A reality star is the President of our country. Everyone’s favorite tv dad has been convicted of multiple sexual assaults. The Golden State Killer has finally been identified and arrested, and The Simpsons has finally been called out for their egregious stereotyping of the beloved Indian character Apu. People’s tolerance for misconduct is wearing thin and the line between reality and fantasy is beyond blurred. Whether you like it or not, change starts with people speaking up. It starts with awareness. Then what?
Now, many say that Apu has been offensive as a stereotype to many Indian-Americans since his introduction in 1990. It’s just that the world was “different back then” and there were few, if any, platforms where national discussions about race and representation were happening. I imagine this is why it was pretty easy for, the country, the industry, and the mostly white male Simpsons writers room to ignore. I have to be honest, growing up in a very white, protestant, homogenous, southern Vermont, I recognized the exaggerated accent but didn’t recognize it as potentially hurtful but more of a silly caricature. All of the characters were a little brash and ballsy it didn’t occur to me that I should be concerned or offended.
We are in a different headspace these days however, I would say (politics aside) that people are more encouraged to speak up against prejudice and take pride in their cultural assimilation. People are less tolerant of stereotypes and more supportive of the people they might directly affect. This specific issue was made much more pressing with the release of (first generation, Indian-American comic), Hari Kondabolu's documentary, The Problem With Apu, which aired on TruTV in November of last year. The documentary addresses Kondabolu's relationship to The Simpsons, a show he loves, as well as the character Apu, who he, consequently hates.
The movie spun out of a segment Kondabolu did for Totally Biased With Kamau Bell, where he described Apu's voice as, "A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father."
Kondabolu admits that The Simpsons “stereotype lots of characters but there was no shortage of other working class fathers and/or rich people on television in 80’s early 90’s to counter Homer Simpson and Montgomery Burns.” Sadly this is not the case with South Asian, Indian or Indian-American characters, especially at the time. For years, Apu was one of the most prominent Indian characters on prime time TV — a “mugging, persistent example of the derisive way many Americans viewed immigrants.” And in his film, Kondabolu describes asking a roomful of young, South Asian performers whether they got bullied by people who called them Apu, “nearly everyone raises their hand.” As awful as this sounds, it doesn’t surprise me.
You might say that The Problem With Apu, uses the character to help facilitate discussion about the lack of representation of South Asian characters in film and television. The Simpsons eventually (almost six months after the docu aired) addressed the controversy in its most recent episode. It shows Lisa looking at a picture of Apu on her bedside table, which reads: "Don't Have A Cow". Ouch. That hurts even me! Kondabolu was similarly unimpressed with the sarcastic passive aggression. "Wow. “Politically Incorrect?” That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad." And: "In “The Problem with Apu,” I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress." I can’t help but agree. It’s almost as if the show has the gaul enough to suggest:
“...it ain’t broke so why fix it?”
The Simpsons has been running almost 30 years? I still watch it, my siblings were raised on it, it’s certainly tried and tested. So my question is this: how can we change something so blatantly stereotypical and obviously misappropriating while preserving the iconic cult status of this seminal show? Is it possible? Would they remove the character? Recast the VO artist with a more appropriate fit? Hank Azaria (the actor who has voiced Apu since the beginning) has already said he’ll gladly bow out of voicing that character and understands the notable critique. As the saying goes “with progress must come change.” What does this mean for The Simpsons going forward, and consequently I wonder what the backlash might look like? The entertainment industry is being exposed a lot these days and it’s good to give people a chance to confront the demons and demeanors that it has been harboring. Unfortunately it also continues to blur those lines between reality and entertainment and takes away that willing suspension of disbelief. Nothing surprises me these days. For every two steps forward there is often at least one back.
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