Monday, April 30, 2018

The Simpsons and the race of actors

The TV series The Simpsons is one of the most popular animated series of all times. One of its most prominent characteristics is that it often parodies society in all kinds of ways. And, of course, it's full of all kinds of stereotypes.

There's the bumbling overweight dad, there's the unruly rascal, there's the incompetent donut-eating police chief, there's the greedy and utterly evil old businessman and factory owner, there's there's the drunkard friend, there's the aloof hippie bus driver... and so on and so forth.

And, of course, there's the stereotypical Indian character. It's actually quite surprising that the social justice warriors haven't attacked the show years ago already, precisely because of this one character. Every other one of those dozens of stereotypes is ok, but this one is horrendous! It's racist!

And do you know what's even worse about it? The voice actor is... white! Stop the presses!

Luckily the creative team behind The Simpsons has, pretty much effectively, given a figurative middle finger to the whining social justice warriors. However, this voice actor himself has said that "I am willing to let a person of color take over Apu in the future."

I'm not accusing him of racism, but this sentiment in itself is quite racist. He talks as if there was something wrong in him having too little skin pigmentation, and thus it would be better of somebody with more pigmentation took his place.

What does it matter how much skin pigmentation a voice actor has? What difference does that make? Why is he "wrong" for the role?

If this were a live action series, that would be different. However, not because of races or racism, or because it would be somehow inherently "wrong" and "racist" for a person of the "wrong" skin color to act a particular character.

Optimally, an actor should look the part, as much as possible. If, for example, a particular character is a 30-year-old man, an actor who looks like a 30-year-old man should be cast for that role, rather than, let's say, a 10-year-old girl. Likewise if the character being portrayed is a 10-year-old girl, a 30-year-old looking man shouldn't be cast for that role.

Likewise if the movie or TV series depicts, for instance, a historically accurate Abraham Lincoln, the role should be given to an actor who has at least a passing resemblance to Lincoln. Or if the movie is about Martin Luther King, the actor should have a resemblance to him. Casting a black woman to act as Lincoln, or a white woman to act as King, would be quite wrong. Not because of racism or sexism, but because of historical accuracy and fidelity.

However, when we are talking about an animated series, or even a voice-over in a live action movie, what difference does it make what the voice actors look like? It doesn't.

Consider that in the original Star Wars trilogy the character of Darth Vader is a white man (the father of Luke and Leia), but is voiced by James Earl Jones, a black man. And everybody is completely cool with that. What the actor looks like doesn't matter. What he sounds like does. And Mr. Jones was just perfect for that role.

If somebody were to object to Darth Vader's voice actor being a black man, that somebody would be a racist. In the exact same way if someone objects to Apu's voice actor in The Simpsons, that somebody is a racist. There is no difference.

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