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White Actors on The Simpsons and Family Guy’s Mike Henry Won’t Play Non-White Characters
Producers of The Simpsons announced Friday that the show will no longer feature white performers voicing characters of color, while the white actor who voices Cleveland on Family Guy announced that he would also be stepping down from his role. The casting announcements arrived in the wake of similar changes within newer animated series Big Mouth and Central Park, and all take place against the backdrop of the ongoing national discussion around race and racism.
“Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters,” said the long-running Fox series in a statement. The same day, actor Mike Henry, who’s voiced Family Guy’s Cleveland Brown since the show’s 1999 debut, revealed on Twitter that he’ll be stepping away from the role. “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.”
Similar announcements from Netflix’s Big Mouth and Apple TV Plus’s Central Park were made earlier this week. Saturday Night Live alum Jenny Slate, who plays a biracial character on the Netflix coming-of-age animated comedy, announced her retirement from the role, as did Kristen Bell, who also voices a biracial character on Central Park. “This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity,” tweeted Bell. “Casting a mixed race character w/a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race & Black American experience.”
In January, white actor Hank Azaria, who voiced The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon for 30 years, announced that he would no longer portray the character. With his trademark line of “Thank you, come again,” convenience store owner Apu has long been criticized for being a stereotype-laden depiction of South East Asians. The controversy even inspired comic Hari Kondabolu to make a documentary, 2017’s The Problem with Apu.
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The move represented something of an about-face for the show, which continued featuring Apu despite years of criticism. In 2018, the series included a scene in which Lisa and Marge read an old children’s book, only to find that it contains offensive stereotypes. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” said Lisa, nodding to the Apu controversy. “Some things will be dealt with a later date,” Marge replied. “If at all,” Lisa added.
In February, Azaria spoke to the New York Times about his decision to leave the role, saying that the character had been partially based on an earlier racist portrayal of Indian people in the 1968 film The Party, which featured comedian Peter Sellers in brownface. “That represents a real blind spot I had,” he told the Times. “There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting.”
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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