The Problem with Apu

In the midst of accusations of racist characterisation, Gerry Hart discusses The Simpson's Apu.

Gerry Hart
25th April 2018
Image Credit: YouTube

Everyone’s heard of Apu, right? The loveable Indian proprietor to the Kwiki Mart played by the brilliant Hank Azaria. But behind that friendly smile and his “thank you, come again” catchphrase, is he nothing more than a racist stereotype?

The controversy surrounding Apu has been present in some form or another since his first appearance way back in 1990 but it picked up steam with the release of the documentary “The Problem with Apu”, written by Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu in October 2017. A self-confessed Simpsons fan, Hari interviewed a number of Indian Americans about the show and posed about the portrayal of Indian Americans in popular culture. Normally, this would garner little attention but on 8th April this year, the Simpsons actually addressed the controversy in an episode entitled "No Good Read Goes Unpunished".

I don’t think anyone could’ve foreseen such a poorly conceived, tone-deaf response

I’ll confess here and now that I wasn’t able to watch the episode in full. I didn’t really want to pirate it and there was no way I was paying to watch the fucking thing so for the sake of fairness just keep that in mind. Still, the offending scene is readily available on YouTube and has to be seen to be believed. In it, Marge reads Lisa a bedtime story whilst leaving out anything that might be seen as problematic. Noticing this, Lisa complains the story lacks substance to which Marge asks what she’s supposed to do. To this, Lisa turns to the audience “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" Marge responds, “Some things will be changed at a later date” and Lisa replies “If at all”. Besides them is a picture of Apu with Bart’s catchphrase “Don’t have a Cow man”. Fucking hell. I’d say “well guys, they did it…despite our objections” but I don’t think anyone could’ve foreseen such a poorly conceived, tone-deaf response.

The episode was met with scathing criticism and rightly so, Apu still has several defenders who typically argue that all characters on the Simpsons are stereotypes to some degree. And this is true I guess. But the fact remains that Apu is an Indian character written by predominantly white men and played by a white actor. I don’t think there’s any malice underpinning him and Apu does display depth and nuance at times, but let’s just say as a white kid, growing up in a 97% white town with all white classmates, that nuance was lost on my ten-year-old self amidst Azaria’s mock accent.

The fact remains that Apu is an Indian character written by predominantly white men and played by a white actor

But more fundamentally I feel the Apu controversy and the writers’ response reveals some fundamental problems with the show itself. I critic think Bob Chipman hit the nail on the head when he said the Simpsons, whilst remaining on air for almost three decades has dedicated itself to simultaneously remaining static and unchanging. Consequently, the show’s shift into the 21st century has been less than graceful because it is a product of the 1990s at its core. This is not to say The Simpsons has no value (indeed I can chart significant periods of my life with it). But it's years past its prime. The best thing for The Simpsons right now would be to just put it out of its misery.

But short of cancelling the Simpsons, what is to be done with Apu? At the very least I think the writers need to acknowledge that a legitimate cause for debate about the depiction of minorities exists. They owe their viewers and their own creation that much. But beyond that, I just don’t know. All I know is watching that fucking scene took sixty seconds of my life and I want them back! Oh, I’d only waste them anyway.

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