Accurate Representation Matters
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protests erupted over the world and opened up a slew of conversations about social justice. One such conversation that has reignited in the acting industry has been about the importance of actors representing the characters they’re portraying on screen.
Recently, specifically in the voice acting industry, many white voice actors portraying minority characters on animated TV Series have stepped down from their roles. In a statement a weeks ago, The Simpsons has announced they will “no longer have white actors voice non-white characters.” This includes Hank Azaria, famously known for playing Apu and other minor characters on the show, stepping down.
Jenny Slate famously and recently known for her portrayal as Missy, a biracial character, on Netflix’s series “Big Mouth” has decided to also step down from her role. According to Slate she has said, “Ending my portrayal of ‘Missy’ is one step in a life-long process of uncovering the racism in my actions.”
Even the famous (or infamous in some cases) Mike Henry has stepped down from his two decade career as Family Guy’s Cleveland Brown, stating, “It’s been an honor to play Cleveland on Family Guy for 20 years. I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.”
It certainly is a step in the right direction in attempting to get minorities into acting roles and authentically representing their experiences, but is it really enough? After all, these are fairly well-established voice actors playing already established characters. And that’s just the problem.
Look here at Viola Davis explaining her experience as a Black actor in Hollywood and constantly being referred to as the “Black Meryl Streep.” Black actors are never compared to their own individual merit, but are constantly compared to their White counter parts. In some cases, too, a Black actor might be compared to a White actor, even despite a Black Actor rising to fame first. This is seen in all industries, in fashion, literature, and even something as so simple as memes (take for instance TikTok where minority TikTokers popularize a dance and a trend and White TikTokers are given the credit).
According to an article in datebook.sfchronicle.com in an interview with Bay Area voice actor Trekina White, who has “been in the industry since 2013 and be heard on PBS Kids” states the issue is about “marketability and universal standard.” As the article notes, “This makes it even more challenging when Black performers go up for Black roles against white performers.” She went on to explain how the bigger “ethical” statement is that white actors, or white, straight, cis actors, do not live the experiences of their characters. It’s a role they step in and out of, while minority actors live those experiences, day in and day out.
A change I would like to see, and many others on the internet, is creators writing diverse characters accurately and respectfully while also being played by characters who have lived the same experiences as those characters. But the first step, clearly, is being willing to cast new up and coming actors rather than the same A-list, white actors who are used as familiar marketing tools to sell movies.