Do the Recent Blackface and Voiceover Controversies Mean We Should Restrict Art?

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As citizens nationwide have taken the streets to march for change over centuries-long racial disparities, a re-reckoning of racial disparities in television and film is occurring.

The path of least resistance for many who have a sincere desire to better racial equality is to cheer on this development without question, but that escapes the harder questions that a critical view of the situation can bring. 

To refresh your memory, a number of voiceover actors these past two weeks have either voiced regret over playing non-white characters or agreed to step aside from non-white roles.

These include Alison Brie who voiced the half-Vietnamese Dianne Nguyen on BoJack Horseman; Jenny Slate who agreed to step down from voicing the half-black Missy on Big Mouth; and Mike Henry who agreed to step aside from the 20-year-old character of Cleveland on Family Guy.

Additionally, cancel culture has attempted to skewer actors and TV personalities such as Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.

In an extreme erasure of cultural artifacts that would ordinarily cause more vocal concern, episodes of Mr. Show, 30 Rock, and Scrubs have been banned from Netflix. 

Let's start with the issue of blackface.

To have a debate over the degree that blackface is properly offensive to the black community and the degree with which that should dictate our actions isn't cut and dry.

Symbolism isn't inherently bad or good but based on cultural standards rather than absolutes. 

Here's the thing: To agree that blackface is now wrong because of a cultural standard is to also acknowledge that such a cultural standard didn't exist as recently as five years ago.

From 2008 to approximately 2011, half-Venezuelan actor Fred Armisen played President Obama on Saturday Night Live and there was virtually no negative press about the incident. It was simply part of what was accepted as performance.

Robert Downey Jr

That same year, Robert Downey Jr. donned blackface in a satirical look at Oscar-bait performances in the film Tropic Thunder, and he similarly wasn't canceled. Instead, he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

To pretend that anyone was knowingly acting contrary to society's rules for any blackface performances that occurred over a decade ago is to be inconsistent in our judgment.

Megyn Kelly, who far fired from her show for questioning the current societal stance on blackface, made a salient point on Twitter that Robert Downey Jr. wore blackface and faced way more punishment than her for simply wanting to discuss it. 

The creative voices behind 30 Rock, Mr. Show, and Scrubs have all been responsible and socially-conscious voices that have provided much-needed satire in their work when it was called for.

If they wish to apologize, that's their prerogative, but no one should expect them to disown their work. 

As for the erasure of episodes, one has to wonder about the costs. HBO presented an equitable solution recently when it agreed to broadcast Gone with the Wind but with a four-minute intro added for context. 

In the Reagan era and before then with the National Legion of Decency among other institutions, cultural wars of a different sort were waged from the conservative end of the spectrum, ironically. 

Those cultural warriors wanted to prevent bad values from passing to the next generation's children.

Legion of Decency Tall

Though some might argue that preventing images with racist origins from being spread is nobler than characters who promote pre-marital sex or consumption of harmful substances.

Our cultural norms have changed for the better, perhaps, but that doesn't mean that the method of suppressing art is any worse of an idea.  

As for the idea of saying certain forms of art are only acceptable when they're created by the color of the person who creates them, that places a lot of limits on great art. 

The basis of this argument is that there are few opportunities for people of color as is.

Sean Penn Milk

If you look at the statistics, the Oscars, for example have nominated roughly the same percentage of black actors over the course of the 21st century as there are Black actors in America, and they are further diversifying their ranks every year.

Is it enough?

That's up for debate.

But the micro-scrutiny that dominates the press every year that the Academy Awards don't nominate enough people of color (to be expected if the voting body is truly granted free will to honor the best) is not necessarily accurate picture no matter how much this narrative dominates the headlines.

The Happy Couple - Schitt's Creek

At last year's Emmys, for examples five of the seven nominees for Best Comedy (Fleabag, Russian Doll, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Good Place) had female protagonists, one had an ethnic minority (the Jewish community), and one had an LGBT lead (Schitt's Creek).

Looking back an additional two years, shows with people of color or LGBT as lead or creators that have been recognized with Best Comedy nominations or Emmys include Atlanta, Master of None, Transparent, Black-Ish, and Glow.

This is to say nothing of the recognition on the dramatic end for American Crime Story: Giovanni Versace, The Handmaid's Tale (a show about the oppression by the patriarchy),  the continued accolades for Orange Is the New Black, Viola Davis winning the Emmy for How to Get Away with Murder, and the Asian-American lead of Killing Eve. 

This celebration extends far beyond rewards.

Intense Andrew- American Crime Story: Versace Season 1 Episode 8

A cursory glance at Rotten Tomatoes shows that the majority of TV critics (who often see boosting the work of marginalized groups as part of their job description) will give more of a chance to TV shows by minorities or LGBT voices than audiences will.

Master of None is ten points higher on Rotten Tomatoes with critics than audiences, Transparent is 12 points higher, Dear White People is 43 points higher, She's Gotta Have It is 12 points higher, and Awkwafina is Nora from Queens is 16 points higher

Diversity is a great thing and opponents of this shift in dogmatism like myself are largely overjoyed with shows featuring protagonists of different races or sexual orientations.

However, to overexaggerate the dearth in opportunities for people of color can present a bad course for our actions. 

Unless there is a massive dearth in storytelling opportunities, a philosophy that only people of color should tell stories of people of color limits art. It discourages the kind of exploration into other people's cultures and walking in other people's footsteps that's the point of art in the first place.

After all, if you were white and only made stories about white people, would that be saying anything about some of the most pressing issues of the day?

Let us acknowledge the past in the context of the past and push for a future filled with dialogue about these racial disparities and opportunities for all in exploring them. 

Orrin Konheim is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter and his personal blog at Medium.

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