TV TATTLE

Big Mouth and Central Park reveal the flaws of color-blind casting

  • Netflix's Big Mouth and Apple TV+'s Central Park respectively cast Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell as biracial kids who are part Black with the thinking that their race didn't matter. But when Slate and Bell exited their respective shows within hours of each other on Wednesday, they each stated they had come to the realization that their race did matter. "What these decisions should clarify for creators and performers is that there’s a lie buried inside the fundamental excuse for why these changes typically don’t happen," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "The idea has always been that it is too hard: It’s hard to do color-conscious casting in the first place, and it’s hard to take a character who already exists and change them after the fact." In January, Central Park co-creator Loren Bouchard defended casting Bell as a mixed-race character, saying: "Kristen needed to voice Molly — we couldn't not make her Molly, and then we couldn't make Molly white and couldn't make Kristen mixed-race." But as VanArendonk points out, "what Big Mouth and Central Park tell us is that’s just not the case, and fixing these casting errors is actually very simple." VanArendonk notes that recastings are done all the time. Disney, for example, had no problem finding a new voice actor after firing Kermit the Frog's voice in 2017. VanArendonk adds: "Big Mouth will have a new Missy when the show begins production on its fifth season, and Central Park’s decision comes in the middle of airing its first season. Real change means committing to undo a show’s status quo, even if it feels awkward. The simplest and most effective solution is to not accept the excuse of color-blind casting in the first place. If these characters had all been cast with color-conscious decisions from day one, these demonstrations of ignorance and privilege would never have been part of the shows’ histories. Short of that, though, these announcements should be a lesson to other creators and performers alike. It may seem hard to make casting changes, but it’s utterly straightforward. All it takes is for the people responsible to have the guts to say the thing out loud."

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    • White actors voicing Black characters is an insidious form of racism: "It makes sense that the white showrunners on these series initially and ongoingly interpreted representation to be purely surface-level," says Cassie da Costa of the Big Mouth and Central Park recastings. "After all, decorating your show with Black and Brown faces, animated or not, does nothing to address the systemic racism in Hollywood—instead, it’s often a tool to anoint a token and/or preemptively silence critics. In the case of animation, the choice to have popular white actors portray Black characters hammers in the racist way major institutions often weaponize the idea of meritocracy: White people earn their opportunities; non-white people are given them. It doesn’t surprise me either that all parties involved couldn’t compute, at least not for a while, how insidious it is to have white people use Black and Brown avatars to further their careers and fatten their wallets. Nearly everyone has heard a random white person offensively impersonate a non-white person, exaggerated accent and all, putting on a little minstrel show for friends while assuming innocence. In the everyday world, these imitators are rarely called out. That (Jenny) Slate didn’t use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) to play Missy represents a more liberal take on minstrelsy—a kind of reverse 'colorblind' casting, if you will, where as long as the Black girl 'sounds white' (a stereotyping way of understanding vocal expression that’s been adopted by all kinds of people) she might as well be played by a white person."
    • What if only casting Black actors for Black animated roles limits the opportunities of those actors?: "People of color should absolutely have more opportunities on and behind the camera, and in the recording booth, too," says KC Ifeyani, who is Black. "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."
    • What if hiring only Black actors for Black roles boxes them in for those roles?: "People of color should absolutely have more opportunities on and behind the camera, and in the recording booth, too," says KC Ifeyani, who is Black. "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."

    TOPICS: Jenny Slate, Apple TV+, Netflix, Big Mouth, Central Park, Kristen Bell, Loren Bouchard, Black Lives Matter, Diversity




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