When “Rick and Morty” writer Jessica Gao wrote the episode “Pickle Rick” last season, she created a character named Dr. Wong, with an eye toward casting an Asian American actress in the part. But then Susan Sarandon suddenly became available, and the Oscar-winning actress was tapped for the role instead.
Adding insult to injury: The character’s last name stayed the same, which meant a white actress ultimately played family therapist Dr. Wong.
“The whole point of writing a character like Dr. Wong was because I wanted there to be an Asian character on ‘Rick and Morty,'” Gao said. “And I also specifically wanted to give a job to an Asian actress.”
While Hollywood’s embarrassing practice of tapping white actors to play characters of color has at least become a hotly discussed issue in the live action world (think Emma Stone in “Aloha” and Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”), things are more clouded in animation, where the practice is also still common.
Among the white actors currently playing characters of color are writer Mike Henry, who created and voices Cleveland Brown, an African-American character on “Family Guy” (and the four-season spinoff “The Cleveland Show”); Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American writer, on “BoJack Horseman”; and Hank Azaria, the star behind Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon for 29 seasons on “The Simpsons.”
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“I think people sometimes take issue with individual cases because they love a certain character or a certain show, but this conversation is really about the systemic lack of representation for people of color,” Gao said. “I think people are more conscious of it. But change is very slow.”
A long overdue discussion is finally starting to happen at these shows, spurred by the growing realization by showrunners that they’ve missed the point of representation. Including characters of color is the first step — but casting those roles with white actors doesn’t really fulfill the promise of inclusiveness.
At the recent Television Critics Association press tour, Azaria told reporters that “The Simpsons” was mulling how to address the future of Apu and what the show might do differently with the character. “The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on ‘The Simpsons,’ the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing,” he said.
The fact that Apu is voiced by a white actor is just part of the problem, as many viewers have also cringed over the years at the stereotype of a South Asian man. “The Simpsons” executive producer Al Jean told IndieWire that he recently watched the documentary “The Problem with Apu,” in which comedian Hari Kondabolu interviewed celebrities of South Asian descent about the negative impact that the character has had on them.
“We’ve talked about it,” Jean said of his writers’ room. “Some people are offended by the character and I take that very seriously. Others really love the character. It’s a difficult choice. I don’t want to offend people but we also want to be funny. We don’t want to be totally politically correct. That has never been us. It’s given us a lot of thought.”
In his film, Kondabolu says he’s often told to “let it go” — but he feels like he’s been “letting it go” for 28 years. “I have always loved ‘The Simpsons,'” he said on screen. “It shaped me into the person and the comedian that I am today. I know Apu is one of the smartest characters on ‘The Simpsons’ — granted the bar isn’t very high — but it’s not why people liked him. They just liked his accent.”
Jean said “The Simpsons” has made an effort in recent years to cast more actors of the same ethnicity as their characters. For example, Kevin Michael Richardson (“The Cleveland Show”) is now a regular.
“It’s a complex issue,” he said. “‘Bob’s Burgers’ has men playing women. Six of our main regulars are women and have been, from the beginning, playing boys. No one’s got a problem with that. I think in the future it will be more people of the same ethnicity playing those characters. But also as someone who also hopes that rules continue to be broken, I’d hate to see it be a really hard and fast strict rule. On our show, Kevin plays characters who aren’t African American. Believe me, I’m very aware of the issue. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”
“Family Guy” executive producer Rich Appel said he believed animation was “color-blind, sex-blind, ethnicity-blind,” and noted that Cleveland was based on a guy that Henry knew with a distinctive voice. “No one does it as well as Mike,” he said. “That character was born with that voice.”
As a bit of an acknowledgment that it was unusual to have Henry playing a black character, the rest of “The Cleveland Show’s” cast was African-American, including Richardson, who also played a white next-door neighbor in addition to Cleveland’s son Cleveland Jr. But Appel said, “If we write a character who’s a certain ethnicity, the odds are we’re going to cast that ethnicity.”
Echoed fellow executive producer Alec Sulkin: “I would say we’re generally aware of it. If we’re creating a character that’s a certain ethnicity, I think our instinct now is certainly to look for an actor or actress of that ethnicity to play it.”
Both “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” were created decades ago, when whitewashing wasn’t as prevalent a Hollywood topic as it is now. That doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain why some producers on more recent animated shows have perhaps felt like they got a pass — if those shows did it, there was an implicit OK for others to do the same.
