The year 2020 will be one of the most memorable years of the 21st century. It was just over two months after COVID-19 came to the US when the entire world saw a US cop kill a black citizen, George Floyd, in cold blood. Unable to fathom the sight of this, the world changed. People started to protest peacefully, and across the country and even across the world, creating what we now know as the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement (Altman, 2020). Everyone wanted to do their part to push forward with change, and with one incredibly striking reason, this also included members of the entertainment industry who have been a part of the problem, this reaction has varied slightly in its appearance, but hiding the history is too simple an answer.
History — The use of blackface became popular in 1830 and after the US Civil War “as white performers played characters that demeaned and dehumanized African Americans,” with skin painted black, “enlarged lips and other exaggerated features” (Clark, 2019). Blackface can be dated back to Shakespearean times but was brought to the US as “blackface minstrel shows—which became central to American entertainment” by the 19th and early 20th century; these shows “perpetuated a range of negative stereotypes […] being lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, criminal or cowardly” (Clark, 2019). “African Americans also performed in blackface given it was the only way to” to act or to counteract the industry largely “dominated by white actors” (Clark, 2019). The use of blackface started to decline in the 1930s (Clark, 2019) but can be seen in various contexts as latest as 2020.
A growing backlash has come from the audience side of this issue, as well as from actors, television and film creators and producers, and even streaming services. When analyzing the entertainment industry’s reaction to the death of George Floyd in May of 2020, it can be seen that its members were already making reparations for the use of blackface in entertainment. In 2018, actor Hank Azaria said that he would be “‘perfectly willing and happy’ to stop voicing Apu on ‘The Simpsons,’” in response to years of backlash toward the character including a documentary (IMDB, 2017, Jensen, 2018). And in January of 2020, Azaria retired from voicing Apu after 30 years, sharing with the Times that “[H]e based the character off the 1968 film “The Party” – where Peter Sellers wore brownface to portray an Indian actor […] explaining that he was unaware of the racial insensitivity of Sellers’ performance at the time. ‘There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting.’” (Henderson, 2020).
By June of 2020, the creators of “‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Family Guy,’ ‘Big Mouth’ and ‘Central Park’” announced that all characters of color will now be voiced by actors of color, as the original actors have recently “stepped down” (Flook, 2020, Trepany, 2020). “In me playing ‘Missy,’ I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.” shared the ‘Big Mouth’ actor Jenny Slate, “Ending my portrayal of ‘Missy’ is one step in a life-long process of uncovering the racism in my actions.” (Trepany, 2020). This change was an act that followed a number of other creators who started to edit or remove episodes of their shows, and streaming services that started to take actions with removals or context warnings (Dessem, 2020). For example, Disney+ has started its “Stories Matter” campaign with eleven partnering organizations to add context warnings to its platform (The Walt Disney Company, n.d.).
Status Quo — In analyzing the entertainment industry’s reaction to the BLM movement and the history behind blackface, it can be seen that the members of the industry used deductive reasoning to place their focus on the use of blackface in entertainment. The logical conclusion to the US origin of blackface would be to address issues that have been born out of the use of blackface as these depictions can perpetuate stereotypes that were created to dehumanize black US citizens. In looking at the death of George Floyd, in addition to many others and the rise of the BLM movement, negative stereotypes and targeted police profiling have come to the forefront of many conversations. When making claims to address how blackface is involved, people have brought attention to the various forms: the 19th- and 20th-century styles, or via mud masks, extensive tanning, and cartoon characters of color being portrayed by white actors. All of which, as of 2020, have come to be seen as immoral and in need of attention.
With this, the entertainment industry’s reaction can be regarded as an ethical appeal toward virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology. The “Simpsons” character Apu was already taking heat for its stereotyping from audiences and this is a virtue-based argument to urge Azaria to be respectful toward people of color. Azaria fully understood this and chose to retire from the character, showing that his values reflect the audiences’ as he took full responsibility. Following the logical conclusion, members of the entertainment industry have realized the consequences of their actions as they have perpetuated stereotypes and, as Slate worded, “engaging in an act of erasure of Black people” in the industry (Trepany, 2020). Despite most actions having the intended ends of entertainment, centuries of negative consequences cannot alter the context of something immoral to something satirical and/or in disregard of skin colors. In deontology, all members industry are overtly following a BLM-rooted rule that can be summarized in two words, change and acknowledgement; where this acknowledgement lies is the only point that differs as some members are choosing to recast, re-edit, or remove actors, episodes, entire shows, and movies.
Opinion — With this issue, the largest point of conflict can be seen from those in the industry in what appropriate change and acknowledgement looks like. In the active case of the characters in “The Simpsons,” “Big Mouth,” and other shows, this rule can be seen directly on social media and in the news on large media networks such as the Times and USA Today, in addition to various other television show and movie creators. Whereas, streaming services have only been reported on in their show/episode removals as others have noticed certain disappearances, and similarly in the instances of warnings before, or in the description of, TV shows and movies. Differing views largely revolve around what the right course of action would be to follow the rule of change and acknowledgement:
Certain advantages can be granted to actors like Hank Azaria, who enacted change and acknowledgement toward his actions before the rise of the BLM movement. Although Azaria was facing social punishment in a similar light as the rest of entertainment faced after the death of George Floyd, Azaria’s retirement can be seen as a concern for restorative justice as he shared the character’s dicey origin and his own guilt in the matter.
