The ripple effects of the Black Lives Matter movement have hit cartoons over the past week, with several prominent white actors stepping down from POC roles. Jenny Slate in Big Mouth came first, followed swiftly by Kristen Bell in Central Park; though Bell is going to remain in the show as a new character while Molly is recast. This was followed by Mike Henry stepping away from Family Guy’s Cleveland (no word on Consuela), and The Simpsons announcing they would be recasting all Black roles, such as Carl, Dr Hibbert and Lou.
It’s not defund the police, but it’s a start.
I’m going to sidestep the conversations around this, as I don’t feel it’s my place to lead them, but I will say for the record that a) I think this is the right call and b) I agree with Julie Muncy’s assertion that the timing deflates the intention, as it feels more like they could no longer get away with it more than making an active decision.
Rather than focus on these new developments, I’d like to go back a few years to when the first serious questions were asked of Apu. He’s not Black, but he is a person of colour and the way The Simpsons handled the fallout highlighted this idea that they’re only changing now because they can’t get away with it.
While The Simpsons is often thought of as the more family friendly cousin of Family Guy, you’ll still have to navigate (more slapstick than edgy-cruel) elements of homophobia, transphobia, racism and a slurry of suicide jokes, especially in the Zombie Simpsons/early HD era. Even when I’m the butt of such jokes, I can hand wave them away as being relics of a pre-enlightened time. As for whether or not you can, your mileage may vary.
That changes with No Good Read Goes Unpunished. Released in 2018, it centres around Marge reading Lisa one of her favourite stories from childhood, only to realise it’s covered in problematic storylines and racial stereotypes. Rather than address Marge’s privilege that she never realised, or have any teachable moment in there, they go the other way, defending a story they themselves have just invented.
It used to be okay to be racist, and so it’s still okay to retell racist stories, because I still like them: that’s the message delivered.
Worse, in a rare fourth wall break, they tie this defence to Apu, as if to say ‘we know you think it’s racist, but we don’t care. Thank you, come again!’
They talk about how “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect”; the show skips over the fact it was applauded almost entirely by white people, and were so infuriated by Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, The Problem With Apu, that they made a whole episode about why it’s okay to defend racist books.
The big ‘The Simpsons parodies everyone!’ excuse used to wash for me, I admit. But then, sea captains haven’t been exposed to decades of prejudice and violence which stem from these sorts of racist jokes.
Sure, parts of Apu are positive; he’s a successful businessman, popular both in and out of the show, and is one of the smartest people in town. But he also has an accent which goes way over the top, plays into the stereotype of foreigners having too many children and the show frequently makes jokes about India which seem to stem from Indiana Jones more than they do the country itself.
Perhaps the worst part though is how they use Lisa as a mouthpiece for this. While she’s often relegated to antagonist post Season 27 or so, she’s still the most credible voice in the household, arguably in the whole show. Tagging her onto this defence not only goes against Lisa’s character arc, but is a transparent attempt to legitimise their view that they should be above such criticism.
Since then, Apu has been quietly retired, with voice actor Hank Azaria more decisive than the show itself, opting to step down himself. Apu has gone unvoiced since Azaria’s last lines as him in Season 29’s premiere.
Again, Apu is not Black, and the issues at play in the world right now are bigger than who voices which cartoon characters. But the dominance of white people in the vocal booth, especially on characters like Cleveland and who trade on stereotype, is emblematic of the deep rooted white supremacy of our system.
The racism Indians and Black people face differs, but nevertheless the way The Simpsons handled the criticism of Apu suggests they’re only changing now because their hand has been forced. Alison Brie also apologised this week for playing Vietnamese American Diane Nguyen on BoJack Horseman, despite the fact the show has now wrapped and she never addressed these complaints when the show was still airing.
Changing who voices cartoon characters is not what these protests have ever been about, but it still reflects important changes in our media landscape, and in the sorts of characters, experiences, and voices animation will elevate from now on. If we want this to be a lasting, meaningful change, we need to keep insisting on it. Apu proves that if we don’t, shows will continue to do whatever they can get away with.