America's reckoning on race has come to TV animation, as stars Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell, who are white, have agreed to stop voicing characters who are biracial.
And while some fans may be disappointed to see their favorite performers leaving TV shows they enjoy, the moves also end a subtle way in which actors of color have been marginalized. It's an attention-getting moment when performers have recognized their white privilege and moved to end it.
Slate, who plays the character Missy on Netflix's animated comedy Big Mouth, wrote on Instagram Thursday. "At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play Missy because her mom is Jewish and White — as am I," Slate wrote in a statement. "But Missy is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people...In my playing Missy, I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people."
Nick Kroll, comic and co-creator of the show, backed Slate's decision in a statement from the series' executive producers posted on his Instagram page. "We sincerely apologize for and regret our original decision to cast a white actor to voice a biracial character," the statement reads. "We made a mistake, took our privilege for granted, and we're working hard to do better moving forward."
Bell, who plays Molly Tillerman on Apple TV+'s animated musical series Central Park, also posted a message on her Instagram page stepping down from her role.
"This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity," Bell wrote in her statement. "Casting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience."
Bell also posted a statement from the creative team producing Central Park, which expressed regret. But co-creator Loren Bouchard had a different response in January, when he was asked at a press conference about casting male actors Daveed Diggs and Stanley Tucci as women and he went on to talk about Bell's role.
"Kristen needed to be Molly," Bouchard said then. "We couldn't make Molly white, and we couldn't make Kristen mixed race, so we just had to go forward."
Critics have long cast a skeptical eye at the practice of casting men as women and white actors as non-white characters, especially in animation. Such actions have the practical effect of reinforcing Hollywood's damaging tendency to elevate male performers over women and white performers over people of color.
Slate promised in her Instagram post to work dismantling such dynamics in the future. "Ending my portrayal of Missy is one step in a lifelong process of uncovering the racism in my actions," she wrote.
Slate has already recorded her parts for Big Mouth's fourth season, which has not yet debuted on Netflix. Bell's performance is featured in Central Park's first season, now dropping new episodes each Friday on Apple TV+.