Voice Acting and Minority Representation in Animation

Contemporary discourse surrounding the representation of visible minorities in mainstream film and television has seen notable improvements over the last decade. The emergence of Hollywood blockbusters like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have paved the way for strong, multidimensional character building for minorities on screen, implying that the future of representation in film and TV resembles one of optimism. However, when we steer the conversation of representation away from live action performance to animation and voice acting, there are underlying relevant practices that are perceived to be problematic. 

 

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier

 

Cartoon animations depicting minorities are not always voiced by actors who belong to the minority group of the character reflected on screen. For instance, in Disney’s 1992 adaptation of Aladdin, Aladdin is voiced by a white actor. In Dreamworks' picture The Prince of Egypt, every character (who is a person of color) is voiced by a white actor. Additionally, the character of Cleveland in Family Guy is also voiced by a white actor. A more modern example can be found in the Netflix adult cartoon Big Mouth, where the black character, Missy, is also voiced by an actress of Jewish descent. 

 

Some criticisms compare such practices in animation to the historical practice of black face and minstrelsy, which can be found in some of Hollywood’s earliest cinema. Actors that posed as caricatures of people of color were a form of mockery, and served as both a product and a reinforcer of racist stereotypes. This was not specific to live action entertainment but can also be seen in some of the first depictions of Mickey Mouse cartoons. The creators of the infamous cartoon acquired influence for the portrayal of Mickey Mouse from a historically significant character in blackface minstrelsy from an entertainment spectacle called Vaudeville Circus. The same convention is also relevant to the way that Asians were historically portrayed in entertainment in the past. Asian characters were played by white actors in yellow face, which can be seen in acclaimed films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Destroyer. 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GL7PC-ZU-7g

 

The fact is that certain voice dimensions and styles are acknowledged as being specific to distinct races. Black people have a perceived way of speaking, Latinx people have an assumed way of speaking, the list goes on. With these voices comes an assumed level of education and sophistication that is constantly compared to that of a white person, which is often deemed as ‘superior’ or ‘correct’. In North American society, the voice associated with whiteness comes with various privileges that afford people more opportunities in education and employment, and suggests greater intellectual capacity. Voices associated with race are all based on stereotypical representations that have continued to circulate throughout popular culture, but have come to offer real life consequences and benefits. When white voice actors play  various roles and voices depicting minorities, it can be seen as offensive and as a blatant mockery of the depicted races. It is them taking on a voice that will never truly affect their opportunities in real life; in this case, it’s ironic because it is actually providing them with even more opportunities. 

 

Other opinions suggest that this practice simply denies actors of a visible minority opportunities. I can acknowledge that sometimes casting is, in fact, just about attaining a specific voice that is necessary to character building; it is not sinisterly about denying people opportunities. Voice acting is not necessarily a strength that is possessed by all actors, and it’s not something that every actor is interested in. But certainly, there are a plethora of options when casting that involve auditioning actors of multiple races who are seeking roles that are reflective of who they are. 

 

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I have a difficult time constructing my own opinions surrounding this issue. I firmly believe that the entertainment industry is generally irresponsible and inconsiderate, not only of the talent available but also to its audience when they hire individuals who do not resemble the characters on screen. As a visible minority myself experiencing a childhood that did not illuminate the presence of characters who looked like me in cartoons and popular culture led me to have a difficult time affirming my own identity. I want to see myself represented in popular culture, but I want it to be authentic. Just because it’s hidden behind a cartoon doesn’t mean it’s not an issue. 

 

I also believe that there is no definitive basis that positions certain race groups within a certain framework of speaking. These are distinctions that North American society has constructed to belittle visible minorities and place them within a monolithic narrative. When we give power to these ideas, we are essentially feeding into them and giving them meaning when they don’t actually constitute any value. In this case, does the race of a voice actor really matter if voices don’t negate any intellectual or cultural relevance?

 

On the other hand, the entertainment industry is dominated by predominantly white talent and industry professionals. Do they have a responsibility to their audience to represent diversity authentically? As a dominant economic institution, some would say no. But as a powerful cultural institution, some would say yes. I believe everything should exist in moderation, and the mass influence of film and television  industries in society positions them in a significant cultural position that requires some level of social responsibility. I urge the entertainment industry to try to achieve authenticity by hiring diversity behind the scenes and on the centre stage. We’ve made a lot of valuable progress over the last decade, but there is definitely room for improvement. It’s lazy and untimely to persist in the practice of inauthentic representation.