WALSH: Our Country Is Finally Realizing That It’s Simply Not Okay For Actors To Pretend To Be Something They Aren’t

Actor Kristen Bell attends the world premiere of Disney's "Frozen 2" at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre on Thursday, November 7, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)
Jesse Grant/Getty Images

The actress Jenny Slate has apologized for her “flawed” decision to voice a non-white character on the Netflix show “Big Mouth.” Slate announced that she is stepping aside from the role, acknowledging that her initial decision to voice the animated character was a symptom of her “white privilege.”

She explained that she originally thought it was okay because her character, Missy, has a white Jewish mother. But she now understands that she could only take on that role because of “unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy.” She makes a salient point, of course. It is well known that the ultimate goal of any Nazi or Klan member is to be a voice actor for a mixed race cartoon character. Slate promised to do her part to fight the white supremacist scourge by “engaging in meaningful anti-racist action,” and she expressed deep remorse for anyone she may have “hurt” by doing voice overs on a cartoon show.

On the same day, actress Kristen Bell stepped aside from her role voicing a non-white character named Molly on the animated show “Central Park.” She apologized for her “lack of awareness” of her “pervasive privilege,” and admitted that “casting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience.” It is not clear how a cartoon character’s voice could “undermine” anyone’s “experience,” or even what it means to undermine an experience, but whatever it means, and however it happens, the point is that Kristen Bell is very sorry and wants you to know that she’s one of the good inherently racist white people, not one of the bad ones.

In the Twitter thread she posted on this issue, the humble Bell responded to a person thanking her for her decision by saying she doesn’t “deserve a thank you” but instead “deserves to acknowledge my part in the problem, and then rectify it.” This was an impressive answer and it goes to show that in no way whatsoever did Kristen Bell come to this racial enlightenment at this particular moment in time, and dramatically announce that enlightenment in a public forum, because she wanted applause and approval. That was absolutely not the point at all, to be clear.

I personally find these decisions by Bell and Slate to be so inspiring that I’d like to suggest other characters that should be canceled along similar lines. Obviously Darth Vader has to go. He is a white man in a black suit voiced by a black man. I’m not sure how this is racist but I’m sure that it must be, in some way. Bart Simpson is a boy voiced by an adult woman. For years I accepted this problematic dichotomy because I assumed that “The Simpsons” was headed for a story arc where the young Bart discovers his inner female identity, comes out as transgender, and begins hormone therapy. But after 30 years on the air, this moment still has not arrived, and I’m beginning to despair that “The Simpsons” will ever make the expected transition into a nuanced, introspective drama about the  experiences of transgender adolescents in modern America.

Other characters that should be canceled, abolished, outlawed, imprisoned, executed, or at least recast, are perhaps a little less obvious but nonetheless crucial to defeating white supremacy. E.T., from the film “E.T.,” has only a few lines of dialogue (a problem in and of itself), and those lines are handled by a white voice actress named Pat Welsh. It boggles my mind that, in the whole entire cosmos, populated by 100 billion galaxies and trillions of planets, Steven Spielberg could not find even one actual extra terrestrial to take on this role. A white actor cannot empathize with the lived reality of alien beings enough to capture the fullness and depth of their experiences on screen.

We have to remember something: acting is not about pretending to be something you’re not. Acting, in an ideal society, would consist of people being themselves, and doing and saying all of the same stuff they would do and say on a normal day. In a truly progressive culture, films would have no characters, no script, no plot, and instead the audience would watch people — none of them white, of course — going about their day, running errands, checking the mailbox, preparing dinner, etc. Every film would be like this, all of them would be titled “Experiences,” and all of them would win every Oscar every year. The fact that this scenario I concocted in my head is not a reality just proves that white supremacy is real and literal Nazis are running the country.

Another bigoted film that must be eradicated or changed immediately is a disturbing fascist manifesto called “The Brave Little Toaster.” The film, released in 1987, tells the story of appliances, led by the titular Toaster, who embark on a quest to find their owner. There are a number of obvious problems here, including the deeply insensitive reference to “owners,” which brings to mind the legacy of slavery. But more to the point, none of the characters — Toaster, Lampy, Blanky, Radio, Kirby the Vacuum — are voiced by actual household appliances. It is difficult enough for toasters to find work in Hollywood. If they aren’t even allowed to play toasters, how are they supposed to find a foothold in the industry?

Similar problems can be found in the film “Babe,” where the protagonist pig is not portrayed by an authentic pig; “Boss Baby,” a film in which Alec Baldwin ruthlessly appropriates a role that could have gone to an actual toddler instead of a man who simply acts like one (both in the film and in real life); “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” a movie about undead humans that exclusively casts fully alive humans; the 90’s Nickelodeon cartoon “Hey Arnold” which features a person with a normal-shaped head voicing a character with a grotesquely deformed head, a casting decision that still rankles the Grotesquely Deformed Head (GDH) community to this day. Many other examples could be provided. The point is that a great many films and television shows — arguably, all of them — have for decades featured actors playing characters that are in some way different from their real selves. This needs to change. Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate have helped us to take the first step. We must have the courage to go all the way. Until then, all movies and shows are canceled.

NOTE: This piece employs a once widely familiar device known as parody and contains flashes of what some might call sarcasm.

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