Why The Simpsons' response to the Apu controversy was so heartbreaking: Essay
Dana Schwartz is a Los Angeles-based EW correspondent who predominately covers TV and film.
In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu wrote and starred in a documentary called The Problem with Apu in which he examined the cultural significance of The Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Kwik-E-Mart owner, who speaks with a heavy, stereotypical Indian accent and is voiced by Hank Azaria, a white man.
Last night, The Simpsons offered its tepid reply.
The scene began with Marge reading a bedtime story to Lisa that had been neutered with social justice buzzwords. “What am I supposed to do?” Marge asks when Lisa complains.
“It’s hard to say,” says Lisa, breaking the fourth wall and looking directly at the camera. A photo of Apu on the nightstand helped make it very clear they were no longer talking about the fictional bedtime story. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” says Marge, also to the camera.
“—If it all,” Lisa concludes.
There’s something about the response that came across as not only tasteless but viscerally unsatisfying. In his documentary, Kondabolu initiated the complex conversation about what it meant to have a white actor voicing an Indian character (with a heavy, caricatured accent) during a time when there was little or no Indian representation in the media.
The Simpsons on-air response reveals that the minds behind the long-running animated series either entirely failed to grasp Kondabolu’s point or (perhaps, unfortunately, more likely) they were completely indifferent to it.
As Kondabolu made clear in his film, the problem with Apu extends beyond a brown character voiced by a white actor; the problem was not just with The Simpsons, but with its viewers, the drunk idiots on the street who call any South-Asian person “Apu” and who repeated “Thank you, come again,” as a mocking refrain.
“They didn’t mean for it to happen,” said actor Utkarsh Ambudkar (Game Over, Man!) in The Problem with Apu. “We just were underrepresented. We didn’t have any other representation in this country. That creates a problem when the most popular show on television is showing mainstream America what an Indian is.”
Kondabolu revealed a particularly eye-opening tidbit in his documentary about the origin of the Apu character. Originally, the character was nameless, just “CLERK,” and, as writer Matt Reiss had written in the margin of the script, definitely not Indian, because that was an obvious cliché. But during the table read, actor Hank Azari used a heavy Indian accent for the single line (handing back Homer his change), and the room — almost entirely white men — laughed. And so the accent stayed. And, though he evolved, becoming one of the most sympathetic and intelligent Springfield residents, Apu was born out of the joke of a convenience store worker being Indian man with an accent. It’s something Kondabolu pressed Simpsons writer Dana Gould on in his documentary. The goal with The Simpsons was always to present things in the funniest way possible, and, as Gould carefully admitted, “There are accents, that by their nature, to white Americans, sound funny. Period.”
Last night’s episode wasn’t the first time The Simpsons misunderstood criticism surrounding Apu. In the 2015 episode “Much Apu About Something,” Apu’s nephew Jay — actually voiced by Ambudkar — comments on Apu being a stereotype. His sentiments are punctuated by an Italian chef stereotype emerging from the kitchen, followed by a wife banging him on the head with the spoon. The point — a point often regurgitated by internet commenters — is that The Simpsons makes fun of everyone.
But that argument only exists in a vacuum, one in which you consciously ignore South Asian people telling you how they’ve been constantly called “Apu,” how they’ve been mocked and belittled by classmates and strangers, their identity diminished to someone’s idea of a funny accent.
There are plenty of portrayals of Italian Americans on screen. There are plenty of films of exclusively Italian American characters, and these are mainstream films that win Academy Awards. If a movie or a television show has more than one Indian character, it would be considered an “Indian” show, niche at best, and realistically, unlikely to get made — which is a point Aziz Ansari makes incredibly cogently in the episode of Master of None titled “Indians on TV.” But even the discussion of a show with more than one Indian actor feels like a moot point when the inclusion of even one Indian character still feels like a recent accomplishment.
Three years later, post-Kondabolu’s documentary, The Simpsons is still unable to acknowledge culpability in any way, dismissing Kondabolu’s nuanced argument with the straw man phrase “political correctness” (as in, “political correctness run amok!”)
