Talk is cheap. Actions are expensive.
Considering the ongoing protests and dialogue meant to end racial discrimination in America, as well as a demand for those who harm Black people — chiefly police officers — to be convicted for their crimes and serve time behind bars, several White individuals nationwide have been looking for ways to help these causes. One demographic worth mentioning regarding this matter are those involved in the entertainment industry, specifically voice actors.
Beginning with Jenny Slate on June 24th, many White voice actors either relinquished or took some time to reflect on their roles portraying fictional Black cartoon characters. A shared sentiment is that White actors should not be voicing Black cartoon characters or others who are discernibly people of color. Slate announced she would no longer voice Missy Foreman-Greenwald, a Black — depicted as biracial but still visibly Black — character on popular Netflix show Big Mouth, after playing the part for three seasons, though Season 4 has already wrapped with her voicing Missy. In an Instagram post highlighting this decision, Slate stated that by playing the character she was “engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”
Push and pull
Some might feel voice actors should be allowed to portray any cartoon character since cartoons are deemed fictitious. Nevertheless, even this area of entertainment can become somewhat complicated. As Jackson (2020) explained, the business of cartoons emerged from a performative tradition of cross-racial desire, otherwise known as minstrelsy. Minstrel shows, which date back to the 1800s, comprised White entertainers who painted their faces black and gave performances mocking the behaviors of Black people while also exaggerating Black vernacular. According to Jackson (2017), these “shows provided a blueprint for early animation in both aesthetic and content, gifting cartoons their odd bodies, wacky judgment, and over-the-top physical comedy” (Jackson, 2017, para. 4). Today’s cartoons have maintained many of these traits.
Several, if not most, White voice actors may be unaware of how racism has impacted cartoons throughout American history. However, one could argue that their decision to voice Black characters, particularly those that behave wildly, might be considered a modern-day form of minstrelsy.
Still, there are some who feel Slate’s decision was inappropriate. In a segment on their YouTube channel Aba & Preach, comedians Aba Atlas and Erich Preach criticized the idea that White actors cannot voice Black cartoon characters. At one point, Atlas asserted, “What is the point of acting? Literally acting is about embodying the role of a character.” While this is true of acting, one must also consider how racism might factor into portrayals of non-White characters by White actors (e.g., use of a blaccent) as well as the tendency for Whites to occupy most acting positions, thus leaving out Blacks and other people of color.
According to Jackson (2020), conversations about representation in animation primarily focus on gender disparities, looking at the content of stories with female protagonists, who are primarily White, and noting the limited presence of women, mostly White women, in both directorial and substantial creative roles. Big Mouth’s list of characters, diverse but still largely White, are primarily voiced by White actors and actresses. Moreover, there is only one woman of African descent, Maya Rudolph, who has several appearances on the show. Jordan Peele and Jak Knight are the only Black men to frequently play characters on Big Mouth as well. Thus, one can understand Slate’s sentiment regarding the erasure of Black people. Her role as the voice of Missy, the show’s prominent Black character in a sea of mostly White characters, could have been given to a Black actress, especially considering Big Mouth’s predominantly White cast.
When discussing Slate’s decision Atlas also asserted, “By this logic, if a White person can’t voice a Black fictional cartoon character, you know what that also means? That means that a White person can’t write a Black character.” At a glance, Atlas’ view seemingly holds weight. One can argue that a White individual can never relate to the life of a Black person, despite having a willingness to empathize and learn about said Black person’s background. Therefore, writing a Black character as a non-Black individual may seem somewhat off-putting. However, a response to Atlas might be that such a decision is permissible just so long as White writers are not mocking Black characters or significantly profiting from their stories while Black writers are unable to obtain as much success.
An argument one can make about voicing versus writing a fictional Black character is that there may be less opportunities available for one to involve themselves in cartoons as opposed to writing. Animation and voice acting requires a certain expertise whereas writing a book or literature does not require as many resources or much talent. Additionally, cartoons, unlike writing, are associated with a racist history. Therefore, comparing the two, though both may at times be related, is not necessarily the best course of action.
What’s the deal?
One last point about voice acting one may raise is that making it taboo or unacceptable for Whites to voice Black cartoon characters takes away from one’s freedoms as an American. Moreover, there are Black voice actors that currently play White characters, such as Rudolph and Cree Summer. Some may view this occurrence as hypocritical. To this point, there are several potential solutions. One might involve creating more Black cartoon characters and pairing them with Black voice actors. Another solution could be to accept this double standard, especially considering the history of racism and oppression faced by Blacks throughout American history. Whites are more privileged than Blacks and are better represented in film and television. Therefore, Black voice actors playing White cartoon characters could be a way of creating more representation.
Slate’s decision, as well as other White voice actors, to stop portraying Black cartoon characters seems well-intentioned. However, one must ask if this action will in fact bring about positive change for Blacks in the US? Today, protests in America and dialogue about race has been occurring due to continued discrimination and violence aimed at Blacks. Will only allowing Black voice actors to play Black cartoon characters help end racism in the US, or is the country’s original sin too ingrained in its DNA? According to Jackson (2020) this change could simply help “to forge a new set of racial terms to gird what black is and what it ain’t” (Jackson, 2020, para. 8). Going forward, will Black voice actors playing Black characters be asked to make their voices “blacker” or speak with a certain slang?
Lastly, for those White voice actors who will no longer play either Black cartoon characters or others who are discernibly people of color, will their stand against racism and White supremacy end there? Though some might consider this decision a method of relinquishing one’s White privilege, it should be noted that these voice actors have already profited from their roles and will most likely continue making money so long as shows like Big Mouth remain on streaming services and television. Furthermore, nothing is stopping animators and creatives from developing new cartoon shows that feature less Black characters, thus opening the door for more discrimination.
Jackson, L. M. (2017, December 07). How today’s most daring, weird cartoons transform the minstrel aesthetic. Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.vulture.com/2017/12/weird-cartoons-today-transform-minstrel-aesthetic.html
Jackson, L. M. (2020, June 30). The messy politics of black voices-and “black voice”-in american animation. Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-messy-politics-of-black-voices-and-black-voice-in-american-animation