be taken as seriously as onscreen casting when it comes to racial diversity. “The reality is, it wasn’t seen as something important for many years, ’cause, you know, you’re [just] doing a cartoon,” Basco told me. But the Filipino American actor, well known for starring ethnic roles in animated series including Avatar and American Dragon: Jake Long, explained that his career has benefited from race-conscious casting, in those rare instances when it is prioritized.
“I always felt sometimes like they brought me in, like, ‘Oh, Dante, you’re an Asian celebrity, you can play this Asian role,’” he said. “And so I was probably one of the earliest ones [to get hired when productions] were accurately trying to cast the character close to” their ethnicity.
Still, he said, diversifying roles and opportunities for actors in the animation industry isn’t as simple as giving everyone a part matching their ethnic heritage.
“The pendulum swings both ways,” he said. “I don’t know if [racially conscious casting] is necessarily important on every single thing … I always tell people that if I had to wait around for a Filipino American role, I would not have a career.”
Basco’s pragmatism underscores just how hard it is to find any diverse characters in TV animation. When diverse parts are hard to come by, it can be prohibitive to silo a group of actors of color into their ethnic or racial niches.
Clark agrees that the lack of diverse roles makes it much harder for voice actors of color to sustain their careers. “There’s too much historical baggage, and too few opportunities for actors of color (who are seldom given a fair shot to read for white roles in the first place),” she said.
Their concerns that an attempt to move to strictly race-accurate casting could hurt actors of color more than help them point to larger issues within the industry. After all, the current high-profile movement to diversify all of Hollywood, including moving away from whitewashed casting, has also highlighted just how overwhelmingly non-diverse the voice acting industry has been.
The voice acting industry is diversifying — but at a frustratingly slow pace
We rarely see the people behind the mic of an animated character. Which means you might not realize just how stacked the deck is against voice actors of color.
“It took seven years of pushing, seven years of going to auditions and stealing the audition documents for all of the characters that I wasn’t being invited to read for,” Toronto-based voice actor Deven Mack told Vox. While Mack has found success in the Toronto animation industry, he says he had a wake-up call when he moved from doing voice acting on the internet to doing professional studio work.
“I started out doing things online on websites, like Newgrounds and YouTube. And that was a world where absolutely nobody knew what I looked like,” he said. “Over the years, I probably voiced Super Mario and Luigi for at least 50 different fan cartoons. … People think that I’m a white guy on the internet.” With professional studios, however, he found that he could rarely book auditions, and, when he did, was rarely asked to read for any part except that of “the Black kid.”
“Once I [got] an agent, I realized [that] I’m now auditioning only once every six months. Online, I’m playing everything. I’m playing cats, dogs, white characters, Black characters, old men. But here [in studios], it’s just the Black kid. And if there is no ‘the Black kid,’ then I’m just sitting at home.”
Even when Mack did eventually book his first studio role — as the character Lab Rat in a 2006 series called Grossology — the wake-up calls about the realities of the industry kept coming.
“There were lots of good people there, but the assumption still the whole time [was], ‘Oh, he’s a 17-year-old Black kid,’” Mack told me. “‘The only thing he can play is the Black kid. He can’t lose his accent. We just assume that. So we’re not even going to give him other stuff to do.’ So everybody else on the show was playing additional voices … and making more money than me as a result, because they just assumed I couldn’t do it.”
Mack was running into a lack of diversity that affects nearly every aspect of both the animation and video game industries. A 2019 Annenberg Institute survey of gender in animation found that only 3 percent of all animation roles (including both films and television series) go to women of color, across the broad spectrum of racial diversity. On the other side of the reel, that stat is even worse: Just 1 percent of producers are women of color. In 2017, another Annenberg study found that while 27 percent of animated films had Asian directors, between 2007 and 2016, only one animated film had a Black director at the helm.
Such an extreme lack of diversity on the production side of things manifests in a lack of diversity in the kinds of TV shows, films, and games that are made. The question of whose stories get told and who gets to tell them is left up to a production that often lacks a plethora of viewpoints from the start. And because voice acting is often considered to be “invisible,” it’s all too easy for a white actor to take the rare role that does feature a character of color.
It doesn’t help that producers are often reluctant to look beyond established actors. “Voice acting requires significant technical acting abilities — automated dialogue replacement, timing restrictions, facial sync, battle chatter, breathing techniques — so finding qualified actors is limited to skilled and experienced talent,” one gaming CEO told Vox sister site The Verge in February.
These factors can lead to serious career struggles and even psychological hurdles for voice actors of color. At a loss for how to advance his career, Mack said he spent years attending career workshops, only to be told he was “too good” to be there. “I’m here because I’m not working. So I don’t know what else to do. There must be something wrong with me. Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am,” he recalled thinking. In desperation, he’d steal scripts and request to read parts he hadn’t been called in to audition for, just to show what else he could do. When he finally did get cast in his first lead role, playing a white character, Mack said an immediate shift happened in the parts made available to him.
Mack’s story shares themes with that of the voice actor Bill Butts. Butts, a Black Kansas-born actor based in Los Angeles, got his start in theater before moving into voice roles; he’s most recently worked on popular anime like Mobile Suit Gundam and One Punch Man.
