Have you been listening to Welcome to Night Vale? If not, you should be. It’s a podcast done in the style of a community radio program that centers around a desert town where some truly strange stuff happens. And it’s fantastic.
Lately, though, there’s been a bit of strife in the WtNV fan community. Fan art has exploded in popularity, which is great, but it’s showing some disturbing trends that are not so great. Central to this controversy is one of the common depictions of the show’s narrator, Cecil. Cecil is often drawn as a blond white guy, tall and thin, most often in a sweater vest and tie, and often with a third eye, moving tattoos, and tentacles. Yup. So you might ask, what’s the problem? Isn’t that how he’s described? Well, no. He’s not described at all. The most description provided in canon for Cecil is that he’s “not tall or short, not thin or fat.” That’s it. And from that, a common fan consensus seems to be that he’s a white guy. Why is that a problem? Can’t people be allowed to have their own “headcanons,” or ideas of what the character looks like? Well, yeah. But we should really examine why it is that we “default to white” when not provided with evidence that explicitly contradicts that. Why is it, when given no physical description, that a character should be assumed white? Especially from a show that takes place in a desert town (where, based on demographics, Cecil is just as likely to be Native American, Mexican, or Asian as he is to be white), in an in-show universe that gives us a vast diversity of ethnic names and descriptions of other characters.
An argument that’s come up quite a lot in defense of White Cecil is that his voice actor, Cecil Baldwin, is white. Cecil Baldwin (the actor) is not the same person as Cecil (the character). Cecil Baldwin seems like a delightful guy. His Facebook page identifies him as an actor/director living in New York City who has an impressive list of theater credits. Based on that, I think it’s safe to say that Cecil the character is not meant to be a 1:1 representation of Cecil Baldwin the actor, since Cecil the character doesn’t live in New York City or have a resume full of stage acting. Cecil Baldwin often posts fan art that he likes to his Facebook page, and he’s posted several depictions of Cecils of color, and had this to say about how he pictures Cecil the character:
So why are so many people “defaulting to white” in regards to Cecil the character’s appearance? Because if it’s because his voice actor is white, consider:
-Bart Simpson (10-year-old boy) is voiced by Nancy Cartwright, a woman in her 50s.
-Patrick the starfish (a pink starfish) from Spongebob Squarepants is voiced by Dauber from Coach (a 56-year-old white guy).
-Batman (a white guy in his early 30s in Beware the Batman) is currently voiced by Hawaiian-born Anthony Ruivivar, who identifies his background as Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, Scottish, and German.
-On The Venture Brothers, Dr. Girlfriend (a bombshell Jackie O-esque white woman with dark hair and blue eyes) is voiced by Doc Hammer, a skinny white guy in his 40s.
-In Justice League, Martian Manhunter (a nearly 7’ tall green-skinned Martian shapeshifter of unknown age) is voiced by Carl Lumbly, a Black man in his 60s.
-The voice actor for Kevin in Welcome to Night Vale (SPOILER: you know, Cecil’s Desert Bluffs double?) is Kevin R. Free. This is him:
So, “His voice actor is white!” isn’t an argument that really holds any credibility. Lots of voice actors voice characters that are physically incredibly different looking than the actor. What we really need to be examining here is why, as a group of fans and as a society, we’re so quick to accept that an undescribed character is white unless someone specifically tells us otherwise. There’s an underlying current of racism that requires us to be outright told that a character is a person of color, and if not, the character is just assumed to be white. There’s no way anyone can try to make an argument that we’re a “post-racial” or “colorblind” society when we still default to white for undescribed characters.