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The Hidden Whitewashing in Animation

In wake of the national protests against police brutality, there has no doubt been a hyper-awareness amongst white people of acknowledging their white privilege and uptake in learning how to be an ally to their peers of color. Book clubs have started reading How to be an Anti-Racist, NPR’s podcast Code Switch which has “the fearless conversations about race you’ve been waiting for” reached no. 1 on Apple’s podcast chart, and television shows like The Office and Community have pulled out blackface scenes in their episodes. 2020 has been a year that has forced us as a society to confront issues that have been ignored for too long. No longer can we hide from the undeniable truth about the world we live in by fleeing to Sunday brunches and posting pictures of chai tea next to milk toast on Instagram. Now cooped up in the house with nothing but the news on repeat and Twitter by our sides, there is no turning a blind eye to conversations about race.

In what some are calling the “Second Civil Rights Movement” there has been a push for accountability, equality, and diversity in our politics, books, language, clothes, and more recently --- our cartoons. 

In June, white actress and comedian, Jenny Slate, stepped down from her role as voicing Missy, a biracial teen in the Netflix hit series, Big Mouth. Since then several white voice actors have followed in her footsteps and removed themselves from their jobs as voicing characters of color. 

Slate’s Instagram post about her removal goes as follows, “I have come to the decision today that I can no longer play the character of Missy on the animated show Big Mouth.” She goes on to explain that her original decision to play Missy stemmed from the character having a white and Jewish mother which she shares in common. But she acknowledges that her original reasoning was “flawed” and “an example of white privilege.” 

With over 5,000 comments fans seem to be split on whether or not Slate’s decision was necessary. Some have praised her for stepping down filling the comments with “❤️❤️” and “Love you Jenny !”, while others have called her a “hypocrite” and believe voice acting should go “beyond” color. I even saw one comment asking why Slate has to step down if it is okay that the musical, Hamilton, can use actors of color to play white characters. Ridiculous.

Missy and her parents.

If your not a person a color I don’t think you get how “little things” like this have such a big impact on communities of color. Like Slate goes on to say, she was “engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.” As a Black teenager who watches Big Mouth and relates to Missy’s character, I am beyond glad that she will be recast for Season Five so we can have an accurate representation of one of the few Black characters in the show. 

Just hours later, the creators of the show: Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett posted a statement about Slate’s departure on the official Instagram of Big Mouth. “We are proud of the representation that Missy has offered cerebral, sensitive woman of color, and we plan to continue that representation and further grow Missy’s character as we recast a new Black actor to play her,” they wrote.

I also clicked with Missy for that reason. Missy is a sensitive Black girl like myself and wasn’t solely created for diversity points, she is as dynamic as everyone else on the show with personal issues and milestones. 

Already Slate had paved a path because, on the same day, Frozen and The Good Place star Kristen Bell announced on Instagram that she was stepping down from her role as Molly, a biracial character on Apple TV’s Central Park. Bell expressed in the caption, “Casting a mixed-race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed-race and Black American experience. It was wrong and we, on the Central Park team, are pledging to make it right.” Signing off with, “I will commit to learning, growing, and doing my part for equality and inclusion.” 

In her post, Bell also attached a statement from the creative team of Central Park where the team wrote, “That the casting of the character of Molly is an opportunity to get representation right --- to cast a Black or mixed-race actress and give Molly a voice that resonates with all of the nuance and experience of the character as we’ve drawn her.” The team also pledged to create opportunities for people of color in “all [of their] projects -- behind the mic, in the writer's room, in production, and in post-production."

But as early as January, at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Loren Bouchard, the creator of Central Park and hit animated show Bob’s Burger, told Variety about his decision to cast Bell as a biracial character. “Kristen needed to be Molly; we couldn’t not make her Molly,” said Bouchard. “But then we couldn’t make Molly white and we couldn’t make Kristen mixed race so we just had to go forward.” “It’s not ideal, but [Bell] is the ideal actress for that part,” Bouchard added. Executive producer and actor on the show, Josh Gad, worked with Bell on Disney’s 2014 hit Frozen and after Bouchard asked Gad who he thought would work on the show Belle was one of the first on the list. 

While Bell will no longer play Molly, the team said in their statement that she will continue to be on the show but in a new role. 

On June 26, voice actor Mike Henry said that he too would be stepping down from his role as the Black character, Cleveland Brown on The Cleveland Show and Family Guy. Henry had voiced Cleveland Brown for over 20 years and in a tweet, he explained how much of an honor it was following with, “ I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.” 