“Unfortunately, growing up, I didn’t really see a lot of people of color in big roles at all, let alone at all in the business,” he told Vox. “You’d see Caucasian folk voicing Black characters, but you hardly ever see Black actors.” He pointed out that there tend to be more opportunities for voice actors of color in English-language animated series than in other voice-reliant industries like anime and gaming, even if the offered parts are usually just “Black guys and monsters.” But other voiceover industries lack even these stereotypical roles for nonwhite actors to fill. “When it comes to anime and video games, unfortunately the reality is that people of color are only given opportunities to read for people of color, which is extremely rare,” he said.
Butts describes taking every acting class he could find, “studying theater, Shakespeare, contemporary, the works, to get yourself to a level where you’re so good that agents and studios couldn’t really even tell … they’d be like, ‘Well, what else can we use this guy for?’” And still, though he’s established himself in the industry, parts available for any ethnicity don’t always come his way. “There [are] five big shows right now [where] I didn’t get to read for a single white character, [and] I know it’s not just me. I mean, I took all the classes, and, you know, we have similar agents, but the opportunities aren’t given. … There starts to be a bit of asking and begging to get these opportunities.”
But beyond actors resorting to reading parts they aren’t called to audition for, ideas for how to diversify the industry in the long term aren’t exactly a hot Hollywood topic. And not everyone agrees on what the path forward should be.
Solutions for diversifying the industry are a mixed bag
Though the roles available to actors of color are still overwhelmingly restricted to ethnic stereotypes, things are slowly moving in a positive direction. Some industry organizations are starting to actively work toward diversifying opportunities for their members — and, as a result, the voice-acting landscape.
Butts and Clark are members of the Coalition of Dubbing Actors (CODA), a union-like industry organization whose stated goal is “to build a community, increase open communication among actors, provide actor-led industry education, and change the culture and impression of dubbing work.” Clark also recently joined several other members of the voice acting community in forming Animated POC & Allies (APOC), a group dedicated to pursuing equality in the industry. “Up until recently,” Butts told Vox, if an actor brought up the issue of problematic casting, “you were either ignored, yelled at, or finally you find yourself getting nothing for months.”
“Honestly, it’s not a fixed system yet, but the big thing would be to have the conversations continue,” Butts said. “It’s still an incredible struggle. But the big thing right now is people are open to talk about it.”
Basco agreed. “That trend happening now, I think it’s cool. I think it’s healthy,” he said. “I think it speaks to a conscious industry that’s really trying to get it right.”
As part of the movement toward a less homogeneous industry, some voice actors of color are making choices like those of Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell, despite not having similar name recognition and thus facing more risk in doing so. Butts told Vox he won’t read for parts that involve characters of other nonwhite ethnicities. “Nine times out of 10, [if a studio needs] a Black Middle Eastern [actor], they can get one. They exist. I’m not going to [step] on people’s toes.”
Butts’s approach has been echoed in the media by figures like #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign, who argued in a recent NPR interview about voice casting that “people who have the most context to play those particular characters are the ones that should get the opportunities.” Reign, however, also felt that only white actors should play white roles; instead, she argued, creatives should focus on diversifying the roles they write and cast. “People who have the most context to play those particular characters are the ones that should get the opportunities,” she says. “And that also gives the opportunities for the actors and actresses behind the scenes, behind the voiceover work, to get their foot in the door.”
With the present dearth of such diverse roles, however, it’s hard to see Reign’s approach working as an industry-wide prescription for change. And Mack pointed out that since many voice actors of color don’t fit the industry’s idea of what an “ethnic” actor is supposed to sound like, any approach to casting that overemphasizes ethnicity could backfire.
“Unfortunately, that’s really not going to fly,” he said, “because when you do have people [of color] who have a specific way of speaking — if you have a lot of Black actors right now who sound white, quote-unquote — they’re not going to book the Black roles as often.”
Basco agrees. “I think to be conscious of [race and ethnicity] is important,” he said, “but at the end of the day, you want to get good actors that are going to play and tell these stories in a real way, in a good way. In the end, we’re not doing documentary filmmaking — we’re doing storytelling.” Especially in cases where the story being told is a fantasy with fewer roots in reality, there are more opportunities for race-blind casting to be successful.
Still, Butts notes that the current push to allow Black actors to play Black roles is crucially tied to the real-world repercussions that lack of representation can bring — after all, the urgency of the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality galvanized the conversation about voice acting to begin with.
“It has been now three weeks for me since an officer just gave me a dirty look for simply walking on the sidewalk,” he said. “It has been a few months since I was followed for about six blocks for simply driving … It’s been literally a couple of days since I had to ask to read for a white character.”
In other words, Black actors can draw upon experiences, he said, “that [white] people don’t have to really understand.” That extra level of authenticity can make a story much more meaningful. And because animated storytelling can often be highly moralistic or instructive, it’s even more crucial that a given production is practicing what it’s preaching — like equality, justice, and racial harmony. The turbulent times we’re in have underscored how important those values actually are in real life, which is why it matters that people like Slate are putting them into action.
“I think we need to come to a place ideally of everybody getting to audition for everything,” Mack told Vox, “but still taking into account who has actually lived these ethnic experiences and can bring something really, really unique and culturally relevant to a role in their performance as a result.”