TV & Movies

Actors Like Scarlett Johansson Should Take a Cue From Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell

Because yes, it's important for racialized characters (even animated ones) to be played by actors from the community they represent

Big Mouth fans are in for a big change. On June 24, actor and comedian Jenny Slate announced on her Instagram that she would be quitting her role on the hit animated TV show in order to have her character recast with a Black actor. ICYMI, Slate has voiced the character of Missy since 2017. Missy is portrayed as a mixed-race character—whose mother is a white Jew and whose father is Black. In her post, Slate said that when she initially took the role of Missy, she reasoned with herself, believing that it was OK to take the role because she herself is Jewish and white, but now she acknowledges that her reasoning was flawed and “existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy.”

“Missy is also Black and, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black actors.” Slate went on to say that in playing Missy, “I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”

Shortly after Slate’s announcement, the creator’s behind Apple TV+’s Central Park announced that they would also be re-casting a role on the animated show for a character that was previously voiced by Kristen Bell. ICYMI, Bell is white and the character—a girl names Molly—is Black. In their statement on the re-casting (which was re-shared by Bell on her Instagram), the show’s creators credited Bell for a beautiful performance before acknowledging that they need to do better. “[After] reflection, Kristen, along with the entire creative team, recognizes 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 experiences of the character as we’ve drawn her,” the creators said. “Kristen will continue to be a part of the heart of the show in a new role but we will find a new actress to lend her voice to Molly. We profoundly regret that we might have contributed to anyone’s feeling of exclusion or erasure.”

In her caption on the statement, Bell wrote: “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.”

And while Hollywood—and these actors—shouldn’t necessarily be given a standing ovation for their decisions regarding re-casting these roles (because it’s 2020 and why is this only changing now?), we’re still happy that the mistakes are being realized and the changes are being made. And, honestly, Scarlett Johansson needs to seriously take note; because yes, it’s important for Black characters (even animated ones) to be played by Black actors. Here’s why.

Representation on-screen is still an issue

For those who think that representation in Hollywood is 100% *there* now that Ryan Murphy is heading pretty much every TV franchise on FX and Netflix, we have some news for you—there’s unfortunately still a long way to go. While a September 2019 study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that the film and TV industry had seen an improvement in diversity and inclusion in film in the year prior (finding that the percentage of characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups rose from 29.3% in 2017 to 36.3% in 2018), thanks in large part to the release of movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians during that year, additional studies have shown that the characters viewers see on-screen largely aren’t representative of people IRL, even when it comes to TV shows. A 2018 study by TV Time—the world’s largest TV tracking app— which analyzed 130 million votes from their community of global users to determine the top 100 favourite characters from 2015–2017, found that, in 2017, there were only 18 characters of colour in the top 100 characters.

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And when it comes to casting—be it for the big or the silver-screen—even if roles for characters of colour are there, it’s still very apparent that regardless of what the actual character may call for, or the story being told, cis, white actors are still top of mind for casting directors. And there are *countless* examples of  actors from outside particular communities—whether it’s racialized or the LGBTQ+ community—being cast in these roles.

In 2015, actor Emma Stone was cast as an Asian and Hawaiian woman in the film Aloha (a role she has since apologized for). In August 2017, it was announced that actor Ed Skrein—who’s best known as Daario Naharis in Season 3 of Game of Thrones—would be playing Major Ben Daimio in the latest film adaptation of the Hellboy comics. The character is a Japanese-American U.S. marine, and Skrein is of Jewish-Austrian and British descent. In the same year, Scarlett Johansson was criticized for playing a canonically Asian character in the film adaptation of a popular Japanese manga, Ghost In The Shell. And just a year later, Johansson was called out again for being cast as transgender character Dante “Tex” Gill in the film Rub & Tug, a role that should have gone to a trans actor. (FWIW, Johansson later withdrew from the film, but her initial response to the casting controversy was not great; and in July 2019, she pretty much doubled down on her initial comments, telling  As If  that she felt criticism for taking on marginalized roles was a trend she didn’t appreciate, saying: “You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.”)

