When I first learnt of the controversy following “The Simpsons’” portrayal of one of its characters, I wondered if any other show that began airing in 1990 would be in as much hot water as this one was in 2018; and thought it wouldn’t be. Why then is “The Simpsons” getting so much flak for its portrayal of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a shopkeeper in its cartoon series? The controversy was first sparked in 2012 when Hari Kondabolu, an Indian-American comedian, presented a critical monologue on Apu in the TV show, “Totally Biased”. As more people engaged with this topic, Kondabolu, in November 2017, created a documentary, The Problem With Apu, where he highlighted that “The Simpsons” exploits a pastiche of offensive racial stereotypes in the name of satire when portraying Apu, a South Asian immigrant–– and it’s not hard to see how.
Apu has an Indian accent that cannot be attributed to a specific region in India, one of the largest families on the show with eight octuplets, and runs a convenience store. Surprisingly, the fact that Apu’s character was never written to be Indian seems to seal Kondabolu’s case against “The Simpsons.” Nosheen Iqbal finds that Mike Reiss, the former leading executive producer and writer on the show, never wrote Apu’s character with Indian traits. “Because Hindi convenience store clerks were a movie cliche even back then, I inserted this stage direction under his line: ‘THE CLERK IS NOT INDIAN.’” But, when Hank Azaria, a white, Jewish man, auditioned for the role with a stereotypical Indian accent, he won the affection of the casting committee which decided that Apu would now be a “goofy, servile, Kwik-E-Mart cliche.” Regardless of the problematic beginning of the Apu, the animated character was received with many laughs and little critique in pop culture circles until Kondabolu arrived on the scene. His allegations of racial insensitivity against the show were especially egregious allegations considering “The Simpsons” is not only known but also revered for its evocative and often progressive stance on real-world issues plaguing society like capitalism, poor public education systems, gender inequality, and religion.
Kondabolu tells The New York Times, “Everything with Apu is like this running joke... And the running joke is that he’s Indian.” While this may be an isolated incident for “The Simpsons,” the issue of racial insensitivity is widespread in Hollywood and western television where South Asian actors are offered roles that play up racial stereotypes about India. Kal Penn tweeted about this systemic racism in the film and television industry by posting some of his old scripts that required a “snake charmer,” “lab buddy,” and more. Indians are often typecast into roles of bodega owners, IT professionals, and call centre workers or mostly professions that are considered lower rung, not glamourous, and undeserving of society’s respect and admiration. Even hugely popular films and TV shows fall prey to these offensive clichés. For example, Kunal Nayyar plays a bumbling astrophysicist in “The Big Bang Theory.” And sometimes, South Asian characters are erased altogether like when Max Mighella, a British-European actor with east Asian ancestry, played Divya Narendra in The Social Network. That South Asian characters are represented with so much inauthenticity is only one part of the problem–– the second, more harrowing aspect is that jokes involving these characters are often ridiculing markers of their Indian identity like their accent, family upbringing, and religious beliefs. This phenomenon, unsurprisingly, leads to bullying, racial stereotyping by authorities, and perpetuates a deep ignorance of South Asian heritage and a problematic conflation of middle eastern, south Asian, and east Asian cultures.
Considering “The Simpsons” track record with addressing societal issues such as this, one could assume it would acknowledge the misrepresentation and make amends. However, the show’s response was far from this. In a recent episode, Marge and Lisa Simpson are seen discussing political correctness. Marge alters The Princess in the Garden, a story she’s reading Lisa, to better fit sentiments in 2018. But, Lisa objects, looks directly into the camera and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Then, she turns to a picture of Apu on her bedside that has “Don’t have a cow!” written on it and Marge answers, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” Lisa counters with “If at all” and both characters look deadpan at the camera. Many were disappointed with how the show handled the controversy, including Kondabolu who tweeted “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.”
So where do we go from here? Earlier this week, Adi Shankar, a producer who launched a script contest to solve the “Apu Problem,” said he had verified information that the show’s writers intended to eliminate Apu from the show. He told IndieWire, “They [writers on “The Simpsons”] aren’t going to make a big deal out of it, or anything like that, but they’ll drop him altogether just to avoid the controversy.” Al Jean, the showrunner, tweeted that as Shankar was not a producer on the show, he was not in a position to comment on the character’s future.
Rather than erasing Apu overall and coming off as ignoring the problem, “The Simpsons” should chart a better path forward. Some have suggested the show allow Apu to build a business empire that challenges Mr. Burns or find a better way to give Apu due credit after all the difficulty that comes with sustaining a family with a job that isn’t extremely lucrative and, as an immigrant. But, the problem with Apu isn’t limited to “The Simpsons” alone–– it’s shared by everyone who has an Indian accent, brown skin, and large, joint families. If Apu’s character arc remains unchanged, “The Simpsons” will not only be looked upon in bad faith as it continues to peddle one of the most popular references of Indian culture as a one-dimensional caricature, but also be attributed as laying a foundational brick in the discrimination against South Asians in television and cinema.
Feature image by: The Daily Beast
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