[originally published on June 29 2020]
I saw that recently Alison Brie declared she regrets voicing Diane Nguyen in Bojack Horseman; as a person with Asian origins, I wanted to give my two cents on the matter and how the character of Diane resonated with me.
reading time: 8 minutes
I want to start by saying a couple of things:
I immensely enjoyed Bojack Horseman; the emotional depth of the series, the humor and everything. I think everyone, including Alison Brie and Raphael Bob-Waksberg did a great job on it. I’ll add that I also loved Raphael’s book, Somebody Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory.
Secondly I’ll say that I am not in or from the US, so I am definitely seeing the issues of whitewashing and related matters from a different point of view and from afar.
I have reflected on this in the past weeks and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is an important factor that doesn’t get much attention, since both the entertainment industry and the reporting on those matters are prevalently US based and not everything culturally transfers well. This is not to say there is no racism or xenophobia in Italy obviously, but the issues are very different. It might also mean that I could get things wrong or not understand them well since I am far away.
Third and last, and following from the point before, I honestly find puzzling the fact that Asian people are defined as ‘people of color’. I didn’t put much attention to it until now by reading Alison’s post (again, due to the fact that I’m not in the US), but it sounds a little backwards as a definition to me: are people of color all people but white caucasians? then why clumping all together except them? Doesn’t this reinforce the idea of two “classes”? Isn’t putting together the different experiences and issues of Black people, Asian people, Latin Americans etc together belittling to the diversity of them?
I’d rather talk about different ethnicities than clumping together “whites” and “people of color”; there are people with a “white” ethnicity and people with an “asian” ethnicity, and so on, neither better than any other…But let’s get back on track.
I have read Raphael’s twitter thread on the matter and its links, and I wanna start by saying I found and appreciated a nuanced approach to the issue.
[update: Raphael’s twitter account has somehow been deleted, so I can’t link to the thread anymore]
“I also make some unforced errors there, like saying about the conception of Diane, "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," which is a very ignorant way to talk about a WOC, real or fictional!
— Raphael Bob-Waksberg (@RaphaelBW)
Specifically, two things really caught my eye; this is from his first interview about the matter for Uproxx (emphasis mine) :
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.
I find this matter of a vicious cycle of asian actresses not having experience interesting.
Honestly I don’t have any good solutions for it, but it makes me think about the fact that casting decisions are not only affecting the specific show they are about, but instead the issues are more interconnected than one might initially think (as I pretty much always find in any matter).
If Diane was voiced by an Asian actress of the caliber of Alison Brie, it would have been awesome; seeing Alison’s great work though it’s hard to criticise it, and I don’t think she made an insensitive or racist portrayal of the character; as an Asian viewer, I am glad Diane was the way she was.
Secondly, this part from the Slate Interview:
For a long time, because we cast a white actress to play Diane, I was afraid of this conversation happening. And because of that, we really downplayed her race and her cultural heritage. We’ve treated her basically like a white woman because I didn’t want to have a white woman playing an overtly Asian character, because that felt somehow more wrong to me.And now I feel the opposite. We did a complete disservice to the character by making her so white. Obviously what white-coded means is subjective, and there are Asian women who relate to Diane and I don’t want to discount their experiences. But I do think we have avoided stories that could have been more interesting because of my own fear and guilt about the casting.And [that fear] has had an additionally problematic effect: Because I wasn’t thinking of Diane as an Asian character first, I didn’t feel the need to hire Asian writers, and that is a responsibility that I should have felt much earlier. So that is something I regret as well.
Now, I see this as a problem with no solution, somehow a catch-22, and I’ll get to my opinion on the whole issue.
I have Asian origins: my father is Chinese, my mother isn’t; I was born in Italy, never lived in China, don’t speak Chinese. Now that I think about it I don’t even sure i I can properly address myself as Asian. Of course, my situation isn't exactly the same as Diane’s. But Diane’s story really resonated with me.Because the thing is that Asian people, second generation immigrants and so on, all have different stories.
Well, all people have a unique story, asian, white, black, you name it. So on one hand, not one interpretation of Diane can encompass the whole picture: if you portray her as a woman deeply integrated in western culture, you leave out people who have stronger ties to their asian roots. If you portray her as a woman who identifies herself as Vietnamese, you may sound stereotypical and you might leave out the meaningful experiences of people who don’t feel Asian even though they have Asian origins.
In Season 5, Diane goes back to Vietnam to “find herself”; in that episode I found myself. I empathised with her experience as a woman immersed in people who look like you but to which you find very little in common. It was the same thing I felt when in Hong Kong, where I have relatives to whom I cannot even speak to since some of them don’t speak English.
You walk around in a city in which you look like you belong, but you don’t. You feel disconnected and foreign. But it’s not foreign like when you go on holiday to another country and you are a tourist, it’s a worse kind of foreign. It’s the kind of foreign that people might address you in their language by thinking you’re from there, but you are not, so you feel somehow wrong and broken. At times you almost feel guilty: “I should feel at home here!” On the other hand, in your own home, in which you where born and raised, you sometimes feel like a foreigner. I’m Italian, but at times people start talking in English to me, like I was from somewhere else. And it feels the opposite kind of wrong: “This is my home, why do you make me feel like it isn’t?” I feel have earned this as my home, and besides, it’s not like I have another one, because I sure as hell am not home in Hong Kong like I am in Italy.
I am not angry at the people who mistake me for Chinese and talk to me in English, because I understand they have the best intentions;One time a waiter did it to me on a date, I found it quite funny, but who knows whether the girl I was with found it funny in the same way, or if she was (understandably) put off by it…
In that episode of Bojack I felt cuddled, I felt like I wasn’t alone in this. If Diane had been portrayed as “more Asian” in the previous episodes maybe I would have connected to it less, who knows. I have read that a Vietnamese woman who was already working on the show was consulted about the whole episode, and I’m glad she was, not doing it and treating the matter superficially would have been a wrong move. But would it have been better to have Asian writers across the show for Diane? Or would it have been racist to relegate them to write about Asian people? Luckily I don’t work in that industry so having good answers for that is not even my job…
I will finish by saying that my opinion is that the purpose of Movies, TV Shows, Book and media is precisely this: you tell a story, which is not exactly right, which is not exactly true for anyone, but the story is bigger than that! Because feelings are bigger than our differences, because you can see yourself in Bojack even though you are not an anthropomorphized horse, because I can see myself in Diane even though I am not a woman with Vietnamese origins. And that’s why we, as humans, are moved by stories. I read or heard somewhere about how Bojack could go very deep emotionally precisely because on another level it is very disconnected from reality; if it had been live action, some of the themes would have felt grotesque.
As an outsider on the industry, I would rather strive more for a diverse participation of actors rather than a “forced” strict correspondence between characters ethnicities if it makes sense from other perspectives (as in, I would have no issue in pricipal about an Asian person voicing a white character).
Now this is not to say that diversity is not important, or that there aren’t and have been issues in portraying different ethnicities in media, but I think that the thing that matters the most is putting care in these decisions and not rush them in one way or the other: was it bad or good that Alison Brie voiced Diane?
Honestly, I think there is more than black or white to it.