“They’re cartoon characters, they’re drawn, you can make them look however you want,” Gao said. “So it feels like it’s arbitrary, who the voice is behind it. And I think that none of this would really be an issue at all if there were more actors of color who get work. But because in every aspect of acting, white actors dominate and there are so few roles for actors of color, that that’s why it’s an issue. It wouldn’t be an issue if there were plenty of roles for everyone. But there aren’t.”
On “BoJack Horseman,” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg said that an Asian-American actress had actually been cast originally in the role of Diane Nguyen, and had even voiced the show’s first four episodes. But that actress (whom Bob-Waksberg prefers not to name) was contractually obligated to another series — and when that show was renewed, “BoJack” had to replace her. In his haste, Bob-Waksberg opened the casting up to white actresses.
“The truth of the matter is, when you open it up to white actors, there are many more of them,” he said. “And that’s a sad thing about our industry, but a truth. The white actors have had the opportunity to have the experiences over and over again. So we brought in Alison Brie, and she checked all these boxes of experience and could do all of these different things with the character.”
But even at the time, Bob-Waksberg admitted that it felt “a little weird to me. I was definitely aware that that was an issue and that was a problem. But if you look at animation, the precedence feels a little different. I allowed myself to become convinced that this was not as big of a deal in animation. And now I’m not so sure that that is true.
“Part of the issue is, when it comes to animation you convince yourself, anybody can play anything, so it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Will Arnett is not a horse, but he plays a horse. This is what acting is. But I think if you are saying that, and if you are then casting all white people in your main cast, as I did, it betrays that. It’s more of an excuse than a truth. There’s no reason that BoJack couldn’t have been played by an Asian actor. If we had an all-Asian cast except for the person playing Diane, this would be a very different conversation right now.”
Bob-Waksberg was aware of concerns over whitewashing on “BoJack Horseman” and made an effort to improve inclusion in subsequent seasons, and by Season 3 mandated that at least one voice actor of color play a role in each episode. But even then, he realized that wasn’t enough — and like those older shows, he also feared that he was setting a precedent that future animation showrunners might follow. That’s why he’s wanted to have a more open dialogue on this issue, including on social media.
“I think a lot of times this idea of the utopia of color-blind casting leads to laziness or feels like an excuse to not pay attention,” he said. “You need to be more conscious of it than just saying, ‘well, anyone can play anything so it doesn’t really matter.’ I think it does matter. Then you become part of the problem. I would hate the idea that when someone’s casting the next show they look at ‘BoJack’ and they say they can cast a white person as an Asian person and it doesn’t matter. Because the truth is, I think it does matter. This idea of the appearance of representation without true inclusion is not actual representation. In fact, it can be more harmful than helpful.”
Bob-Waksberg said he learned a lot just by listening to Gao on “Whiting Wongs,” the podcast she launched with “Rick and Morty” co-creator Dan Harmon about race and TV writing. That podcast came out of conversations Gao had with Harmon after the disappointment of seeing Sarandon take the Dr. Wong role.
When Sarandon was cast, Gao suggested that Dr. Wong’s name be changed, and “nobody seemed to care. So I went to Dan and he very genuinely asked me why it was important. Not in a flippant way, but because he genuinely didn’t understand why I cared about it so much. So I had this long conversation with him where I talked about why representation is important and how different it is when you grow up never seeing yourself reflected in media.
“It’s so important the few times that a character is written to specifically be a person of color, those opportunities and those characters are so few and far between that it’s so important that those characters are cast in a way that respects their ethnicity,” she said. “There are people who argue, after the Susan Sarandon casting, ‘Why would you be unhappy that she would take the role?’ But it’s bigger than that. It’s more about what this one role means. It’s not like there are multiple Asian American characters on ‘Rick and Morty’ and we lost one out of 100 so it’s not a big deal. We lost one out of one, the only one so far. And that’s why it’s such a big deal… The whole point was to have representation.”
The answer sounds simple, but requires action by showrunners and others in power: Elevating writers of color to more decision-making levels. “Where the cut off happens is when you start looking at the position of power, the people who have their own shows, the executive producers, the showrunners, the story editors in animation, which is different from live action story editors,” Gao said. “That’s where you start seeing that it’s overwhelmingly men and overwhelmingly white men. I think that tells you that it’s a systemic issue and not an individual basis… I think it’s definitely better now than it was 10 years ago. I think people are more conscious of it. But change is very slow.”