Apu controversy: No thank you, don't come again

Should he go?

Tom Cooney
14th November 2018
Flickr (istolethetv)


Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a character fundamental to the cultural phenomenon that is The Simpsons, and has been for over 25 years. He has been at the centre of some of the show’s very best episodes, but will be no longer as showrunners have announced plans to axe him in the near-future.

This decision is the next step in a path originating with Hari Kondabolu’s enlightening 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu. The film triggered an international debate over the character: whether his portrayal really is deeply problematic, or just in-fitting with a cultural institution constructed by stereotypes of all kinds. Since then, voice-actor Hank Azaria has expressed his willingness to be replaced by an actor of South Asian heritage – building up hopes of fans scared that their favourite character would be given the chop. However, when The Simpsons attempted to address the controversy in an episode themselves, it became crystal clear that the writers did not know how to handle such a significant change of approach. For that reason, the time has come to let Apu go.

The scene in question sees Marge and Lisa discussing an old book filled with unacceptably dated content, with Lisa turning to the camera and stating, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Without even commenting on the abysmal lack of subtlety here, by simply shrugging off the real-world issues of cultural stereotyping, racial slurs and microaggressions that Kondabolu has brought to light demonstrates the inability of Matt Groening and co. to find a worthwhile solution to ‘The Problem with Apu’.

He is a highly stereotyped version of South Asians that frankly does not belong in 2018

It can undoubtedly be argued that getting rid of Apu is an easy way out for The Simpsons writers to avoid confronting the issues that he presents, potentially preventing more positive representation of Indian and other South Asian characters on TV. However, it has already become clear that this is a show incompatible with such a progressive move.

There is no question about the problems with Apu’s character. He is a highly stereotyped version of South Asians that frankly does not belong in 2018. Yet this is not its biggest flaw.

Apu has the misfortune of being one most prominent South Asian characters on primetime television in the US: this carries with it a lot of responsibility. In fact, lack of representation is at the heart of this dispute. The stereotypical nature of his character would have been less shameful had he been one of many South Asian characters on television, but because he is one of few, it is important to recognize that stereotypes might be harmful to those who do not see themselves represented on television.

However, removing the character is not the solution. By simply getting rid of Apu, the writers have lost an opportunity to revive the show by using the character to self-reflect and comment on the use of stereotypes on television. Moreover, the inevitable backlash against political correctness could have been avoided by giving the character more depth, hiring diverse writers, or simply introducing South Asian characters that are not defined by their race.

It is no secret that The Simpsons has lost its edge. It has gone from being a ground-breaking series to having barely any cultural relevance in the last few years. Matt Groening dismissed the criticism on Apu, saying, "people love to pretend they're offended". This misguided statement highlights why this show will never be able to recapture what made it great in the first place: instead of opening up an important dialogue and letting creativity run free, the showrunners have decided to reject criticism by avoiding taking any risks. Removing Apu was a safe-bet, which will contribute to keeping The Simpsons in the dark for the rest of its run.

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