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The Simpsons, Family Guy, Big Mouth and Central Park Recasting Non-White Roles

The past few weeks have seen many in the entertainment industry to do a great deal of self-reflection. The protests around the world against racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have lead many to question how they might be in some way complicit or benefiting from institutional racism.  Animation has been no different, especially as an industry that is still largely dominated by white men. 

The most public-facing aspect of any animated production is arguably the voice cast. The average viewer may not be aware of the creator of a given animated show, but they might recognise who voices the characters. Over the past week, several of the best known voice actors and animated series
have taken action to try and help improve the situation and increase diversity.

Kristen Bell was the first (and probably best known to the public at large) to announce that she would no longer be voicing a mixed-race character in the Apple TV+ series, Central Park. The series is created by Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard and Josh Gad, and Bell was cast as Molly Tillerman. When questioned on the casting of Bell prior to the show airing, Bouchard defended the casting, saying that Bell was the best person for the job, and pledging to make up for it elsewhere.  The decision seems to have been Bell's own in consultation with the creative team, and she will be recast as an alternative character. The move is "a chance to get representation right" according to the statement issued by the team.

Bell tweeted out the statement alongside one of her own:

This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity. Heres one of mine. Playing the [character of] 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 and Black American experience.

Bell may be well known, but as her series is on Apple TV+, not that many people will have ever actually seen it. That's not true for adult comedy Big Mouth, which is one of Netflix's most popular animated shows.  Jenny Slate announced that she would be stepping down from the role of Missy, -who again is a mixed-race character- and the role will be recast from season five (season four being already recorded). Slate said in her statement "Black animated characters should be played by Black people".

This was followed at the weekend by announcements from the two biggest adult animated shows on US TV. Voice actor Mike Henry has announced that he will no longer voice the supporting role of Cleveland Brown in Family Guy, a role he's been in since 1999, including as the lead of spin-off The Cleveland Show which ran for four seasons.

Via twitter he announced:

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.

The biggest commitment of all has come from the producers of The Simpsons, who have announced that "moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters,". This will affect several regular characters including Homer's friend Carl and Dr Hibbert and his wife, who will need to be recast. This is quite a turn around as the series was previously criticised for its handling of the controversy surrounding the casting of Apu, a situation only resolved when actor Hank Azaria stood down from the role earlier this year.

The news has been met with the same old counter-arguments from some quarters, arguing that in animation anybody should be free to voice any role they want and not be limited by their appearance and that it should go to whoever is best for the job. They also point out that adult women frequently play young boys or other situations where the characters don't match the voice. Strangely though, these exact same people don't tend to react well when a traditionally white role is cast with a non-white actor.

These moves are significant as the reach that these series have will send a message to their audiences. Roles for voice actors of colour are all too rare. In turn, this draws attention to the need for more POC in the writers' room, in creative roles or in executive roles.There has been a move towards appropriate casting in animated movies for a while- see the casts of Moana and Coco for proof- so it's about time TV caught up. The animation industry has many issues that need fixing.  Recasting these roles won't make everything better overnight- but it's a good start.