Is it Time for “The Simpsons” to Retire Apu?

The animated television series, The Simpsons, has become a cultural touchstone since its debut on Fox in 1989. Now in its 29th season, with more than 600 episodes produced to date, the beloved sitcom portraying an eccentric American family living in the fictional town of Springfield has raked in over a billion dollars in profits and is aired in dozens of countries around the world. In addition to its global popularity, The Simpsons has received abundant critical acclaim, in part by tackling controversial subjects such as homophobia and political corruption with incisive humor. But a documentary that aired last fall on TruTV isn’t as complimentary. The Problem With Apu argues that the show’s portrayal of a popular Indian immigrant character is based on harmful stereotypes, and that its creators must reexamine their depiction of minorities in order to remain relevant in the 21st century.

Hari Kondabolu is an actor and comedian who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, which views one of the show’s main supporting characters, Quik-e Mart owner and Indian immigrant, Apu Nahasapeemapetilion, through a critical lens. The Problem With Apu asserts that the character is highly offensive to AsianAmericans, not only because he speaks with a thick accent, pinches pennies, and works in a convenience store, but because these stereotypes are voiced by non-Indian actor Hank Azaria. Rather than positioning Apu’s offensive portrayal as an isolated transgression in an otherwise beloved TV show, Kondabolu views it as symptomatic of a broader issue in how South Asians are depicted in Hollywood. From Indian characters being played by white actors in brown face as recently as the 1986 film Short Circuit, to a group of Indians eating chilled monkey brains and live snakes in Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom, the mainstream media’s rendering of South Asian characters has long been problematic. The Problem With Apu deftly uses the popular Simpsons character as a springboard to explore larger issues of racism and cultural appropriation in the entertainment industry that have persisted into the new millennium.

In an interview with The New York Times last year, prior to the documentary’s release, Kondabolu, who is the son of Indian immigrants, reflected on the dichotomy of confronting the issues inherent to the Apu character as a lifelong Simpsons fan. “I’m a comedian going after the biggest comedy show of all time,” he mused. But even as he enjoyed the show, he realized that “[e]verything with Apu is like this running joke. And the running joke is that he’s Indian.” One of Kondabolu’s most trenchant criticisms of the Apu character is that his portrayal by voice actor Hank Azaria sounds like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” While he tried to conduct an on-camera interview with Azaria for The Problem With Apu, he was unsuccessful, and initially felt that his film wouldn’t be as powerful as a result. But IndianAmerican actor, Utkarsh Ambudkar, who appears alongside several other notable South Asian entertainers, including Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn, in the film, reminded Kondabolu that the diverse array of talent he had recruited for his documentary was an accomplishment in itself. “I was like, are you kidding me?” recalled Ambudkar in an interview with The New York Times. “You got all these brown people to come together and talk about something … some 15-year-old kid is going to be like, look at all these powerful, talented, visible brown people in one place. I can do this, too?” [See You Love ‘The Simpsons’? Then Let’s Talk About Apu, by Robert Ito, The New York Times, 10.Nov.2017.]

In a recent episode of The Simpsons, which aired on April 8, 2018, the writers weaved in a fairly milk toast response to The Problem With Apu. In the episode, the family’s matriarch, Marge Simpson, rereads an old book she had loved as a child, and realizes that the story actually contained numerous racist, offensive references – at least, when viewed through the eyes of an adult in the modern age. Marge edits out the offensive material, but ends up with a book that just isn’t very good. Marge turns to her brainy daughter, Lisa, to ask for advice on what to do following this failed attempt to sanitize the past. Lisa seems to dismiss the need to do anything, noting that “[s]omething that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect.” At the same time, Lisa looks over to a framed photo of Apu on her nightstand, signaling to the audience that this message is in response to the controversy over The Problem With Apu.

Meanwhile, the actor who voices Apu provides a more contemplative response. When asked about his thoughts on the film, Azaria said, “I think the documentary made some really interesting points … . I think it’s an important conversation worth having; we’re still thinking about it. It’s a lot to digest.” And, it appears Azaria did, in fact, think it over. Days later, appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the host asked Azaria about the Apu controversy. Azaria responded that he had given the issue a lot of thought, and feels that it’s important to listen to what Indians in the U.S. think about this character. He feels the best way to have the perspective of IndianAmericans and other South Asians living in the U.S. represented in the show is to hire them to write for the show. Moreover, he expressed an openness to either writing the character off the show, or perhaps having a different actor (i.e. someone actually from India) voice the character. “We have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people, in this country, when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character. And what their American experience of it has been.” [See The Simpsons’ Response to ‘The Problem with Apu’ Recognizes Times are Changing, but Rejects Progress, by Shannon Liao, The Verge, 10.Apr.2018. Also see The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, 24.Apr.2018.]

 

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