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.
With BoJack Horseman, Bob-Waksberg brings up the differences between animation and live action. “In live action, I would never dream of casting a non-person of color to play a person of color,” but “in animation, as we were casting the characters, it felt like we should not [do this] but also it felt like we could because it’s animation and it doesn’t matter,” he said. Referencing characters like Apu and Cleveland (from The Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, also voiced by a white guy), Bob-Waksberg explains that this “color bending” made him feel like “maybe it’s not a big deal and on the face of it anybody could play anything. There’s no reason BoJack couldn’t have been played by an Asian actor.” But, of course, the complaint isn’t that a horse is voiced by white Will Arnett, it’s that specifically non-white characters are voiced by white actors, effectively not awarding opportunities to people of color — which is certainly not the goal of color-blind casting.
“I think I used the idea of color-blind casting—[of] “It doesn’t really matter” — as an excuse to not pay attention. I just said, okay, let’s find good people for every role … But I think if you’re not paying attention, you’re going to end up with mostly white people just because that’s how our industry is set up,” he explained “If you want to go against that, you have to be active about it. You have to actively hire people of color. You have to actively think for every role: Can this be not a white person? If I’m not thinking about, it’s not going to happen.”
With regard to Diane Nguyen, the situation becomes complicated. When I reached out to Vietnamese friends and colleagues, and read Asian-American writers on the topic, many seemed to be conflicted. On the one hand, Diane is a wonderful character — she’s complex, she’s well-rounded, she’s not written as an Asian stereotype or someone who speaks in broken English. In short, she’s positive representation. But on the other hand, she’s voiced by a white actress which puts an asterisk on that representation, lessening some of the positive effects because it’s hard to ignore the voice behind it. Bob-Waksberg, who told me he “always tried to include one or two people of color” in his scripts because it was a great way to ensure representation, now admits that the problem with Diane is a “mix of those intentions.”
When writing the BoJack pitch, he knew Diane was “going to be a Vietnamese-American character. She is not going to be a cliché. She’s going to be a fully developed, three-dimensional character like any other. Second or third generation immigrant, if not more. She’s going to be fully American, her race is barely going to play a factor and she’s just going to be a person.” Before pitching to Netflix, they put together a pilot presentation with a different white actress. “I was so young and so green, I didn’t understand how much power I had,” Bob-Waksberg explained. “I didn’t have the courage to say ‘No, this has to be an Asian woman.” Part of it, he thinks, is because he was “so excited” for the show and the cast to come together, rather than thinking about what his “responsibility as a showrunner” was. Later on, Bob-Waksberg understood that responsibility a little more — after selling the pitch to Netflix, he admitted he didn’t “feel comfortable with this white woman playing Diane [and] I’d like to find an Asian actress” — but still not enough.
“It felt weird to me and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why,” he said, explaining how other people would say the casting didn’t matter, especially since Diane wasn’t a stereotype, and though he knew that it mattered, he “couldn’t quite articulate why — and I still wasn’t sure if I had the authority to be putting my foot down over this issue.” If this answer is frustrating — how easy it should be to figure out why it felt weird! — it’s because it comes off as a cop-out but throughout our interview, Bob-Waksberg does seem to be aware of this, too. “I think it’s a much cleaner narrative to say, I just didn’t get it then and now I get it. And then I can pat myself on the back and look really good. But the truth is, I kind of got it then.”
