Kristen Bell, Jenny Slate’s resignations speak to larger problem in TV industry

White Actors voicing Black Characters
Netflix/Courtesy

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In the wake of recent Black Lives Matter protests, many people and brands have been quick to take action, pushing for increased visibility for Black voices, even reaching the minds of those in Hollywood. As a response to the growing movement, two actresses, Kristen Bell, who voices Molly on newly debuted animated sitcom “Central Park,” and Jenny Slate, who has voiced Missy on “Big Mouth” since 2017, have decided to stop voicing their respective biracial Black animated characters in favor of relinquishing their parts to Black voice actresses.

 In a statement on her Instagram on June 24, Bell wrote, “This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity. Here is one of mine. Playing the character of Molly on Central Park shows a lack of awareness of my pervasive privilege. Casting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience.” Slate took to her Instagram on June 24 with a similar message, stating: “I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play “Missy” because her mom is Jewish and White — as am I. But “Missy” is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.” These statements communicate that although the actresses initially thought it was OK to play someone who is Black because they also have white ancestry, they have since realized the error of their castings. 

Both of these statements are certainly a push in the right direction: acknowledging the wrongness of these actresses voicing the roles in the first place, stating that they unknowingly diminished Black voices and experiences in the process of voicing their respective characters and promising to do more for anti-racist action. While these actresses stepping down is undoubtedly the right choice, the question remains as to why it took them so long to realize this — especially since these decisions happened within mere hours of each other, as messages related to the Black Lives Matter movement trended on social media. Correcting one’s past mistakes when it seemingly becomes “trendy” to do so simply isn’t enough to constitute white allyship; we should instead ask why these respective shows neglected to represent Black voices before social media seemingly pushed them to do so. 

While these actresses are undoubtedly talented, bringing spunk and humor to their respective shows, their talent does not undermine the simple fact that they were at one point profiting off of masquerading as another race to promote false diversity within their shows. Other shows have also run into controversy over white actors voicing people of color. The character of Apu in “The Simpsons,” voiced by Hank Azaria, was the subject of a 2017 documentary entitled “The Problem With Apu,” which illuminated the harmfulness of a white actor playing a character who functions as an Indian stereotype, especially since the character is often used for racially-motivated comedy. Similarly, when Alison Brie was cast as Diane Nguyen in “BoJack Horseman,” which premiered in 2014, the character’s race was intentionally downplayed, and as of season 5, there were no Asian writers on the show’s staff. 

After these widely publicized casting missteps, it should have been apparent that casting white actors to portray people of color in animated programs is wholly unacceptable, yet “Central Park” and “Big Mouth” allowed for it. Bell and Slate shouldn’t have even been in consideration for these characters, and the fact that they were points to a larger lack of concern for diversity in Hollywood that exists outside of the sphere of these two shows. To praise Bell and Slate for relinquishing these roles is to praise them for making a decision that never should have been necessary in the first place. 

A change in the voice acting of these two shows does not even begin to fix the racial inequality that still persists in the TV industry. In 2017, out of 11 major studios, 93% of all senior executive positions and 91% of all TV showrunners were white. Out of 234 shows in 2017, only one-third had a Black writer on staff. This points to a larger systemic issue: Hollywood’s seeming lack of concern with diverse stories. This is a problem that cannot be solved by two actors stepping down and asking for Black representation on their respective shows in a single Instagram post. It can only be fixed with wide-ranging, systemic efforts to empower more Black voices and stories in the TV industry. 

While these roles are not the first Black characters to be played by white actors, they will hopefully be some of the last, as Hollywood awakens to its issues with diversity and executives promote authentic Black stories. Those quick to praise Bell and Slate need to be aware that white allies are not in a place to forgive potentially racist actions. We must look to the Black community for guidance on being anti-racist, with the minimum action being demanding that Black voice actors are cast as Black characters — the first time around. More importantly, these casting blunders only illuminate the need for a massive shift in consciousness and in the demographics of TV executives, showrunners and writers. When more BIPOC voices feel empowered to tell their stories, TV will adequately represent all of those who watch it, something that hasn’t yet been achieved. 

Contact Caitlin Keller at [email protected].