And casting non-Black actors to play Black characters is erasure

The major issues with casting actors that are outside of the community—especially when said community is racialized—is that doing so is straight up whitewashing. The term, which can honestly be applied to so many films and TV shows, refers to the long-standing practice in Hollywood of erasing marginalized groups (like people of colour or transgender or genderqueer people) from projects by casting white, cisgender actors. While whitewashing can be done under the guise of several things (including claims that a well-known white actor was cast for the role to boost its star power), usually these claims are straight up BS. What the act *really* is is a form of racism. And it can have major effects. Casting non-BIPOC actors as BIPOC characters not only erases the experience that’s meant to be depicted in these films and TV shows, but sends a message to viewers of that community that their experience and seeing someone who looks like them on-screen isn’t worthy of Hollywood’s attention. In response to Skrein’s original casting in Hellboy, actor William Yu said: “With every instance of whitewashing, an (Asian-American) is subliminally told that they are not worth attention, not worth a place in this society.” And as journalist Steve Rose noted in an August 2017 article for The Guardian, the issue isn’t just about whitewashing characters; “it is also about whitewashing certain peoples’ culture and history by appropriating it for a movie and then erasing the non-white presence.” Rose pointed to Johansson’s problematic casting in Ghost in the Shell, as well as Netflix’s 2017 adaptation of Marvel’s Iron Fist, two films in which a white superhero is portrayed as better versed in Asian philosophy and martial arts than actual Asian people. “It amounts to the same thing,” Rose said, “a way to include white people at the expense of non-white ones.”

And that includes non-white actors. Because whitewashing doesn’t only limit viewers and invalidate their experiences, but further limits non-white actors in Hollywood from accessing roles and effectively accessing the industry (especially in animation, an industry in which Shadow and Act reports the opportunities for Black voice actors are historically minimal). Which is a loss for everyone. Because not only are these films and characters better when members of the community are given the opportunity to inhabit characters they can relate to (just look at the success of the aforementioned Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians), but doing so diminishes the risk of these non-white characters being portrayed as caricatures—something that happens *all* too often.

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Just look at The Simpson’s Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The heavily-accented Kwik-E-Mart owner, who is a South Asian character on the show, has long been voiced by white actor Hank Azaria—and become synonymous with racist and stereotypical depictions of South Asian people. As comedian Hari Kondabolu, the creator of the 2017 documentary on the controversial character, The Problem with Apu, told Vanity Fair in November 2017, Apu is predominantly flawed because the cartoon is “a white person’s perception of an Indian immigrant.” Meaning recycled jokes and storylines that all look the same. “It’s the same jokes: India has over a billion people, something about curry, gods with many arms and elephants’ heads, arranged marriage,” Kondabolu told the magazine. And these perceptions—and stereotypes—of South Asian people can be extremely harmful; painting the character—and South Asian people as a whole—as lacking depth or agency beyond what’s been presented of them. It pigeonholes minority people into one “acceptable” depiction of them.

But it shouldn’t have taken a movement for this to change

While it’s commendable that Slate and Bell *did* step down from their respective roles, making room for more diverse talent, the most disappointing part of this entire news cycle is the fact that they even *had* to step down—because they shouldn’t have been cast in the first place. Yes, it’s great to have “big” celeb names behind your show, and yes, it’s animated; but the fact that said voice actor isn’t physically on-screen in animated shows doesn’t really matter. As Slate noted, Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black actors. Not only because it makes sense for representation, but also because what’s the point of creating BIPOC characters on-screen, if you’re not going to follow through and do the same behind the scenes? That feels inauthentic and performative. And it shouldn’t take a Black Lives Matter movement and the killing of unarmed Black and Indigenous people across North America to *finally* elicit this forethought and change.

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And let’s flip the script, shall we? If the roles were reversed, is there any universe in which Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin (a white character voiced by a white man, Seth McFarlane) would be voiced by Kevin Hart, Mahershala Ali or John Cho? I’m going to bet no (and not only because these three men are way too cool to voice that character, anyways).

So kudos to Slate and Bell for stepping down, but also, can Hollywood please just do better?