As our industry continues striving towards better representation, there have been a number of recasting announcements made surrounding animated series. Projects within this genre have a long history of casting white actors to voice characters who are not white, and changes are finally being made. There’s still a long way to go in regard to needed changes being made, but we’re including below a roundup of the recent wins for accurate representation in animated series.
1. Kristen Bell being recast in the role of Molly for Central Park.
The Apple TV+ animated musical series centers on Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom Jr.), who manages New York’s Central Park. The comedy series follows Owen and his family as they face a wealthy hotel heiress who’s determined to transform the historic park into condos. In Central Park, Owen’s daughter Molly, who is biracial, was previously voiced by white actor Kristen Bell. The actor addressed the misstep in a post on Instagram with, “Casting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience.” The show’s creative team announced in late June that the role would be recast, stating a desire to “give Molly a voice that resonates with all of the nuance and experiences of the character as we’ve drawn her.” That voice will belong to The Umbrella Academy star Emmy Raver-Lampman moving forward, according to a recent announcement that she will replace Bell as Molly in future Central Park episodes.
2. Jenny Slate stepping away from her role as Missy in Big Mouth.
The same day that word came Bell would no longer voice a biracial character, Jenny Slate gave notice that she was stepping away from her role in Netflix’s Big Mouth. The comedy series follows a group of teenage friends as they make their way through the exciting life stage of puberty. Slate had been voicing the biracial character of Missy Foreman-Greenwald in the series and shared in an Instagram post the thought behind her decision. “At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play Missy because her mom is Jewish and White — as am I,” Slate wrote. “But Missy is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.” The creators of Big Mouth announced they will cast a Black actor to voice the character of Missy for future episodes of the show, but they have not yet disclosed who will replace Slate in the role.
3. Mike Henry leaving his role as Cleveland in Family Guy.
Following quickly in the footsteps of Bell and Slate, actor Mike Henry, who is white, revealed he would no longer be voicing the Black character of Cleveland Brown in Family Guy. Fox’s animated series surrounding the eccentric Griffin family has been around since 1999 and has featured Henry as Cleveland since its beginning. The actor addressed the casting misstep in a Tweet announcing his departure from the show. “It’s been an honor to play Cleveland on Family Guy for 20 years,” Henry wrote. “I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.” It remains to be seen which actor will replace Henry as Cleveland in the recasting move, but in the meantime, we’re celebrating the win for accurate representation.
4. Hank Azaria’s decision to no longer voice Apu in The Simpsons.
The Simpsons has been around since 1989, but the animated series about the family and friends of Homer and Marge Simpson also has a long history of white actors voicing characters who are not white. One such character is Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, whom Hank Azaria had been portraying up until earlier this year. The role had received backlash for the stereotypes it perpetuated, which were further detailed by comedian Hari Kondabolu in the 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu. Critics pointed to the offensive nature of the character’s accent and catchphrase, as portrayed and delivered by a white actor. Azaria said in an interview with The New York Times that it didn’t feel right to continue voicing Apu after he realized how the character was perceived. “What happened with this character is a window into an important issue,” Azaria asserted. “It’s a good way to start the conversation. I can be accountable and try to make up for it as best I can.”
These examples demonstrate that some shows are taking action by making needed changes to their casts. And while they may point to a more equitable future for our industry, there are still big steps that need to be taken moving forward. For example, The Simpsons producers said in a statement that they respected Azaria’s choice to stop voicing the character of Apu. But they failed to take the concrete action of removing a character who is seen by many as a stereotyped and offensive role, instead stating, “Apu is beloved worldwide. We love him too. Stay tuned.” So as we work toward more accurate representation in casting animated series, may there also be a higher standard for developing authentic, diverse characters.