And to make it even more heartbreaking, they put the words in the mouth of Lisa Simpson. Lisa Simpson, ardent feminist, vegetarian, Buddhist, passionate about animals and environment, eternally moral and empathetic, would be the least likely to dismiss Kondabolu’s arguments with condescending oh-wells.
Lisa Simpson would not bemoan social justice the way, say, a wealthy middle-aged white male writer might. She would be the first to challenge the status quo, to point out wrongs that should the corrected even if it seems futile, and The Simpsons writers using her character as a human shield is the ultimate act of cowardice, a fundamental betrayal of her character and those who love her.
In season 5, Lisa was outraged that her talking Malibu Stacy doll came with ditzy catchphrases. “They cannot keep making dolls like this,” Lisa declared at dinner. “Something has to be done!”
“Lisa, ordinarily I’d say you should stand up for what you believe in, but you’ve been doing that an awful lot lately,” Marge replied.
As a Vanity Fair article about Lisa Simpson explained: “Just as Wile E. Coyote is destined to never catch the Road Runner, there’s a comparable existential futility to Lisa’s lot on The Simpsons — an eternity of being profoundly unappreciated, unable to make a difference and, as she sings in ‘Moaning Lisa,’ ‘the saddest kid in grade number two.’”
Perhaps the most iconic “Lisa” episode of The Simpsons, “Lisa’s Substitute,” ends with the character Mr. Bergstrom — the one person who understood Lisa — leaving her with a note that said simply, “You are Lisa Simpson.” Her identity was stalwart, her convictions and self-confidence challenged but never broken. “You are Lisa Simpson” was profound and beautiful because she (and we, the viewers) knew what being Lisa Simpson meant.
Questioning the character of Apu against the inexhaustible tide of people on Twitter saying, “Shut up, it’s just a cartoon,” or “I have an Indian friend and he’s not offended by it!!!!” would be exactly the type of thing Lisa in her unfailing idealism would do.
And so The Simpsons‘ response to criticism is a cop-out in the worst way, a response of dig-in-your-heels defensiveness against an invisible threat with a spit in the face for good measure. Their stodginess is even more baffling when you consider that Kondabolu’s challenge came from a place of love; he is a fan of The Simpsons, and that’s why he wanted to reconcile what he saw as its most unsavory element, something that might have been socially acceptable a quarter of a century ago but needs to be readdressed in 2018.
A similar conversation happened recently around BoJack Horseman, which features a half-Vietnamese character, Diane Nguyen, voiced by Alison Brie, a white actress.
“I feel like this is my show, and these are decisions that I’ve made, and it’s my responsibility to talk about them even if it’s going to be awkward and even if it’s going to feel weird for me,” said show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg in an interview with Uproxx. “I think it’s worth talking about, and I feel like my silence can be read as ‘There’s not a problem here,’ and I’m not comfortable with that anymore.”
The interviewer, Pilot Viruet, brought up BoJack featuring Latino actors Nick Gonzales and Horatio Sanz playing “Cartel Man” and “Latin Kings Gang Leader,” respectively. “That’s shitty. That’s bad that I did that,” Bob-Waksberg said.
“I really don’t want to create the appearance that my work is done, or that I’m a good guy,” he concluded the interview. “I just want to explain how I’ve noticed these problems and how I’m trying to fix them. I don’t think I can fix all of them, but I think we’re working on it.”
The Simpsons, so unwilling to engage in a real conversation or reveal a moment of vulnerability, reverted to a fourth-wall smugness that felt like it belonged more on South Park or Family Guy.
Even Donald Trump has figured out that when people are angry and upset sometimes they just need to hear the words, “I hear you.” The moment in last night’s episode was so defensive it was almost calcified.
Kondabolu tweeted out a universal response to all of the journalists asking him for a statement: “Congratulations to the Simpsons for being talked about & being seen as relevant again.”