The creators of The Simpsons have come under criticism for their handling of the Apu controversy. Was their response enough?
In November last year, a documentary aired on truTV in which comedian Hari Kondabalu took aim at Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the shopkeeper of Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart Convenience Store in beloved animated comedy, The Simpsons. Kondabalu used Apu as his starting point in a nuanced discussion of the mis- and under-representation of South Asian people in American mass-media.
Apu is probably America’s most famous Indian person, despite being a white guy. The character is voiced by Hank Azaria, who is so white he was even given a speaking role in F.R.I.E.N.D.S (he played The One Who Maybe Phoebe Dates Who Runs Away to Minsk or Whatever).
Azaria, best known for his role in Godzilla (1998), refused to appear in the documentary, despite Kondabalu’s concerted efforts to get in touch. In one scene from The Problem With Apu, Kondabalu receives an email from Azaria’s publicist linking him to a Huffington Post article from 2013, in which both Azaria and Kondabalu are quoted. The voice-actor was essentially saying, “Look, we’ve covered this”.
But latent frustration about Apu had finally found its platform and wasn’t to be silenced so quickly. Eventually, this month, The Simpsons came up with a response. During April 8th’s already-infamous episode, Marge censors a bed-time story she’s reading to Lisa to make it “less offensive”, only to find that this makes the narrative uninteresting. Lisa then directly addresses the audience, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”, whilst the frame pans to show a picture of Apu on Lisa’s bedside table.
‘Response’ or ‘Shutdown’?
Lisa’s strange decision to have a picture of her local shopkeeper on her bedside table aside (is this canon? The internal logic of the show is now too convoluted and contradictory to even begin making sense of), does The Simpsons’ decision to break the fourth wall and give a seemingly un-ironic response to Kondabalu show a willingness to engage, or is it a swerve to avoid an open and complex conversation?
Azaria, best known for his role in a 2011 reboot of The Smurfs, told TMZ that he thought “the documentary made some really interesting points and gave us a lot of things to think about and we really are thinking about it”. In the aforementioned HuffPo article, Azaria (who is Jewish) admits to Mallika Rau “If the only representation of Jews in our culture was Robin Williams’ impression of a Yiddish guy, I guess I might be upset with that too”.
But the show’s eventual in-episode response has drawn broad and potent criticism. Kondabalu, who repeatedly declares himself a Simpsons fan, despite his criticism of Apu’s character, tweeted: “Wow. “Politically Incorrect?” That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.”
Comedian W. Kamau Bell, who has long supported the anti-Apu movement started by Kondabalu and Rau, was particularly scathing in his criticism of the show’s mode of reply: “I think the fact that they put this “argument” in the mouth of Lisa’s character, the character who usually champions the underdogs and is supposed to be the most thoughtful and liberal, is what makes this the most ridiculous (as in worthy of ridicule) and toothless response”.
Azaria, best known for playing a young Patches O’Houlihan in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, has not commented further since the airing of the episode. The Simpsons camp seem once again to believe the matter is closed.
But for Kondabalu and many others, this is an attempt to silence a necessary conversation that was just gaining momentum. The seemingly closed-minded statement has dismayed many because it seems to misread the issue as a simple matter of “political correctness”. But Kondabalu’s point is more complex.
It’s not simply that the character is mildly offensive that is the problem – after all, as he himself highlights, The Simpsons caricatures many different cultures, arguably most consistently parodying White Americans. No, the problem is that Apu has for so long been the only popular representation of Indian people in American media, erasing and side-lining more in-depth and human depictions of this culture’s experience. “The problem is that we didn’t have any other representation”, says actor Utkarsh Ambudkar.
Even if the show continues to resist calls to retire the character, is there some way for them to use their considerable platform to help change representations of minority groups for the better? Lisa asks, “What can you do?”. As the longest-running and most popular animated series in history, a reasonable response to The Simpsons is surely, “Well, quite a lot more than this, actually”.
In Godzilla, a monster created by mankind wreaks havoc on New York City. In The Smurfs, Gargamel is defeated by the little blue people that he himself begat. In Dodgeball, the stereotypical Irish character Patches O’Houlihan is crushed by a casino-sign emblazoned with Irish stereotypes. If Azaria won’t listen to other cultural commentators, perhaps it’s time he sought wisdom from within his own stellar filmography, lest his own creations “come again” to bite him squarely in the ass. Thank you.