TV Shows Pop Culture

When you see token POC characters in cartoons, hold your applause

When we strive for more diverse representation in the content we consume and create, we need to aim higher and do better. Oftentimes, calls for representation are met with tokenism and this is fairly easy to see through. The more insidious cases occur when we are deceived into thinking that our sources of entertainment are doing the work of elevating marginalized voices and representing them in media, when in fact they aren’t. What you see is not always what you get.

What you see is not always what you get.

With the recent momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, Hollywood has rightfully come under scrutiny for the lack of Black representation in media. Adult cartoon shows perfectly embody this issue. Even when a Black character is on the screen, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the representation that Black communities deserve. Behind the screen, it’s often white actors voicing these characters at the expense of authentic representation of Black experiences via opportunities for Black actors.

In recent weeks, two renowned white actors, Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate, announced that they were resigning from their roles as each previously voiced a “mixed-race Black character” on Central Park and Big Mouth respectively. Slate cites her identification with the character having a white, Jewish mother as the reason for initially taking on the role. In hindsight, she admits that this was an “erasure” of her character Missy’s experiences as a Black American. Bell reiterated this in her statement, writing, “Casting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience.”

These instances shed light on how many other cartoons simply provide lip service to the representation of people of color (POC). Two long-standing examples are Family Guy and The Simpsons. Regarding the former, white actor Mike Henry left the role of Black character Cleveland Brown after 20 years on the show and the spin-off The Cleveland Show. As for the latter, about which there is much more information available, white actor Hank Azaria, after 30 years, will no longer voice the racist portrayal of the Indian-American character Apu on The Simpsons.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s way too little, way too late.

It was only in 2018 that Azaria stated, “I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new.” Finally in February this year, he stepped down from the role. After the 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu publicized the harm of the racist characterization, Azaria took a few more years to come to state, “Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore…it just didn’t feel right.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s way too little, way too late.

This story gets even more upsetting for three reasons. First, Apu was only made into an Indian-American character, because the cast found it hilarious when he was first read with a stereotypical Indian accent. This makes sense when a quick Google search for the scriptwriters, actors, and showrunners of The Simpsons shows an overwhelmingly white sea of faces.

Second, the reason Azaria specifically was so gung-ho about this portrayal is because he loved Peter Sellers’ brownface monstrosity in the 1968 comedy The Party. Its racism apparently went right over his head, but that’s no excuse. Pleading ignorance just doesn’t work when you have infinite opportunities to listen to POC and yet fail to do so over and over again.

We must demand structural changes. We cannot remain complicit and complacent.

Third, and most disturbingly, there do seem to be some Indian-Americans that defend Apu’s character, finding solace in its representation. I urge them to dream bigger, to want more, to do better, and not settle for less. In his letter to fellow Black writers and allies fighting the Poetry Foundation’s complicity in anti-Black racism, author Phillip B. Williams writes, “The systems get inside of us all and we mimic them to our detriment. How do you refashion the bones of a thing that suddenly has our face?” The answer to his question is multi-faced, but at its core: we must demand structural changes. We cannot remain complicit and complacent.

If you have any concerns about the big scary monster that is cancel culture (not a thing), rest assured. Bell, Slate, Henry, and Azaria (who voices many other characters on The Simpsons, including two Black characters) are doing just fine career-wise. The same can’t be said for the many POC who are unable to even get an audition for roles that supposedly represent their experiences, let alone opportunities to become showrunners and scriptwriters who can create such roles.

We should not be placated by seeing cartoon depictions of POC on screen if the person voicing it and being paid for it is a white actor. This logic applies to other entertainment too. In the content you consume, ask yourself: who are the creators? If they’re white, did you applaud at the first crumb of non-white representation (if it even existed)? Will you settle for just that? Or will you demand more?

‘Let’s not look for symbols of progress instead of actual progress.’

If we only raise issues of representation at the surface level, we disregard the matter of actually paying and empowering Black and non-Black POC in the entertainment industry. When we choose to settle for less, we will fall over ourselves lauding pathetically bare-minimum performative activism, ignoring the systematic racism that continues. As said in the latest Bobo and Flex podcast episode, “Let’s not look for symbols of progress instead of actual progress.”


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By Tusshara Nalakumar Srilatha

Tusshara Nalakumar Srilatha is pursuing a BA in Literature and Creative Writing and Psychology at New York University Abu Dhabi. Tusshara writes poetry and short stories, runs workshops for young girls to promote female empowerment through education, and facilitates dialogue about community at her university. Tusshara's creative work, written primarily in English with the incorporation of Tamil, often explores her evolving experience of identity. She is currently based in Manila, Philippines.