After May of 2020, many other actors, creators, and streaming services gave similar concerns but unlike Azaria and the creators behind “The Simpsons” (et al.), these industry members had exponentially less time to react to audience insights. Azaria and “The Simpsons” creators received years, if not decades, of backlash on the Apu character, including a documentary called “The Problem with Apu” created by an Indian comedian (IMDB, 2017). And through this feedback they were able to address the situation with certainty that they were following the needs of the audience. The concern for restorative justice, with audience feedback, that can be outlined in this case could be considered to be the most appropriate course of action for the BLM movement in the entertainment industry.
The demonstration of change and acknowledgement in streaming services can be seen as either removing entire shows or movies or episodes, or with the addition of a warning before the content, voicing that there may be inappropriate actions in the program. In the case of removals, this could be categorized as retributive justice as streaming services are punishing those who have utilized blackface. As the entertainment industry could still be defined as being “dominated by white actors,” and as blackface leads to stereotyping, dehumanization, and the “erasure of Black people” on television, streaming services have shown that they have decided to erase productions with blackface from their services (Clark, 2019, Trepany, 2020). Very similar to “cancel culture” in the public media, these services appear to be looking to forego certain aspects of history altogether as a means to penalize the agency of entertainers and their past actions.
All services are different but various services can be identified as being confused with their decisions with the BLM-rooted rule. For instance, Disney+ is currently running a “Stories Matter” context warning campaign but the titles in question are not available on the “kids” content profiles, which can be pointed out to be a removal for a set age range. This point of erasure could be considered to be disadvantageous as children will not see the warning to then question the ethicacy of the situation for themselves. When, in reality, children are the audience of these context warnings. Adults are generally aware of the famously racist depictions in Disney Classics, such as the “homage to racist minstrel shows” in Dumbo, which is portrayed with a group of crows led by Jim Crow (the name of the first US minstrel show character, later the laws that worked to form segregation in the US) (Clark, 2019, The Walt Disney Company, n.d.).
Other examples of a confused value system today would be occurrences in which services have acknowledged certain productions but have overlooked others. For Disney+, this may include the active promotion of “The Simpsons” as a means to promote its assorted content since the streaming service launched its platform in the last couple of years.
In following the right course of action, the point that is most apparent to the audience of entertainment is from those who are confused in their values, which can turn into an acknowledgement that seems ingenuine to the BLM cause. Context warnings may be effective as a course of action but not in the example that can be seen with Disney+ as the act of education in the matter for children is not there. Similarly, removing productions from streaming services also acts as a moment in which children cannot learn for themselves that blackface has been used in entertainment for entirely longer than one would assume. The most appropriate form of change and acknowledgement for the entertainment industry can be seen with the case of “The Simpsons” (et al.) cartoons as the actors and creators looked to years of feedback they had received to create a plan that looks to meet the voiced needs of the audiences.
Coming from a public relations perspective, it would be extremely advantageous for Disney+ and the creators of “The Simpsons” (et al.) to work together to organize the ethical image of the show and the streaming platform. A documentary that illustrates the history of the use of blackface, in the context of decades of backlash “The Simpsons” creators faced with Apu and effort they have worked to recompense for the character, would show a genuine and an immense amount of effort toward the BLM movement. After the creation of which, Disney+ can promote both the documentary and “The Simpsons” (and the “The Problem with Apu” with permission) in conjunction with each other on its platform – and the newly-cast Apu character can be featured as a visual representation of commitment to the rule of change and acknowledgement.
A campaign such as this would help focus the confused image of Disney+, which is something that should be avoided at all costs when looking to restore the harm caused by the use of blackface and the prejudice consequences that have followed its history.
Altman, A. (2020, June 04). Why the killing of George Floyd sparked an American uprising. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://time.com/5847967/george-floyd-protests-trump/
Clark, A. (2019, February 15). How the history of blackface is rooted in racism. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/blackface-history-racism-origins
Dessem, M. (2020, June 30). Just how many recent shows featured blackface, anyway? Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://slate.com/culture/2020/06/blackface-tv-episodes-30-rock-scrubs-community-snl.html
Flook, R. (2020, June 26). Community: Netflix, Hulu pull episode Over blackface concerns. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://bleedingcool.com/tv/netflix-hulu-pull-community-episode-over-blackface-concerns/
Henderson, C. (2020, February 25). Why Hank Azaria won’t voice ‘the Simpsons’ controversial Apu: ‘it just didn’t feel right’. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2020/02/25/the-simpsons-hank-azaria-wont-voice-apu-anymore-heres-why/4873728002/
IMDB. (2017, November 18). The Problem with Apu. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7588752/
Jensen, E. (2018, April 25). Hank Azaria is ‘perfectly willing and happy’ to stop voicing Apu on ‘the Simpsons’. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/entertainthis/2018/04/25/hank-azaria-apu-simpsons/549012002/
The Walt Disney Company. (n.d.). Stories Matter. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://storiesmatter.thewaltdisneycompany.com/
Trepany, C. (2020, June 24). ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Family guy’ and more: White actors step down from non-white cartoon roles. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2020/06/24/big-mouth-jenny-slate-no-longer-voice-biracial-character-missy/3254465001/