That same day, The Simpsons released a statement saying that “moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice nonwhite characters.” Despite the show airing for nearly 30 years come this fall, only recently has it been criticized for their poorly written stereotypical characters and lack of diversity behind the screen. In 2017, Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary, The Problem with Apu, criticizing the show for fostering the upsetting racist stereotypical character Apu, an Indian immigrant who runs the popular convenient store Kwik-E-Mart. The documentary features interviews with Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, and more about their experiences as being a South Asian in the entertainment industry. Whoopi Goldberg also makes an appearance and discusses how Apu’s character ties into blackface in the animation industry. 

App is best known for his catchphrase "Thank You, come again"

Then in January of this year, Hank Azaria the former voice behind Apu said he would no longer play the role. Azaria had won many Emmys for his role as Apu and in an interview with The New York Times discussed how he drew inspiration from “The Party,” the 1968 Blake Edwards comedy that featured Petter Sellers in brownface playing an Indian actor. “There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting,” he revealed. It is unclear whether Apu’s character will remain in the following seasons, but if so it will not be voiced by a white actor. 

Hiding Behind The Screen

Rooney used prosthetic teeth in his role of Mr. Yunioshi

When Mickey Rooney performed yellowface and played Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Natalie Wood took the role of Puerto Rican immigrant Maria in West Side Story and several white actors did blackface in Birth of a Nation, we saw. We could see their degrading acts of people of color and how Hollywood would go too far lengths to ostracize people of color in the industry. 

But as we can see, in animated television shows and films, voice actors are camouflaged by the character that trot across our screen. We don’t get to see who is behind the mic in the recording booth and the theory that “anyone can play anybody” in animated projects is upheld by this. Scarlett Johanson, who has played many controversial roles including her whitewashed performance in Ghost in the Shell, believes that she should be able to play anything, even “a tree.” “I personally feel that, in an ideal world, an actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness,” Scarlett proclaimed in 2019. 

As of 2015, 60 percent of animation students were women but yet men make up 80 percent of the animation workforce according to  Women in Animation data. In a 2019 study done by USC Annenberg apart of their “Inclusion Initiative,” more eye-opening facts about women in animation were uncovered. Women of color only make up 1 % of film directors for animations and only 2 % for tv directors of an animated series. Out of the top 100 animated series in 2018 only 3 women of color fell under the category “Created by/Developed by,” sixteen women of color were producers compared to six being executive producers and there was no woman of color as co-executive producers.

Females are almost invisible as directors in the animation world. The study also brings to light that the 4 women of color who were film/tv directors across the 120 top animated films and 100 episodes/segments of top animated tv series; were all Asian.

Another Annenberg study done in 2017 showed that between the top 1,000 films from 2007 to 2016 comprised of 1, 114 directors, only 57 were Black/ African American, 34 were Asian or Asian American, and there was just one Latina working as a director in that period. 

This isn’t Anything New 

When there is little to no diversity behind the scenes of the animation series that we love, and instead production rooms are filled with cisgender white males it isn’t hard to see why our cartoons are in dying need for inclusion. The stories of people of color aren’t being told and when they are it’s often incorrect and clouded by racial stereotypes. 

When animation started to kick off in the early 1900s these same cisgender white men were in control and characters of color didn’t start to appear until much later. When characters of color did appear they were often portraying villainous characters --- dark-skinned with foreign accents --- or ethnic and racial stereotypes. Kids cartoons like Looney Tunes and Song of the South were no strangers to this. In Volume 3 of the “Looney Tunes Golden Collection” DVD, Whoopi Goldberg appears in the intro informing viewers that some of the cartons might have “offensive racial and ethnic stereotypes” by today's standards, but “that leaving them out would be denying history.” In Disney’s Dumbo, a group of Black actors had to voice the degrading racist minstrel caricatures of the crows that follow Dumbo throughout his journey. In 1932 shorts like “Uncle Tom and Little Eva” had slaves singing on the way to an auction.The Jim Crow Museum is a great source that brings light to many other disgusting portrayals.

Black voice actors began to feel uncomfortable playing these roles and instead of Hollywood reflecting on why they felt this way and making changes, animators cut out Black characters entirely in their projects. So when Black voice actors were needed they had to play horrible and degrading roles but if they refused animators would just find a white actor to play their part or not write one at all. There was no positive way out of the vicious life people of color experienced in animation. And as we see this hasn’t changed much until now. 

