The Simpsons and Family Guy address issue of white actors playing characters of color

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Last week we heard that both Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate would step down from their voice roles playing biracial characters on Central Park and Big Mouth. This week, the Simpsons announced that they would no longer hire white actors to play characters of color. This is sadly long overdue considering that Hank Azaria did not step down from voicing Apu until January of this year, over two years after Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu. (I covered that story, and the amount of people whitesplaining “parody” in the comments was despicable.) Plus Azaria also plays Carl Carlson, Homer’s coworker. Dr. Hibbert is voiced by Harry Shearer and Dr. Hibbert’s wife, Bernice, is voiced by a white woman, Tress MacNeille.

Did you know that Family Guy’s Cleveland was voiced by a white guy? I did not know that. The actor playing that role, Mike Henry, stepped down on Friday. The Cleveland Show aired for four seasons, from 2009 to 2013, and Cleveland and his family returned to Family Guy after that. Family Guy has 18 seasons and has been airing since 1999. Here’s Henry’s tweet announcing it:

The fact that none of these shows hired POC to voice these characters, didn’t consider it a problem and weren’t even apologetic about it until now just shows how culpable they were. The Simpsons were called out on the Apu issue for years and they chose to blow it off and not make other needed changes. While The Simpsons has finally committed to no longer hiring white actors to play POC, we have not yet heard from Family Guy or McFarlane’s other long-running show, American Dad. This should have been standard industry practice to say the least.

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18 Responses to “The Simpsons and Family Guy address issue of white actors playing characters of color”

  1. girl_ninja says:

    Just defund the police already. All this white guilt is not helpful.

  2. Noki says:

    I was generally shocked to find out all these characters were played by non POC ,i must be so naive.

    • Chaine says:

      I didn’t know either, I mean other than Apu, I had no idea.

      • Em says:

        I had no idea either. I wonder whether there are any while characters voiced by actors of colour? I’m not trying to make the argument of racism against white people, I’m just wondering whether those opportunities had been given in any other ways?

        Also they say white actors wont voice characters of colour but they don’t state whether for example a black character with will voiced only by a black actor. There’s still a long way to go.

      • Peanutbuttr says:

        ^^^ Not sure this really counts given that we’re dealing with alien species, but Gugu Mbatha Raw in Dark Crystal voiced a character that was coded as a racist white blonde princess

  3. Kriseth says:

    For whatever reason, my boyfriend was watching the news this morning (in France) and the old white dude anchor asked his guest if, after changes like this, we weren’t going into the “absurd.” The hidden French intellectual racism comes out again. They need to start replacing those voices.

    I did not know that all of these characters were voiced by white actors and honestly…I find it crass that they make jokes that may be related to the character’s identity without coming from a real place of understanding. It’s blackface. We aren’t laughing together. They’re laughing at us.
    That’s why Dave Chappelle stopped the Chappelle show. It’s taken us too long to get here.

    That being said, defund the police. End systemic racism in education, healthcare, and the economy. These gestures won’t save our lives when we’re arrested by the KKKops.

  4. Michael says:

    I do remember Seth McFarland talking about this a few years ago and excusing himself because he always felt that anybody should be able to voice any character regardless of race. However I also notice he never has black voice actors voice white characters but he has multiple white voice actors voicing black characters. I have always liked him and his shows but I also recognize his passive racism.

    • HK9 says:

      Exactly. Black voice actors aren’t playing white characters which is the thing. When they step down, but don’t have all races of people playing all characters, the institutional racism isn’t addressed and it plays into this false belief that black people want to take “stuff” from white people. We don’t want your job-we want the issue of equality addressed in institutions. So what if he steps down-it will be like well we gave you the Cleveland character what more to you want. We want actors of all races to have the same opportunity which is much more complex than stepping down from a character.

  5. Jay (the Canadian one) says:

    So the thing about cartoons is the one voice actor plays about 50 roles. Take a look at Billy West’s credits on Futurama. For major characters I can understand casting to the race of the character. For background characters with a few lines, maybe not so much, because background characters are often one of the regular voice actors doing a different voice. It’s not like cartoons are one actor per character. It gets tricky when these two line throwaway characters come back and get a fan following and grow into regulars. Now the race matters more, but you started out with the wrong guy doing it.

    One could argue they should get the bit roles right from the beginning, but cartoons are cheap and would not splurge to hire more talent for a bit role when they’ve got in house talent that will essentially record the lines for free.

    • Kriseth says:

      If the casts were diverse, no problem. But they rarely are.

    • Watcher says:

      There’s plenty of black actors that play multiple characters too – Kevin Michael Richardson, Phil Lamarr are just two who come to mind. Kevin’s played Barney Rubble & the Joker – so it’s not an issue to find POC who can play multiple roles the same way white actors did.

      • Jay (the Canadian one) says:

        Yeah there’s no reason the cast, no matter how small, can’t be diverse. Then you’d have the right match for the “bit part” out of the gate and wouldn’t end up down the wrong path if the bit part becomes a regular.

        (Phil Lamarr is of course another one of the great Futurama cast with a character list about the same length as Billy West’s. But as an example of what I’m saying, while Amy Wong is a match between actress and character race, the minor role of her father, Leo Wong, is voiced by Billy West, who is also several of the main characters. If they had an Asian guy in the main cast, presumably it would’ve gone to him instead. And yeah there’s no reason an Asian or black guy couldn’t voice white “bit parts” either.)

  6. Sam the Pink says:

    I hope this is just a move towards greater diversity in general, and not the start of some kind of “purity test” that restricts voice actors to only playing their own “kind.”

    I watch a ton of animation and am sometimes surprised by who plays a particular character. One of my favorite shows of all time was Samurai Jack, which actually had a main character who was a Japanese man voiced by a black voice actor (Phil LaMarr, who is outstanding in basically everything he does). It’s an awesome show, which he really carries. But seeing this now makes me wonder, should we see that as problematic? Sure, it’s a POC voicing the lead, but can you also argue that it took a chance away from an Asian actor to voice an Asian character? I don’t know. I mean, voice acting is different from acting in the traditional sense in that actors often change their voices and can sound very different then what they really are. Are we going to start caring far more about the people doing the voices and how they “match” to the characters?

    I think the problem lies more in the lack of diversity from the very beginning. Like, Mike Henry for example. He’s a longtime McFarlane collaborator. Did he just get the role by virtue of that? Were any POC even auditioned to play Cleveland Brown? How did the process work? That;s my concern. I’m less upset if there was an open, genuinely diverse casting process and a white person just happened to come out on top. But that doesn’t happen very often. That was also the case with Apu – Hank Azaria was just told to do an Indian accent. There was no diversity in the process. I see that as the bigger issue – POC aren’t even being given a really fair chance to start.

  7. ME says:

    Holy sh*t I had no idea that was a White man’s voice ! Wow that is disturbing and wrong on so many levels. WTF ??!!

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