Controversial Cartoons: Drawing Our Attention

by Sian Erskine

Representations of minority groups are under scrutiny – and rightly so. Despite the commercial and critical success of films and shows that foreground diversity, the industry still engages in whitewashing, white saviour tropes and all-white casts. Popular animated shows The Simpsons and BoJack Horseman have been criticised for their failure to portray Asian characters accurately. Both cast white actors as Asian characters: Hank Azaria as Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, and Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen.

Cartoon historian Sianne Ngai points to a long history of problematic representation. She identifies the genre’s reliance on ‘caricature and typecasting’ to make comic points and convey emotion. In animated forms, characters have to be recognisable to be effectively funny, and so they are often reduced or stereotyped.

Hank Azaria and Apu

Image from the RadioTimes comparing Hank Azaria and Apu.

The Simpsons’ Indian-American character Apu was challenged by Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu. Kondabolu stated that the “one-dimensional” characterisation of Apu “never made sense” in such a well written show, and the choice for Apu to be voiced by Hank Azaria is “fodder for bullying and marginalisation”. Everyone in Springfield is a caricature but Apu recycles limited representations of Indians for comic effect, without any further exploration. Sadly, this is unsurprising in an entertainment industry which lacks diversity at every level.

The show’s creators Matt Groenig, Al Jean and Mike Reiss responded to the controversy around Apu in their episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”. Seen as a “dismissive shrug” and cop-out by most critics, the reaction “misrepresented the issues Kondabolu and many others have brought forth”. The creators only acknowledged that Apu is a politically incorrect character, ignoring their involvement in the industry-wide issue of continued misrepresentation of minority groups.

For her role in BoJack Horseman, Alison Brie was chosen as Vietnamese character Diane through colour-blind casting. The show’s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg has since “soured” on the process’ complicity in BoJack Horseman’s lack of diversity. Bob-Waksberg admitted downplaying Diane’s Asian heritage, by abstaining from hiring any Asian writers, due to unease over her casting. A white woman playing an overtly Asian character “felt somehow wrong to [him]”.

BoJack Horseman

BoJack Horseman Season 5, Episode 2, “The Dog Days Are Over.”

Unlike The Simpsons’ creators, Bob-Waksberg’s response to criticism of his white-washing of Diane was nuanced and reflective. He admitted past mistakes while expressing “guilt” in contributing to the “nefarious and wide-reaching” practice of  “white people playing Asian characters”. While easily dismissed as white guilt, he understands that a lack of explicit representation has “hobbled” and damaged the show.

However, very little has been done since. Alison Brie still voices Diane and no Asian writers have been hired. Al Jean stated that he is attempting to “find an answer that is popular [and] more importantly right”, without any concrete action being taken. Animation continues to misrepresent minority groups; this August, Disney controversially announced straight actor Jack Whitehall would voice their first gay cartoon. Cartoons still draw from and feed into a system of discrimination — a system which needs to be erased.

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