After years of criticism, producers of The Simpsons have announced that white actors will stop playing people of color on the show. According to a statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, “Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have White actors voice non-White characters.”
As the longest-running primetime scripted series in television history, The Simpsons hasn’t always aged gracefully. Springfield’s white main characters may live in a multicultural neighborhood, but the cast has never reflected that diversity. In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu released The Problem With Apu, a documentary about representation of marginalized groups. It studied the issue through the lens of character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the stereotypically Indian-American Kwik-E-Mart owner voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. The show’s on-air response — a half-assed conversation about a censored book — wasn’t just unfunny, it was a bad-faith interpretation of Kondabolu’s critique.
By the end of 2018, producers of The Simpsons seemed to be in public disagreement about the direction of BIPOC characters generally and Apu in particular. One producer, Adi Shankar, crowdsourced solutions to “the Apu problem,” before giving up and announcing that Apu would be written off the show. This was refuted by creator Matt Groening, who insisted that “We love Apu,” and “We’re proud of Apu.”
But even so, the character all-but disappeared. Then earlier this year, Azaria himself weighed in, saying he “won’t be doing [Apu’s] voice anymore,” while calling for more “inclusion in the writer’s room.” In its slow way, The Simpsons seemed to have settled on a course — at least, in regards to Apu. But other characters of color continued to speak in white voices. Until the announcement today, Azari still played Carl Carlson and Officer Lou, both Black, as well as the Latinx Bumblebee Man. Furthermore, Harry Shearer voices the Black character Dr. Hibbert, and as THR points out, Tress MacNeille has voiced a variety of non-white characters over the years.
The Simpsons decision to invest in a more diverse cast comes as other mature cartoons also wrestle with representation. Today, Family Guy actor Mike Henry announced he would no longer voice the role of Cleveland. Earlier this week, Jenny Slate left Big Mouth and Kristen Bell stepped down from a part in Central Park so that Black actors could voice those mixed-race characters.