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?