Whitewashing in film is easy enough to spot — if the character was originally a POC but ultimately was portrayed by a White person, Whitewashing has occurred. And while writers and producers will bend over backwards to change a story that allows for a White actor to maintain that role, such as rewriting their origins or erasing them entirely, it doesn’t change the fact that it happened.
When it comes to animation, however, the waters are a bit murky. While POC characters exist, such as Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from “The Simpsons”, Diane Nguyen from “Bojack Horseman”, and Cleveland Brown from “Family Guy”, they are usually voiced by White actors, their personalities written by White writers, and their fates dictated by White creators. Most viewers don’t have the same familiarity with voice actors as they do film actors, so the issue is largely swept under the rug. The truth, however, remains — when characters are a POC in appearance only, diversity in animation is, quite literally, only skin-deep.
There are those who would argue that it’s enough to have representation only; after all, isn’t representation what we’ve been fighting for? Sure, characters like Apu are certainly problematic, but Diane is a refreshing change from the norm, perhaps symbolizing an upwards trend in POC characters and cause for celebration. So why, then, do we take issue with the race of the person who gives such a beloved character life?
In an interview with Uproxx, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of “Bojack Horseman”, shared his mixed emotions behind the casting decision.
Short answer: I love my entire cast, but if I were doing it today, I would not cast the show (or any show) with all white people. I’ve really soured on the idea of “color-blind” casting as an excuse to not pay attention. https://t.co/DG8DDoD9QX
“I’ve been waiting for this conversation and thought about what I would say,” Bob-Waksberg told Uproxx. “For a while I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be the one having this conversation. Maybe it’s better if other people are talking about the show — people of color, people who have lived experience, people who can actually talk about this more eloquently than I can. Maybe it’s better for me to just make the show and try to listen to what people are saying and adjust,” he said.
Despite not having previously discussed the issue in a public setting before, when it came down to it, he didn’t shy away despite his glowing praise for Diane’s voice actress, Allison Brie.
“Part of my hesitation in talking about this is I don’t want to disparage [Brie] in any way because I think she’s brought so much of the character to life and she’s helped my understanding of the character. And I think in many ways, she’s the perfect person for this part. But I think there’s one very specific and one very important way in which she’s not the perfect person for this part.”
With that being said, he knew something was off about hiring Brie to play Diane’s part. “It felt weird to me and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. [I] couldn’t quite articulate why — and I still wasn’t sure if I had the authority to be putting my foot down over this issue. I think it’s a much cleaner narrative to say, I just didn’t get it then and now I get it. And then I can pat myself on the back and look really good. But the truth is, I kind of got it then.”
He also said that the responses he received to his initial tweet regarding the issue garnered plenty of responses that made him reflect deeply, including one from filmmaker Joyce Wu.
I’m not putting the blame squarely on you. We just never get to tell our own stories or have other people see us as anything other than Massage Parlor Worker #3 so it’s disappointing there’s finally a smart, complicated Asian American human but it’s actually just a white lady.
The issue, he realized, wasn’t just that representation mattered, but authentic representation which offered opportunity did. Who is Diane? She may have all the appearances of a well-rounded Asian-American woman, but at the end of the day, she’s just another White lady, someone who had the experience needed because she had been given the opportunity to play roles prior to this one. And why did she receive those opportunities? Because she’s White, which means there’s simply more available to her than the average struggling Asian actor.
Representation matters, clearly, but it’s not enough — opportunity to accurately represent ourselves in our own stories is what we should be fighting for.
Realizing that his actions have been truly hurtful to people of color, Bob-Waksberg says he’s trying to do better. “I really don’t want to create the appearance that my work is done, or that I’m a good guy,” he stated. “I just want to explain how I’ve noticed these problems and how I’m trying to fix them. I don’t think I can fix all of them, but I think we’re working on it.”