Jenny Slate announced she would be stepping down from her role as Missy in Netflix’s Big Mouth, citing that “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.”
I have to admit: I’m conflicted.
The protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death has pried loose America’s tightly sealed lips to finally talk about not just the overt and violent incidents of racism in this country, but the subtler ways that white privilege adds to the systemic problem of racial inequality, which Slate admits to in her announcement.
“At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play ‘Missy’ because her mom is Jewish and White—as am I,” Slate wrote. “I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing ‘Missy,’ I was engaging in an an act of erasure of Black people.”
I understand Slate’s sentiment. And it’s a message that’s already having a ripple effect with Kristen Bell stepping down from her role as a mixed-race character in Apple TV Plus’ animated show Central Park.
But again, I’m conflicted.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood’s struggle with inclusion extends to voice acting. There’s a deep history of white actors being behind characters of color in animated films and TV shows, including Apu and Carl Carlson (Hank Azaria) and Dr. Julius Hibbert (Harry Shearer) in The Simpsons; Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) in BoJack Horseman; Cleveland Brown (Mike Henry) in Family Guy and The Cleveland Show; and hell, the entire principle cast of DreamWorks’s 1998 blockbuster The Prince of Egypt.
People of color should absolutely have more opportunities on and behind the camera, and in the recording booth, too. But as it pertains to animated shows, showrunners shouldn’t throw up their POC Bat signal only for POC roles. The idea that “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people” is well meaning, if not a little shortsighted. I worry this kind of messaging will box Black actors into only Black roles, which undercuts the boundless nature of voicing animation.
I want actors of color to voice more characters in and outside their race, species, or otherwise (we’re talking about animation, after all), but I also want more (and better) representation of characters of color.
Personally, I love Slate’s work on Big Mouth as Missy. Like the character Lola (Nick Kroll), Missy’s voice alone is comedy gold, never mind the actual jokes. But what I also love about Missy’s portrayal is the fact that she’s not your stereotypical Black girl. Rarely do we get to see a Blerd (a Black nerd, for those who don’t know) in a mainstream show, let alone an animated one.
BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg unpacked this conversation in a Twitter thread worth reading. Bob-Waksberg spotlights several interviews he did addressing how and why the role of Diane Nguyen, a Vietnamese-America woman, wound up being voiced by Alison Brie—and the conflict some viewers had in criticizing the character who’s so well rounded and an overall positive representation.
Would it have been great if Nick Kroll, the creator of Big Mouth, hired a Black actor for Missy? Sure. But I’m way more uncomfortable with broadly drawn characters like Cleveland in Family Guy and Apu in The Simpsons. Not only do the jokes written for them contribute to stereotypes, but the white actors voicing these characters are contributing to stereotypes of how certain people of color speak. It’s its own kind of aural minstrel show that, in my opinion, is far more offensive and far more damaging than someone like Slate voice a character like Missy.
It’s undeniable that people of color deserve more work in Hollywood and beyond. But, particularly in animation, I don’t want them to just be relegated to roles that match their race. That’s treading into the waters of tokenism that no one needs right now. More actors of color should be hired, but there should also be more animated shows centered on people of color in all their nuances.
But, in the meantime, the team at Big Mouth should give actor and comedian Sydney Battle a call because her Missy impersonation is perfection.
— Sydney Battle (@SydneyBattle) June 25, 2020