Earlier this month, the creator of Netflix’s animated comedy BoJack Horseman, responded to a fan’s tweet asking why Diane Nguyen — a Vietnamese-American character — was voiced by white actress Alison Brie. The exchange was notable for a few reasons: Raphael Bob-Waksberg actually responded (rather than ignoring the criticism), he owned up to the problem (“[I]f I were doing it today, I would not cast the show (or any show) with all white people.”), and he offered to discuss it further in an interview — so we did.
“Since the beginning, I’ve been waiting for this conversation and thought about what I would say,” Bob-Waksberg told me over the phone. “It’s never come up in an interview before and I kept waiting for it to happen and it didn’t. I think part of that is because a lot of interviews I do are very friendly and no one wants to make it contentious or they feel like it’s a loaded topic. They think it could upset me and I don’t want to talk about it — and I understand that.”
As a fan of the series and as a person of color who is always searching for (and writing about) representation on television, there is perhaps some truth to this; I’m not sure I would have asked if we were doing a generic season-preview interview. But even that ties into my race: I’ve been called “over-sensitive” or “nitpicky” while covering diversity, which can make me hesitant to bring it up sometimes. But it isn’t just up to journalists. If he thought this topic was important, I ask, then why didn’t he didn’t start the conversation himself? To Bob-Waksberg’s credit, he doesn’t mince words: “Maybe because I’m a coward,” he responds. “Up until last week, I thought, Well if it’s not going to come up, it’s not going to come up.”
Throughout our conversation, Bob-Waksberg goes through the different ways he’s thought about this over the last few years. “For a while I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be the one having this conversation. Maybe it’s better if other people are talking about the show — people of color, people who have lived experience, people who can actually talk about this more eloquently than I can. Maybe it’s better for me to just make the show and try to listen to what people are saying and adjust [accordingly],” he explained. “But more and more I feel like this is my show and these are decisions that I’ve made and it’s my responsibility to talk about them even if it’s going to be awkward and even if it’s going to feel weird for me… I think it’s worth talking about and I feel like my silence can be read as ‘There’s not a problem here’ and I’m not comfortable with that anymore.”
What’s also tough, he admits, is that it’s difficult to talk about BoJack Horseman because it’s still happening. Bob-Waksberg compares it to Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, a 2015 film in which Emma Stone plays an Asian character. “If I’m Cameron Crowe, it’s easy to say now Well, I wouldn’t have done that, because that’s over.” It’s harder to denounce a project that’s still ongoing, and with Alison Brie still cast. “I don’t want to talk about it in a way that hurts or distracts from the show.”
But, ultimately, it became clear that Bob-Waksberg had to say something and had to engage in this conversation. For one, the casting problems go beyond just Diane. There are other non-white characters voiced by white actors, such as Latina executive Angela Diaz (Anjelica Huston) and Princess Carolyn’s assistant Laura (Rachel Bloom). (As for Todd Chavez, who I assumed was Latino and white-passing, it’s a weirder issue. Bob-Waksberg ‘fessed “up to [his] own stupidity” and admitted it’s not something he’s thought about. Todd’s named after a middle school friend with the same last name — ”I’m a dumb white guy; it never occurred to me until after the show came out that [my friend] might have been Latino” — but he never thought of Todd as a Latino character, though is now hesitant to say Todd is white “because I don’t want to put off anyone who’s related to his Latino-ness.”)
This conversation is also necessary because it’s part of a larger problem in animation. There’s a long history of whitewashing: The Simpsons’ Apu (which comedian Hari Kondabolu skillfully explored through the simultaneous perspective of an Indian-American and a Simpsons fan in his documentary The Problem With Apu), King of the Hill’s Kahn (a show I only recently watched, and loved, but was completely thrown off by the casting) to Rick and Morty casting Susan Sarandon to play “Dr. Wong,” a character that writer Jessica Gao specifically wrote to increase Asian representation on the show (Gao and Dan Harmon now have a podcast about race and writing called Whiting Wongs).
While ruminating on these characters, both on his show and others, Bob-Waksberg talks about color-blind, or “non-traditional,” casting, which is when a work is cast without thought to an actor’s race. It’s a method that has been proven to work in live action— Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s diversity feels both unique and natural while the most famous example is perhaps Grey’s Anatomy. Shonda Rhimes didn’t specify ethnicities in her pilot script, allowing actors to audition for a wide range of parts, and then bending those characters to fit the actors — such as adding Cristina Yang’s last name after Sandra Oh was cast. But color-blind casting has its problems. As Angelica Jade Bastién wrote in The Atlantic, color-blind casting isn’t sustainable because it “neither addresses the systemic problems that exist behind the camera nor does it compel Hollywood to tell more racially aware stories.” When you cast without thought to race, you can end up with a diverse cast; cast without thought to diversity, and you can end up with a whole lot of white people.