People are Mad that White Actors Can’t Voice Non-White Characters Anymore
The “What’s next, fire Bart’s female voice actor?” retort falls flat.
June is Pride Month. Like the mosquitoes that hound me on cue, no June seems to ever go by without the reliable “Why can’t we have straight pride parades?”
That is what I’m reminded of, as corners of the Internet are abuzz over the latest pop-culture development in inclusivity.
So The Simpsons chose June 26, a Friday — popular with newsmakers as the day of the week to drop stuff if you wish to minimize coverage — to float the announcement that going forward, non-white characters will no longer be voiced by white actors.
Much of the media accounts have focused on voice actor Hank Azaria’s statement earlier this year he would stop voicing The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, after 30 years of playing the thickly accented character. Azaria is not South Asian.
“What’s next, no more Bart being voiced by a woman?”
So goes the dipterous whine immediately heard around online forums.
Here are a few things to know about this ‘debate’:
1. Yes, the use of a character like Apu is racist
If the whole raison d’être of a character is his ethnicity—or your idea of it—and that’s what you play for laughs, you’re in racist doodoo.
How do you know when that’s the case? Take away his ethnic background and see if there’s anything left of the portrayal.
“Oh c’mon, he’s one of my favorites!”
Surely you loving something does not preclude it from being steeped in multiple racist stereotypes. Perhaps it’s time to examine why you love something so problematic.
2. Whataboutism does not work
What about Bart, who’s voiced by a woman? is a rhetorical gotcha. It’s meant to dismiss and distract. And not very effective at that.
The practice of female actors voicing young-male characters, owing to the fact that boys’ voices will deepen in time and no longer suit, allows for show continuity. It’s especially useful for series spanning years, or decades in The Simpsons’ case.
Simply a practical adaptation that’s here to stay, it has nothing to do with political correctness or feminism running amok.
A woman voicing a male character should neither be taken as discrimination against men, nor a meaningful step towards employing women more.
Regardless of who’s voicing who, The Simpsons has other worse issues around representation.
3. The cast of characters skews heavily male
There are numerous major and recurring, memorable supporting characters who are male:
Mr. Burns, Flanders, Moe, Nelson, Milhouse, Barney, Apu, Smithers, Sideshow Bob, Ralph, Krusty the Clown, Chief Wiggum, Principal Skinner, Groundskeeper Willie, Comic Book Guy, Troy McClure, Kent Brockman, Professor Frink, Carl and Lenny
Grampa, Sideshow Mel, Martin Prince, Dr. Hibbert, Mayor Quimby, Reverend Lovejoy, Fat Tony, Capital City Goofball, Otto Man, Bumblebee Man, Squeaky-Voiced Teen, Artie Ziff, Duffman
(That’s not counting the gender-undefined-but-presumed-male: Itchy and Scratchy, Kang and…the other one…oh, Kodos.)
Contrast this with the female characters:
Marge, Lisa, Maggie
Edna Krabappel, Patty and Selma Bouvier
Agnes Skinner, Helen Lovejoy, Luann Van Houten, Sarah Wiggum, Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon, Mona Simpson
Aside from the most significant female characters, everybody else exists merely as someone’s wife, sister, mom, or love interest.
These other characters are mostly place holders. Lop off their last names and see the name recognition drop instantly.
(My husband, a former regular watcher, stumbled as he read aloud the last set of female characters, after breezing through the earlier sections of this lengthy list.)
These peripheral female characters don’t drive the plot forward. Unlike Mr. Burns or Sideshow Bob, you’d be hard-pressed to do an impression of them, or even bring their faces to mind readily.
4. The show is behind the times and failing viewers — And society
Condemnation of its portrayal of minority characters has gone on for years. The character Apu traces back to 1990; so, a full thirty years of on-air mockery of South Asians.
When showrunners at last in 2018 decided to address the issue, they had Lisa and Marge bring up and essentially dismiss the hubbub as contemporary outrage culture:
Lisa: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
Marge: “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”
Lisa: “If at all.”
Really? Sic the show’s most progressive characters, the most empathetic, female characters, no less? Can you say passive-aggressive?
Representation, as opposed to stereotypical portrayal, is important because of the latter’s insidious effects on society.
You can achieve dizzying heights in life, reaching the very top of the government of the most powerful country on earth. But you wouldn’t escape Apu-imitating bullies in seventh grade.
That’s the formative experience of Vivek Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. A veritable who’s-who of South Asian celebrities have spoken to similar taunts and microaggressions, even into adulthood.
We’re never going to understand why representation and diversity matter, and why we have a long way to go, until we understand that people of color are forced to ‘choose’ between non-existent and harmful representation.
Critics have tried to predict The Simpsons’ demise and lambasted its ability to stay sharp and on top of the culture. I can’t rule out entirely that Fox might have picked this moment, hoping to purchase some goodwill or relevance from the surging interest in anti-racism, while expediently burying a nagging issue.
What is worth noting about an aging, albeit once-groundbreaking American Television icon making this a move is its symbolism. Other shows and films have been put on notice from here on out. Several have announced similar casting policies.
Real change can flow from this moment. Even if we are still left with, well, the Apu character. Some poor POC soul who takes the job will have to deliver the racist portrayal, and answer interview questions about how offensive it is.
Let’s stop being aflutter about losing our right to make fun of people‘s ‘funny accent’ and ‘weird culture’
The Simpsons creator Matt Groening had this to say in 2018 when interviewed on the objection to Apu:
There is the outrage of the week and it comes and goes. I think particularly right now, people feel so aggrieved and crazed and powerless that they’re picking the wrong battles.
This is a myopic, deflecting stance for a show that has long been praised for its incisive commentary, exploring societal ills such as homophobia and corruption.
Unfortunately for us, Groening’s strident take fits in with the larger picture of evolving social attitudes.
America has shown itself to have more capacity to change, when a movement against marginalization is perceived to be white—see feminism and LGBTQ. When it comes to racial prejudice, however, we’ve been far more resistant.
Stereotypes and caricatures enjoy greater staying power and nostalgia than many celebs and shows.
We would still have Aunt Jemima, if it weren’t for the outrage crowd waking up and deciding to go after such a harmless, beloved figure, the thinking goes. Oh how they deprived us of our high fructose fake maple syrup. And now they won’t let us have fake-Indian Apu.