They auditioned a few Asian actresses but “couldn’t quite find what we were looking for,” citing Diane being a “very tricky role” and a “tall order for any actress” (and it doesn’t help that he wasn’t as experienced directing actors, and pushed the auditions in directions that didn’t work for Diane.) But he also brings up how there are “fewer Asian-American actresses out there who have the experience as some of these white actresses [because] they don’t have the opportunities,” (I point out this is a vicious cycle — BoJack Horseman is now a part of it — and he agrees, saying part of his mission is to cast more people of color to help them book more roles in the future.) They did cast one Asian actress as Diane, whom Bob-Waksberg doesn’t name, and recorded the first four episodes with her. Unfortunately, the actress then suddenly became unavailable due to another show she was signed up for. They scrambled to reach Netflix’s deadline and decided to open up auditions to white actresses, as well. Alison Brie nailed it and, well, now we’re here. And Bob-Waksberg has nothing but glowing words for Brie, saying, “part of my hesitation in talking about this is I don’t want to disparage her in any way because I think she’s brought so much of the character to life and she’s helped my understanding of the character. And I think in many ways, she’s the perfect person for this part. But I think there’s one very specific and one very important way in which she’s not the perfect person for this part.”
But the problem goes further than just Diane’s casting. In season one, Bob-Waksberg knew he couldn’t have a white person play “any character that felt like it was skirting the lines of a cliché or offensive, or had an accent” which meant that he cast Nick Gonzales and Horatio Sanz to play, according to their IMDb credits, “Cartel Man” and “Latin Kings Gang Leader.” In trying to avoid being offensive, he instead reinforced frustrating and negative stereotypes for people of color. “That’s shitty. That’s bad that I did that,” Bob-Waksberg recalled, and went on to say he brought back Gonzales in the fourth season to play non-stereotypical characters.
It’s also an issue behind-the-scenes. When talking with my friend and fellow critic, Indiewire’s Hanh Nguyen, she brought up the show’s jokes about mispronouncing “Nguyen,” wondering if they have someone Vietnamese vet the jokes about Diane. It’s telling that these mispronunciations slipped my mind. It speaks to the specificity that’s necessary in jokes about one’s race or culture — a specificity you get from having people of color write them. According to Bob-Waksberg on the writing process, “Most of it is, we just kind of go ahead [with these jokes] and hope it comes out OK — and I don’t think that’s right. A lot of those jokes in the first season, I wouldn’t make now.” As for the writers’ room, he said they’ve had Asian writers but “to be perfectly transparent, we’ve never had writers of East Asian descent. We’ve had two writers of South Asian descent, and that is something I would like to be better at.”
The question then becomes, how does a showrunner like Raphael Bob-Waksberg and a series like BoJack Horseman actively work to be better?
Bob-Waksberg is open about what he learned the last few years, saying he’s “come to realize that the appearance of diversity without true inclusion is not real representation.” He credits an episode of Slate’s Represent podcast with host Aisha Harris and guest Vulture’s Alex Jung with opening his eyes to the problems he’s a part of. In an interview with Indiewire, he brings up the Whiting Wongs podcast. Over the phone, he reads me two tweets from filmmaker Joyce Wu about Diane that have stuck with him, and helped him realize that this doesn’t just suck but it’s truly hurtful to people of color.
At the end of season three, he started crunching to numbers to find out the balance of lines spoken by white people vs. people of color. In the first season only 3% of lines were spoken by people of color. (“That’s dismal. There’s no way to spin that”). The second doubled that, and the third — in which they had started an initiative to “make sure every episode has a person of color in it” — was 9%. The fourth season crept up to 18% — better, but still not great, and he hopes to keep improving on that. (It certainly helps, we joke, that so many characters are non-human — a mouse can be voiced by anyone of any race.) He hopes that other white showrunners also examine what they could be doing better. And though he doesn’t want to tease too much about the upcoming season, Bob-Waksberg does reveal that they do focus more on Diane being Asian and brought in a consultant to talk about her own experience and look at the scripts. None of this erases the past problems or cancels out Diane’s casting, but it does show that it’s possible to learn, to do better, and to create art that doesn’t discount people of color.
“I really don’t want to create the appearance that my work is done, or that I’m a good guy,” says Bob-Waksberg, aware that the work is ongoing. “I just want to explain how I’ve noticed these problems and how I’m trying to fix them. I don’t think I can fix all of them, but I think we’re working on it.”