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11 April 2018

The Simpsons’ handling of the controversy over Apu reminds us why the show must go

 As Grandpa notes in season seven’s “Homerpalooza”: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was.”

By Rohan Banerjee

The Simpsons is long overdue its Old Yeller moment – or perhaps Old Yellow moment would be more suitable. The once-great animated sitcom, equal parts piercing satire, witty one-liners and well-timed slapstick, has, for at least ten seasons, been on a steady decline. As Grandpa Simpson notes in season seven’s “Homerpalooza”: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was, and now what I’m with isn’t it. And what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me.”

No truer is The Simpsons’ failure to keep up with the times than in its handling of the controversy surrounding its character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Apu, the Indian proprietor of Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart, has been a mainstay of the show since its first season, which aired in 1989. Voiced by the white Hank Azaria, the character is a hyper-parodied representation of the South Asian diaspora, written, one would suspect, to mock rather than to explore.

The exaggerated accent (complete with a head-bob), brash generalisations about Indian culture, frequent inaccuracies about Hinduism, and immigration-based gags, suggest Apu exists more likely to serve as a cheap punchline than to further the plot.

The journalist Hussein Kesvani (and my co-host on our podcast No Country for Brown Men) says: “He seems to be there to advance the stories of white, well yellow, American protagonists. Even in the episodes where he’s at the centre, the storyline surrounds him trying not to get deported, around arranged marriages and selling dodgy stuff in his shop. They’re the classic immigrant tropes that still end up redeeming the white characters more.”

For the comedian Hari Kondabolu, a self-confessed Simpsons fan, the caveat of the Apu character eventually proved too much. Last year, he wrote and presented the documentary, The Problem with Apu, which featured interviews with a number of South Asian celebrities discussing the character’s cultural impact. Such an invitingly mockable stereotype, Kondabolu argued, was unhelpful to improving race relations and in fact offered faux-legitimacy to racists.

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Predictably, Kondabolu’s work has attracted plenty of criticism. In Spiked, James Gill called it a “paean to the modern trend for joyless offence-taking” and suggested that Kondabolou or anyone else’s problem with Apu amounted to little more than “an insidious form of censorship that risks neutering writers’ creative vision”. Exactly what level of creativity was required to conjure up an Indian shopkeeper, Gill did not bother to explain.

A more nuanced defence of Apu is that The Simpsons does not discriminate in its discrimination. Apu might be ridiculed as an Indian, apologists suggest, but no more so than any other ethnic group – including the Italian mob boss Fat Tony or even the straight, white male caricature that is central protagonist Homer.

What is troubling, however, is that the actual defence of Apu eventually presented by The Simpsons’ writers themselves could not even match this low-level diplomacy. Instead, in the show’s latest episode aired on Sunday, season 29’s “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”, a scene was penned in which Lisa – the supposedly most progressive and left-wing Simpson – is read an old book by her mother Marge. As Marge tries to modernise the story, which is full of outdated race and gender stereotypes, Lisa complains that she is stripping it of its authenticity.

Lisa then breaks the fourth wall and says to the viewer: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” She gestures to a picture of Apu next to her bed, inscribed with Bart Simpson’s catchphrase – “Don’t have a cow” – an instruction to relax and probably some double entendre for Hindus not eating beef.

In trivialising the concerns of Kondabolu and the cultural reality of a more modern audience, The Simpsons expert and blogger Lee Baker says, the show has betrayed what made it great in the past. He compares the situation to that with the long-running sitcom, Friends, which was recently re-introduced to a millennial audience, and was promptly criticised for its string of homophobic jokes. Baker explains:“The Simpsons has the misfortune of still being on air. In an ironic twist, by outright rejecting the issue of Apu, the people behind The Simpsons have become exactly what they ridiculed during the golden years of their show. Are they out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong.” 

So, how should The Simpsons writers have responded? Kondabolu was disappointed that the message of his documentary had been reduced to an issue of political correctness, saying on Twitter that the “entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalised groups and why this is important” had been overlooked. He added that the writers’ response was “not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress”.

Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant anthology of essays, agrees. He says: “Good comedy shouldn’t have to rely on lazy stereotypes for 20-odd seasons. I think Hari Kondabolu’s approach has always been about love. He loves and respects The Simpsons and in the same way we criticise the football teams we obsessively follow and worship, he felt enough love for The Simpsons to ask its writers to do better. Real representation isn’t the same as lazy tokenism.”

There seem to be, then, two potential solutions for moving forward. One is that The Simpsons could work harder to modernise its representation of ethnic minorities – independent of stereotypes and with their race incidental to their role in the show. Could Homer have an Indian colleague at the nuclear plant? Could Bart have an Indian friend at school? Could Marge have a female Indian friend who isn’t a housewife? Do any of them really have to bob their heads when they talk?

The second solution, which at this point to be honest appears preferable, would be to axe The Simpsons entirely. Of course, nothing can take away from the glorious contributions the show has made to comedy and wider popular culture, but as the video game writer Harry Tuffs has put it, there is nobility in knowing when to call it a day. “When I was growing up and religiously watching The Simpsons,” he says, “I never thought of Apu as a racist caricature because as a ten-year-old kid I was still only just getting to grips with the mechanics of shoelaces. In retrospect, though, it’s always been a problem, and it being a ‘different era’ isn’t the excuse it wants it to be – The Simpsons frankly only got away with a white man playing an ethnic stereotype for so long because of the show’s overall high-quality and left-wing credentials in other areas. But we’re at the point now where The Simpsons has been dull and tired for more than twice as long as it’s been good, and rather than just bin Apu, I’d like to see them retire the whole show.”

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