As an Indian woman travelling to a whole new country for my education, I carried with me the excitement of getting to share my culture with people who had never experienced it, and the opportunity to talk about all our diversity from the traditions to the food.
While I did get to do all this and more, I also realised that quite often people were more captivated by something else entirely – the fact that I didn’t sound like Apu from The Simpsons, with someone even saying ‘I didn’t seem Indian’. Representation, it turns out, matters more than people realise.
The controversy of the South Asian character Apu from The Simpsons being voiced by a white man in a way that perpetuates stereotypes has been brewing for years. It finally reached its tipping point earlier this year, with Hank Azaria deciding to step down from all his roles that involved people of colour. In more recent months, the BLM movement has further pushed the conversation of the role the media industry plays in systemic racism, resulting in other white actors in the same position as Azaria to follow suit. Amongst them was Jenny Slate who stepped down from her role in the animated comedy Big Mouth and Kristen Bell who relinquished her character from Central Park both stating that persons of colour should play characters of colour.
Art has always found a way to replicate the silencing of oppressed groups within society by the erasure of their presence on screen
The significance of this movement towards better representation cannot be understated. People are only beginning to understand how important providing equal opportunity is in the steps toward a more equal world. From the era of men playing female characters in plays to movies now offering roles of minority ethnicities to white people, it becomes clear how art has always found a way to replicate the silencing of oppressed groups within society by the erasure of their presence on screen.
With the lack of enough representation on television, it often happens that the one character of colour holds the power to shape the perceptions towards an entire community – just as how at a certain time Apu became the single portrayal of what it meant to be an Indian in America. Hiring people of colour to voice characters of colour thus brings in the ability to have their stories told more accurately and for the negative stereotypes associated with their community to be erased. Equally if not more importantly, it encourages the investment into people of colour, values their art and appreciates their talent.
The conversation of representation has come a long way in the last couple of years. There has been massive progress in casting roles appropriately when it comes to LGBTQ+ characters, characters with disability and characters of different races when it comes to movies and television shows. With these more recent developments, the change is now being mirrored even when it comes to animated characters depicting the acknowledgement of the various levels in issues of representation. While there is still a long way to go, these changes certainly present a win in the fight against racism and hope for a future where stereotypical norms cease to exist and can be replaced with a better understanding of lived experiences.
Last modified: 28th July 2020