Creating Safe Spaces for POC in Animation

If we want to see a change in the animation industry not only do we have to encourage people of color to join these fields but show them that they can have actual opportunities to go far as an animator. 

Taylor Shaw, a New York City-based writer and producer, is already making that happen. 

In 2017, Shaw began working on an animated series centered around Black women in their early 20’s living in the South Side of Chicago, her hometown. She had this idea of working with a team full of dope Black women but had an immense amount of trouble finding creatives who looked like her. “It was mind-boggling that the Black women in animation that I found, they themselves were the only Black women in their entire undergraduate program at their schools or they hardly knew of another Black woman in animation,” Shaw told Vice. So she decided to launch Black Woman Animate (BWA) to bring talented Black woman and non-binary people together into a community where everyone belonged. 

“We are looking to build with industry partners that are going to do the work,” Shaw told Vice. “And it’s the responsibility of the industry to meet the call that we are setting forth.”

Since then Shaw has created spaces digitally and in-person with Black women and non-binary animators to find support within one another. Creators hail from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and all over the country in hopes to bring equality and their stories into the animation industry. In a one-day boot camp event in LA, everyone apart of BWA listens to panels from animators, studio executives, and writers who were largely women and people of color that also shared their passion for diversifying this art form. As she says, “How [can you ] really succeed in the field when there’s no representation of yourself and if you don’t have a community?’”

Voice Actors, Allegra Clark and Bill Butts have also made efforts to diversify the voice acting community and often speak out about the lack of inclusion. 

Bill Butts and one of his newest characters

Bill Butts is a Black actor from Kansas, now based in Los Angeles, who has worked in popular anime such as Mobile Suit Gundam and One Punch Man. He explains that in English language animated series there tend to be more opportunities for actors of color in contrast to anime and gaming. “When it comes to anime and video games, unfortunately, the reality is that people of color are only given opportunities to read for people of color, which is extremely rare,” he told Vox. Still in anime and gaming “Black guys are monsters” he points out and falls back into stereotypical tropes. 

Butts and Clark are part of the Union Coalition of Dubbing Actors (CODA) where the goal is “to build a community, increase open communication among actors, provide actor-led industry education, and change the culture and impression of dubbing work.” Clark, who has voiced characters in Sailor Moon and Fortnite, also joined Animated POC & Allies (APOC), a group that helps to bring diversity to animation. Before if an actor brought up the issue of problematic casting they would “[get] either ignored, yelled at, or finally, you find yourself getting nothing for months,” according to Clark. 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse brought 375.5 million dollars to US box offices

While there is still a long way to go, creators like Shaw, Butts, and Clark are agents of change in the animation community and having white actors step down from their roles as characters of color push the righteous shift in society that has been long overdue. Last year Marvel's animated box office hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, featured an Afro-Latino Spiderman by the name of Miles Morales, instead of the traditionally white Spiderman that has persisted in the media for decades. One of the directors, Peter Ramsey, made history as being the first Black Oscar nominee for the Best Animated Feature Film category and then became the first to win when the film won the Oscar on that February night. “There’s an inherent message of diversity, acceptance, and finding strength and commonality in your difference that’s baked into the fabric of the movie,” he told GoldDerby in the fall of 2018. 

Disney's creation of diverse characters in the last years are also positive signs that the industry is taking notes on representing people of color. Tiana became Disney’s first Black princess after The Princess and the Frog debuted in 2009, but conversations still circulate on wether Disney truly cares about representation since Tiana was a green frog for 70 % of the movie. In Disney’s 2016 film Moana, Moana of Motunui was the first princess originating from the islands of Polynesia, and filmmakers spent five years traveling and gathering information from people in the Pacific to make the movie as accurate as possible. In 2018 Coco, won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film which starred Miguel, a young boy from Mexico during the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead. 

There is something beautiful when people of color from all walks of life come together to bring awareness to the under-representation they face in animation, something that goes way beyond the colorful characters we see on screen. We have come a long way from Dumbo's Crows and Jenny Slate, Kristen Bell, Mike Henry, and more removing themselves from further whitewashing animation is a turn in the right direction. Racism isn’t just calling someone the n-word, telling people to “go back to their country” or threatening to call the cops on a Black man because he “harassed you” by telling you to put your dog on a leash. It is the not so little things like white actors stealing roles of characters of color and the cartoons we watched as kids enforcing racist stereotypes through the few diverse characters they do have.

 Everyone deserves to feel seen no matter what race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality you have. Period.

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