Racial and ethnic depiction in animated shows can differ from live-action representation issues

More stories from Carly Matthews

Representation in the media is an important topic, but, due to the sheer size of media itself, it can become a complicated issue. When dealing with animated media, especially TV shows, the characters on the screen can seem diverse while the voice acting and actors themselves are often less than representational.

Recently, the adult animated TV shows “Big Mouth,” “Central Park,” and “The Simpsons” have come under fire because of minority characters voiced by white actors. Jenny Slate, who played Missy on “Big Mouth,” stepped down and apologized for being “engaged in the erasure of Black people,” and that her portrayal “existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy.” Kristen Bell, on the same day, stepped down from playing Molly on “Central Park”, giving a similar explanation and apology. In 2017, a documentary was made about Apu, the Indian-American owner of the grocery store Kwik-E-Martin in “The Simpsons”, focusing on how this depiction reinforces stereotypes as well as having Hank Azaria, a white man, voicing Apu. In January 2020, Azaria said he would not be returning to voice Apu, and the creators are exploring the idea of keeping the character in the show so as not to erase the past. 

However, animation and voice acting have always had a convoluted past with representation, as seen in many children’s TV shows. Take, for example, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, which received a resurgence in popularity when added to Netflix earlier this year. The show takes many cues from anime and East Asian culture in its representation of characters, art style, bending types, and even the history of the world itself, yet only four of the voice actors in the cast are people of color, and the creators and head writers are also white. 

Another example of children’s animation not “matching” is found in the TV show “Arthur.” While all the characters are depicted by animals, their complexions seem to depict characters from all over the world and a range of cultures such as China, Taiwan, Senegal, and France, all places referenced in the show. The show’s voice actors don’t always reflect their character’s “races,” but, interestingly, there are instances in which minority voice actors voice “white” characters. The fact that casting goes both ways seems to suggest that the actors were not cast for their looks, but rather on their ability to fit their voices to the characters they played. 

Is there a fundamental difference between adults’ and children’s animation in terms of representation and diversity? Children often don’t think about, or realize, that a real person voices their favorite characters behind the screen. The representation on screen is all they see and interpret. Adults, on the other hand, understand the concept of animation and voice acting. Paired with the understanding of the history of underrepresentation or inappropriate depictions of race in this country, they are more likely to notice and care about white people voicing people of color. 

In essence, voice acting requires changing your normal voice to embody a character. It’s acting in its purest form, because you are able to portray a character even if you don’t fit the description based on gender or age (Jimmy Neutron and Timmy Turner are both voiced by middle-aged women). Is it that much of a stretch to include race and ethnicity in these ambiguous rules regarding voice acting? While there are countless examples of offensive accents and stereotypes, voice acting does not usually present this problem. When portraying Ozai in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Mark Hamill “sounded more Asian” than his normal voice does, but he also didn’t sound like himself when he voiced the Joker in “Batman: The Animated Series.” Voice acting, for the most part, relies on the animation of the character to depict them, rather than the voice actor as a mechanism of mocking. The voice needs to match what’s on screen but has no reason to overdo it.  

If someone can portray a character in a respectful way and fits the character well, then they should play the character. “Avatar” presents diverse Asian culture and history in a respectful way, and so do the voice actors. “Arthur” has white people voicing minority characters, but it also has people of color voicing white characters. These seem to be examples of respectful representation. But the standards should change in adult animation because of the knowledge adults have of voice acting and of the history of underrepresentation and erasure. The question remains whether this is also an important issue in children’s animation. Do we need to do a better job “matching” voice actors in children’s animation? Does this semi-ambiguous question of representation in voice acting build a foundation of underrepresentation and racism in young children, or is it enough that they are seeing minority representation on the screen? 

Society — and Hollywood in particular — can always do better. The examples given in this article ranged from the 1990s to the early 2010s, and, since then, representation in the media has become a more pressing and prevalent issue. Hollywood has, in general, been getting better at representation; for example, “Phineas and Ferb,” which aired from 2007-2015, has all their characters voiced by actors who “match.” I do not see a direct problem in white actors voicing racial and ethnic minorities in children’s animation and I do not see a reason why Hollywood can’t find people of color to voice those characters. If you have the opportunity to be more inclusive — if there is a voice actor who “matches” the character and voices them well — then you should take it.

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