The devastating problem with The Simpsons' dismissal of its Apu stereotype: Essay
Piya Sinha-Roy is a Los Angeles-based EW senior writer who covers film and entertainment.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Lisa Simpson, usually the crusader for all social justice, asks as she looks directly at the viewer in the latest episode of The Simpsons, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished“.
She then turns to her bedside table where a framed signed photo of Apu stands, inscribed with the caption “Don’t have a cow.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the first and perhaps the last word The Simpsons will offer on its very problematic portrayal of its Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who has been voiced by Hank Azaria, a white man, for over 29 seasons.
Perhaps Apu was “applauded” when The Simpsons first aired in 1989, but it’s important to consider who did the applauding. Maybe white Americans with little knowledge of India enjoyed the funny-accented foreigner. I, a child of Indian immigrants in England, had a far more traumatic relationship with the often offensive stereotype of Apu.
Hari Kondabolu, an Indian-American comedian, has made it his mission over the past six years to fix Apu, and in 2017 he made the insightful documentary The Problem with Apu. I won’t rehash the film here because Hari does an incredible job not just capturing how “politically incorrect” Apu continues to be, but how the South Asian community has had to contend with the painful shadow of Apu in our everyday lives.
Before I get into this, I should make clear that I am a long-time Simpsons fan and I somehow managed to disassociate the Apu stereotype from my love of the show; it’s often wickedly funny, sharply written, relevant and satirical. But Sunday night’s episode showed one thing: The creators of The Simpsons don’t care to tackle the troubling stereotype of Apu. To add insult to injury, they say “Don’t have a cow” — an interesting choice of words, given that cows are sacred in Hinduism, but I’m choosing to write this one off as unintentional ignorance. Furthermore, the episode broke my heart.
I held off watching Hari’s The Problem With Apu, not because I didn’t think it would a valid and compelling dissection of the character, but because my family and I had already directly lived with the problem with Apu.
Growing up in a small, white suburban town in England, I remember vividly being bullied in primary school because my fellow classmates said my parents had funny accents; they couldn’t believe my family didn’t live above the grocery shop, just like Apu. It’s not an insult to have an accent or run a grocery shop; many hard-working South Asian immigrants move to Europe or the United States and start their own businesses, working around the clock every single day to make an honest living. And, in some ways, Apu was meant to embody that hard-working immigrant. What was insulting was that my classmates couldn’t — and wouldn’t — see past that stereotype. Apu, with his shady methods of selling expired goods and cheating customers, became the very antithesis of the people he stood for; his sprightly catchphrase, “Thank you, come again,” becoming a racist barb thrown casually at the very people he was meant to represent.
I finally watched Hari’s documentary on Monday. The film is a really painful but nuanced insight into the long-stemming hurt that the Apu stereotype perpetuated in our lives because, for the longest time, Apu was the only representation of South Asians on American TV. Hari also examines how the very conception of Apu is steeped in racism: A group of white guys took what they found amusing about a foreigner, exaggerated it, and cast another white guy to voice him with a heavily caricatured Indian accent.
And if only it ended with Apu.
I grew up in the early ’90s on the heels of white actor Fisher Stevens, made up in actual brown face and sporting a caricatured Indian accent, playing a South Asian in 1986’s Short Circuit (which Aziz Ansari dissected eloquently in this piece) and 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which I still cannot bring myself to rewatch). For an entire year at school, several classmates mocked me because I “eat monkey brains and goat eyes and worship the goddess of death.” (Hey, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Willard Huyck, and Gloria Katz: Kali is most definitely not the goddess of death, rather she’s the mother of the universe. A bit of research goes a long way!)
As a minority and a woman, I was told by my parents that I’m going to have to work 10 times harder than my white counterparts. They weren’t wrong, our fractured nation shows how stunted racial ideology still is — and South Asians have to overcome the additional obstacle of stereotyped and misguided on-screen portrayals that influence millions of non-Indian viewers’ ideas about India, its people and Indian culture.
But back to The Simpsons.
By dismissing the issue with a simple “What can you do?” The Simpsons ignores what it really can do, and thus casually brushes aside the very real — and negative — impact of the Apu stereotype. There are many things the show’s producers could do to right the Apu wrongs. Yes, Hank Azaria has voiced the character for so long, but as times evolved, The Simpsons could hire an actual South Asian actor, with an authentic Indian accent, to play Apu. They could give him storylines that show he’s more than just a dated Indian caricature. And, though the show has had a regular South Asian character for nearly 30 years, there’s never been a South Asian writer on staff; had there been, I doubt that writer would have shrugged off the issue as the writers of Sunday’s episode did.
I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I buried my head in the sand when it comes to Apu. He’s a cartoon, he’s been around for so long, maybe we could just let him be – and doesn’t The Simpsons stereotype all of its characters really? But there’s something insanely infuriating about a group of mostly white, male writers telling South Asians, “Don’t have a cow” over their creation of an often racist and offensive stereotype. Is this really The Simpsons producers’ takeaway from Hari’s documentary, in which he specifically highlights the years of pain that Apu’s portrayal has inflicted on generations of South Asians?
It’s time that Hari’s crusade becomes one that all of us get on board with. Apu himself may not be a racist character, but, again, as the only Indian on prime-time scripted television for years, he was the reason our parents — our dads in particular — were often made fun of. He was one of the reasons our families were often seen as inferior and dismissed for our cultural differences. And how can South Asian actors fight for an equal shot in Hollywood when Apu continues to be written by non-Indians and voiced by a white guy?
But here we are in 2018 and even if The Simpsons can’t see how it could possibly correct a racist stereotype, thank goodness we can do better. As Vanity Fair wrote just last week, it’s a banner year for South Asian representation on network television and the portrayals are thankfully breaking down stereotypes to show more nuanced portrayals of us brown people who hail from a far away, exotic and often misunderstood land.
To The Simpsons: I’ve loved you and you’ll always be a part of my formative years in more ways than one, but I can’t possibly ignore the incredibly harmful impact that Apu continues to have. And in your choice to ignore it, I’m going to have to break up with you. As a parting note, I urge you desperately to DO BETTER.