The Dub Conundrum

As white actors step back from voicing nonwhite characters, where does that leave their international counterparts?

(clockwise from top left) The Simpsons’ Carl, Family Guy’s Cleveland, Central Park’s Molly, and Big Mouth’s Missy were all recast in their U.S. versions, leaving the shows’ international dubs to decide whether to follow suit. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Fox, Netflix and Apple TV/YouTube
(clockwise from top left) The Simpsons’ Carl, Family Guy’s Cleveland, Central Park’s Molly, and Big Mouth’s Missy were all recast in their U.S. versions, leaving the shows’ international dubs to decide whether to follow suit. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Fox, Netflix and Apple TV/YouTube
(clockwise from top left) The Simpsons’ Carl, Family Guy’s Cleveland, Central Park’s Molly, and Big Mouth’s Missy were all recast in their U.S. versions, leaving the shows’ international dubs to decide whether to follow suit. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Fox, Netflix and Apple TV/YouTube

Yasmine Modestine has kept the recordings of the threats on her computer for more than a decade. She describes a typical one: “A dubbing director called one night, around midnight, saying they were coming [to] beat the hell out of me.” The threats are “incredible,” says the actor and musician. But they are only one expression of her ostracism from the voice acting profession in France.

While dubbing a show in 2007, Modestine was told by the dubbing director that, being mixed-race, she lacked the right voice to play white characters. The remark prompted her to speak out about double standards in the industry, where white actors routinely voice characters of other races. Her comments resulted in an inquiry by the French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission — and hostility from many colleagues. The commission partially backed Modestine, agreeing that “persistent prejudices” exist in French dubbing while absolving the director of an illegal act of discrimination. After that, the offers of work dwindled. “I’ve been boycotted,” says Modestine.

In June of 2020, white actors started to decouple themselves from characters of color on major animated series in the U.S. Jenny Slate went first, announcing that she would no longer voice Missy in Netflix’s Big Mouth. Kristen Bell and Mike Henry followed suit, walking away from Molly in Apple’s Central Park and Cleveland in Family Guy respectively; meanwhile, the showrunners of The Simpsons declared that white actors would no longer voice “nonwhite characters.” On the surface, this looked like a distinctly American response to a vividly American problem: A shift in Hollywood power dynamics, however slight, would salve a society reckoning with its structural racism after this summer’s killing of George Floyd. When Bell stepped down, she explicitly framed her decision in terms of the national discourse: “Casting a mixed race character w/a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race & Black American experience.”

But America doesn’t have a monopoly on inequality, and Modestine’s case reminds us that the role of voice casting has already been evoked in this context elsewhere. As protests for racial justice spread across the world this summer, my mind turned to the dubs of those four animated shows. If the Black Lives Matter movement resonates with societies abroad, might the casting changes in the U.S. set a precedent elsewhere?

Peter Musäus, the German voice of Black power plant worker Carl in The Simpsons, has never discussed the matter of race in voice casting with colleagues. “I think that the only thing that matters is that the voice fits the character,” says Musäus, who is white. “If you focus on the subject of race, it also has to be a Chinese actor dubbing a Chinese character, the same for Native Americans, Latin, and the characters in Bollywood movies need Indian actors.”

Another white German actor, who often dubs characters of color and is on the German cast of one of the four shows in question, elaborates on this point. The actor, who speaks on condition of anonymity, had not “given much thought” to the race of their characters before the casting changes were announced in the U.S. This is partly “due to the fact that there are only a few Black or mixed-race actors in Germany who work mainly as dubbing actors,” they say. “Of course they can’t cover all Black actor roles.”

The subject is equally new to Gérard Surugue, the French voice of Cleveland in Family Guy. Before we spoke, Surugue — who is also white — was unaware of Henry’s resignation. “I hadn’t heard about it and I haven’t discussed it with my colleagues [on the dub],” he says. Surugue understands Henry’s decision: “All credit to him. But I don’t pay attention to the character’s color — I adapt to the original voice.”

