Benedict Spence

The sad decline of The Simpsons

The sad decline of The Simpsons
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In the latest episode of 'Americans Do the Funniest Things,' it has emerged that The Simpsons is to replace the white voice actor for the character of Dr. Julius Hibbert with a black actor. 

Hibbert, for those who don’t know him, is a mainstay of the show — a family doctor recognised by his white lab coat, gentle manner and signature chuckle. He is perhaps the least offensive character, despite being a Republican, a suspected morphine addict, and a member of Mensa, who revised his official position on the safety of binge eating after buying a 12 per cent stake in an all-you-can-eat restaurant, and who won’t conduct unethical procedures himself, but is more than happy to give you the number of a doctor who will. 

Over the years, The Simpsons has had an interesting relationship with racial stereotypes — often wrong-footing the assumptions of the era: a character with Hibbert’s traits would almost certainly have been cast as white in any other show. But then if you were a fan, you’d know this show was never lazy — its other major black character, nuclear technician Carl Carlson, despite his flaws, is, like Hibbert, the only capable professional in his line of work. The Simpsons' only Jewish character, meanwhile, Herschel 'Krusty the Clown' Krustofsky, is wildly successful despite being desperately unfunny (at least, when he tries). The Simpsons knows all about America’s views on its minorities, and loves to poke fun at those prejudices.

But of course, any show that acknowledges that race is a factor in American life is liable to be attacked before others for drawing attention to itself. And The Simpsons' has been here before. Harry Kondabolu's documentary on the character of Apu, the Indian-American owner of the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store, resulted in the removal of the white voice actor who played the part, Hank Azaria. 

The logic was that white actors shouldn’t be allowed to depict the 'lived experiences' of groups to which they don’t belong. What’s more, they shouldn’t be taking paid acting jobs from minorities. It’s a strange time to be in the profession — though this famously liberal industry would never admit it.

While white actors must not take on roles that are too dissimilar from their own lives, we've also witnessed the rise of 'colour-blind' casting in shows like Bridgerton. A black woman must be allowed to portray Anne Boleyn, for instance - to do so makes an important statement about the inclusivity of the present vs the exclusivity of history. Accuracy matters little when the politics is right on.

The same professional minefield surrounds sexuality on screen. Woe betide a straight man cast as a gay character, say, who cannot possibly know the struggles such a person has undergone. The nonsense of all this, of course, is that we’re talking about acting - a profession that, in its essence, is about convincingly embodying another person's experience. 

Replacing Dr Hibbert’s actor with a person of colour will neither add to the character nor detract from it — the show’s writers wouldn’t have dared pick someone whose voice differed too greatly from original actor Harry Shearer’s, so established is the role. But it erects barriers in a profession where artistic freedom ought to be at the centre of how business is conducted.

US viewing figures for the Simpsons have steadily declined over the years from just under 15 million in 2001 to 3.1 million in 2019. The Simpsons somehow stumbles on decades after its launch precisely because, all those years ago, artistic freedom created a masterpiece of pop culture. If it stops being able to poke fun at the society that engendered it then fans will continue to switch off.