Racism in The Simpsons

movie poster for Problem with Apu
truTV Documentary available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.

The long-running animated series The Simpsons features a character named Apu, an Indian man who works at the local convenience store and is a close friend of the family. When the show first aired in 1989, the character was instantly beloved by viewers and rose to be one of its most popular characters.

However, as almost 30 years as past, Apu has become more and more controversial. Last year, Indian-American comic Hari Kondabolu released a documentary titled The Problem with Apu, in which he criticized the character for essentializing a group of people and fueling bullying of and racism towards people of color. In his portrayal, Apu illustrates many of the negative stereotypes associated with Indian Americans in that he is subservient, sneaky, and goofy. Essentializing a group of people results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences.

The fact that the show is continuing to air episodes featuring this character is problematic, the documentary states. Even more problematic is the fact that the character is voiced by a White actor, Hank Azaria, doing an impression of another White actor’s impersonation of an Indian.

One can argue that since the character wasn’t seen as wholly offensive at the time of the show’s inception, it’s okay to continue to perpetuate these negative stereotypes. That is basically what The Simpsons did in a recent episode titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”, in which they acknowledge the growing controversy that resulted from Kondabolu’s documentary.

In the scene, Marge Simpson wants to read her daughter Lisa a book she loved when she was a girl, but it is filled with racist stereotypes. She decides to edit the story to make it less offensive, resulting in Lisa complaining that she has “stripped [the protagonist] of her emotional journey.” Marge then asks “what am I supposed to do?”, to which Lisa responds with “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” She then gestures to a photograph of Apu by her bed, inscribed with “Don’t have a cow”—essentially microinvalidating all the people fired up by this old- fashioned racism.

This did not bode well with supporters of Kondabolu’s documentary. The creators blatantly invalidated all the people upset with the way the show is perpetuating these stereotypes. Although The Simpsons is known for lampooning popular culture and making jokes about everything and everyone, this is a tricky line to cross in society.

How do you think the creators of the show should have handled the situation? How do we deal with the realization that things once seen as funny are in reality perpetuating the racist system we live in?

4 thoughts on “Racism in The Simpsons

  1. This is a great post, and I wish this will receive more recognition outside of this class. Shows such as the Simpsons, Family Guy, etc. are extremely racist shows that are given “passes” on being racist being they are comedy shows and a “joke is a joke”. It is unfortunate as these shows see one of the only ways to make people laugh by using forms of racism, as my guess is majority of viewers are those of privilege, so as long as they are not offending their viewers, there is nothing wrong.While it is unlikely they change what is being put in their shows, there must be some sense of communications with outsiders on the drawbacks of using this type of language in a television show. It only promotes stereotypes and racist behavior, which is the last thing our country needs.

  2. This post was very interesting, especially since I don’t watch the Simpsons. I think for those who do watch this show and other TV shows like it continuously receive messages that racial jokes are funny because they are expressed in comedic shows like the Simpsons. I see how this can be tough to criticize because the argument can be made that the show jokes with all groups but these jokes can still be offensive and are used against minorities everyday. Since the Simpsons have been around for so long it’s even harder to criticize. Since this show has been around for so many years these stereotypes expressed have been engrained in people who have grown up watching it because they have possibly been exposed at a young age. It’s problematic that the producers of the show validated the use of the stereotypical jokes because it invalidates the lived experiences of the people who it offends.

  3. In a similar vein as what Maia was saying in her comment, these shows tend to (I am unsure how successfully) satirize these stereotypes and outlining how blatantly ridiculous and nonsensical they can be. Of course not all are likely to pick up on the commentary whereas color-blind ideology would push people to take the features at complete face value and therefore allow these characters to shape and confirm their schemes of particular groups. Although I understand the call to no longer feature this character, I am unsure as to how the complete exclusion of the character would be received – as it would make him invisible. Is it too late to change the way the character is written? Perhaps, but the problem doesn’t seem to be his existence but rather the way his presence is framed in the show to (offensively) represent a demographic. This is something that could possibly be changed and learned from.

  4. In many other comedic cartoon shows, like South Park or Dear White People, similar characters exist, but they also tend to use characters that break the stereotypes. I wrote my final paper for my Intro to Sociology class about a South Park episode that was all about racism and demonstrated a few reasons why it is so terrible. Something important that I recognized was that many times when racial stereotypes are brought up and made fun of in intelligent and ironic ways that calls out racism, White people will find it hilarious because it only confirms their beliefs and people of color will be thankful that their stories are being brought to light on TV. What could be seen as educational moments on TV are many times misconstrued in the eyes of White people. Unfortunately, I do not think that this type of humor is being used in the Simpsons, and I don’t think that the Simpsons is the only place where this happens on TV.

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