The color-blindness espoused by Musäus and Surugue is a matter of national policy in their countries. France’s Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires, or Representative Council of Black Associations, told The New Yorker in 2014 that it estimated the country’s Black population to be anywhere between 1 and 6 million (i.e. between 1.5 and 8.8 percent of the total population). In Germany, the equivalent estimate is around 1 million (1.2 percent of the population). But estimates are all they are: neither country collects official statistics on race and ethnicity. This policy, which most Western European countries share, is supposed to combat racism by denying race as a legitimate demographic category. But it can end up obscuring inequality by frustrating efforts to quantify it.

This isn’t lost on the British-born Kester Lovelace, who has built a prolific career as a voice artist in Paris. He’s on the board of the French nonprofit Les Voix, which issues best-practice guidelines on matters ranging from salary negotiations to sanitary conditions in the pandemic, but on racial inequality it is silent. “[Race in voice casting is] not something we have talked about,” admits Lovelace, who is white, adding that he sees diversity as crucial to the group’s survival.

Of Les Voix’s 229 listed members, the number of Black voice artists can be counted on one hand. That’s a crude measure of diversity in the profession. In a country that doesn’t like to count this kind of thing, it will be hard to obtain a more accurate picture of representation in voice acting, and the subject will resist definition. “There’s a lot of French people who think this is an American problem,” says Lovelace. “The French are very proud of their republican revolutionary tradition, whereby equality means equality … The trouble is, people don’t like it in France when they’re told, ‘I’m sorry, but racism exists.’”

Each society talks to itself differently about race, but myths of racial harmony recur everywhere. Jorge Lucas, who voices Carl in the Brazilian Portuguese dub of The Simpsons, knows this from personal experience. “Here in Brazil, we don’t talk about race — we talk about color,” he says, drawing a distinction between the most egregious examples of racism in American history and the less overt (but no less real) prejudice he experiences as a Black man in Brazil. To Lucas, his country’s tendency to view itself as a melting pot is a “hypocrisy.” Nevertheless, it informs his own nuanced sense of identity: “I am Brazilian. I don’t see myself as different. I look on myself as ‘Afro-Brazilian.’”

More concretely, Lucas recognizes that Black Brazilians are under-represented in his industry. He estimates that no more than 40 out of 600 voice artists in Brazil are Black; this is in a country where 50.7 percent of the population identified as Black or mixed race in the most recent census (in 2010). Lucas illustrates his point with a reference to Marvel’s Black Panther. When the film, with its iconic cast of mostly Black actors, was released in Brazil, the dubbing artists were predominantly white. Lucas notes that many prominent Black actors — himself included — were already voicing a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as such were ruled out for the new characters. “It would be great if we had, in Brazil, a lot of Black actors [and voice artists],” says Lucas. “But it’s not the truth.”

Lucas’s comments call attention to an essential difference between voice acting in the U.S. and elsewhere. An American voice artist has many avenues of employment: animation, video games, commercials, audiobooks, what limited dubbing into English there is. Most large non-Anglophone markets do all this too, except that they dub prolifically. The influx of films and shows from Hollywood and elsewhere broadens the pool of Black and mixed-race characters: Missy and Molly, Morgan Freeman and Letitia Wright, all need a new voice. When actors of color are disproportionately few to begin with, this risks entrenching the convention of assigning white actors to characters of color.

The process of casting a major role in a dub varies according to the character, production, and territory, but it typically involves some combination of the dubbing director, who finds candidates through casting calls or their network of contacts; the local broadcaster/distributor; and the show’s producers and directors. (The producers of the four animated shows in question declined or didn’t respond to requests for comment.) It’s often a multi-stage, decentralized process, so when there’s systemic inequality in the industry, it isn’t always clear where the accountability lies.

Melissa Garcia knows she has some power to effect change. Garcia, who is white, is a prominent voice director in Brazil, working mostly with original casts for local animated shows. As such, she tends to work directly with the producers and directors, to whom she presents a list of candidates for each role. Some years ago, she realized with dismay that her casts were overwhelmingly white, and resolved to change that. Her first move was to create a quota: for all characters (of any race) on her shows, she ensured that at least 30 percent of shortlisted actors were Black. But, she says, “they were not getting cast.” So she changed tack and started proposing only Black actors for Black characters.

This policy led her to the next challenge: finding enough Black actors to fill those lists. The dearth of established Black voice artists in Brazil is “ridiculous,” says Garcia. “I don’t know what happens, but there’s a gap between getting the talents and the talents getting in touch with the right people … It’s this crazy structural thing, and it needs to change.” Moreover, she describes a new problem created by the pandemic, during which voice artists are increasingly expected to record from home. In this scenario, people who can afford high-quality equipment have an edge. As wealth is disproportionately concentrated in Brazil’s white population, Garcia fears that Black voice artists will now be at an even greater disadvantage.

While Garcia’s quotas are now being welcomed by her clients, they have irked some actors in the dubbing community. “They don’t really like the change,” she explains. “That’s what I hear the most when we’re discussing with voice artists, especially from dubbing — they’re very conservative.”

Even when there is agreement that voice acting should be more diverse, consensus over how to achieve this doesn’t always follow. In the U.S., the recent resignations have directly increased diversity in the industry (Missy and Molly have already been recast, with Ayo Edebiri and Emmy Raver-Lampman taking over respectively). Yet some, including actors of color, are concerned that the changes will set a precedent, siloing voice artists within their demographic categories. They invoke animation’s universality, arguing that the medium, which by its nature divorces voice from flesh, is uniquely suited to color-blind casting.

Can voices really be color-blind, or do Black voice artists bring something to these roles that white actors can’t? The departing actors danced around this question. “I am happy to relinquish this role to someone who can give a much more accurate portrayal,” wrote Bell, while a statement attributed to her and her show’s “creative team” pledged “to cast a Black or mixed-race actress and give Molly a voice that resonates with all of the nuance and experiences of the character as we’ve drawn her.” Slate kept it similarly ambiguous: “Black voices must be heard.”

Outside the guarded language of media statements, the idea of a “Black voice” has long inspired fierce debate. Satirized in films such as BlacKkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You, caricatured in the “blaccents” of celebrities like Awkwafina and Iggy Azalea, and famously contested in the O.J. Simpson trial, it remains ill-defined, a catch-all term for notions of vocal timbre, accent, and dialect. April Reign, the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, argues that Black voice artists bring a certain life experience that informs their performance of a Black character. Meanwhile, anecdotes about Black voice artists being asked by white directors to play “Blacker” suggest that the notion of color in voice is, at least in part, a white construct.

While carrying implications for voice casting in general, this debate poses a special conundrum for the dubbers of the recently affected shows. The voice artists I speak to say they don’t adapt their performance to a character’s race. Yet, time and again, they tell me they are guided by the original voice when dubbing. So what happens when the original voice becomes that of a Black or mixed-race person? Does it audibly change? If so, is that difference translatable — and by a white actor? Or does the dubber’s interpretation of the character’s visible traits — age, gender, health, and so on — trump any need to be faithful to the original voice?

These questions address the very purpose of dubbing, but that doesn’t mean the industry is comfortable answering them. I contacted ten dubbing studios that work on one of the four animated series, asking them about their work in the context of this year’s debates about race; only one agreed to speak on the record. “Dubbing often stays under the radar, and if people talk about it, it is because something went wrong there,” says Thomas Wolfert, CEO of TV+Synchron in Berlin (which records the German dub of Big Mouth). “If our results do not attract attention, we understand that the viewer consumed it naturally without giving a thought if it was dubbed or not. And that is our intention.” Wolfert’s stance is understandable — of course we want a smooth localization — but it risks further obscuring the picture of representation in the industry. Voice artists, unseen in any case, are made doubly invisible by the process of translation.

No two societies are identical, and the recent casting changes in Hollywood will hold varying relevance overseas; each country has to decide for itself what representation means in its context, and how that can be expressed in voice casting. But talk precedes change, and for that to happen, the barriers to debate — ranging from the well-meant self-effacement of dubbing directors to violent intimidation — must fall.

The Dub Conundrum