The Simpsons has found itself in hot water recently after they attempted to address the criticisms put forward by film maker Hari Kondabolu in his documentary “The Problem With Apu.” Some cite the documentary as an important point in ongoing conversations about race in America, whilst the usual reactionaries have dismissed it as an example of humourless political correctness ruining (white) Americans’ god given right to laugh at foreigners.
For those unfamiliar, Apu is the Indian character who runs the corner store in The Simpsons. Kondabolu’s documentary and its criticisms hinge on the fact that not only is Apu voiced by a white man (and in a thick Indian accent of dubious accuracy) but that his character is a laundry list of racist cliches – Apu is an illegal immigrant who runs a convenience store, has eight children, was part of an arranged marriage, and is cheerfully corrupt in his business dealings.
Much has been made of the documentary but often commenters seem to be inadequately versed in the source material. Whilst the last thing that the internet – or the wider world – needs is another white man telling minorities why they shouldn’t be upset, I feel that a lot of the criticisms of Apu and The Simpsons made by people joining their voces with Kondabolu miss some fairly salient points. In the same way that one shouldn’t wade into the debate about anti-Semitism in “The Merchant of Venice” without a solid grounding in Shakespeare, many commentators have obliviously waded into this controversy without a detailed knowledge of The Simpsons. Fortunately, the sort of person who has that knowledge is, demographically speaking, guys my age who are me.
Nerdy males of my generation can recite huge chunks of The Simpsons verbatim. It replaced religion for a generation of iconoclastic young people, even though that now seems absurd given how much a staple of the mainstream it became.
First, here’s the bad news: Having a white actor (Hank Azaria) put on a comedy Indian accent is pretty racist. There’s not a lot of getting around that fact. In the same way that society decided that black and white minstrel shows weren’t okay, white actors playing Indians or Pakistanis (a process dubbed “brownface”) isn’t really something we should be defending in 2018.
I would venture, however, that a lot of the bad points of Apu’s character are not down to racism so much as the fact that The Simpsons as a whole isn’t funny or competently written anymore – in fact, hasn’t been since at least season eight – and should really have been put out of its misery a long time ago.
To understand the character of Apu we really need to go back to the period in time when The Simpsons was… well, good.
The Golden Age of the Simpsons is largely considered to be between seasons three and six, with a few high notes in season seven before the steep, terminal decline set in. These took place between the years 1991 and 1996. The tone of the show was fundamentally different from what it would become – the Springfield inhabited by the titular characters was picaresque and politically corrupt and contained many jokes that were darker, more cynical and more cerebral than the dumbed-down fare that was to come.
Paradoxically, the show also had a lot more heart in these episodes, and occasionally hinted that people could behave well in an unjust universe. Throughout these episodes, the character of Apu could largely be defined by his ethnicity, the fact that he was a workaholic and the fact that nobody should trust discounted merchandise from convenience stores.
Far from this last point being a pernicious example of a sneaky immigrant, it is established in the episode “Homer and Apu” that the corporation behind the Kwik-E-Mart that Apu runs (who are represented as middle aged white American men) demand that their stores be run as crookedly as possible.
As the classic era of The Simpsons progressed, everything that fleshed out Apu as a character seemed admirable. He was a vegan (as established in an episode that featured Paul McCartney and his then-wife Linda, to give some idea of how long ago we’re talking) and was an almost superhumanly dilligent employee. Whilst there is something to the stereotype that immigrants work harder than natural-born Americans, it’s hardly a damning racial prejudice to say “those people work really hard.” Indeed, in one of the last good Simpsons episodes, “Much Apu About Nothing,” anti-immigration sentiment is whipped up by the town’s lazy political leaders (sound familiar?) and the Simpsons come to realise just how important Apu and all immigrants are to the functioning of society. This is also the episode where it emerges that Apu is a college graduate with a PhD in computer science.
These were also the years in which every character in the Simpsons was some sort of weirdo, or at the very least an idiot. The aforementioned Mayor of Springfield was described in this period as a “tax-cheating, wife-swapping, pot-smoking illiterate” and only took umbridge because he had recently learned to read. Homer Simpson is one of the great fictional idiots of all time. Police Chief Wiggum is painfully stupid and an avowed proponent of excessive force, criticising police recruits for failing to shoot bystander targets during a marksmanship test and dismissing the radio call “liquor store robbery, officer down” as a nuisance rather than an emergency.
In these halcyon days, Apu stands out amongst the cast of the show for being one of the few characters who isn’t terminally dense and who is only corrupt as a facet of his job, which he performs exceptionally well in comparison to the slack and uncaring population around him.
The problem is not that Apu is a stereotype, but that he became a stereotype as the writing on The Simpsons became progressively worse. He did not undergo an arranged marriage until season nine, by which point the show was noticeable past its sell-by date. His arranged wife gives birth to octuplets in season eleven, and that’s the entirety of the gag. “Woman has too many children” was the level of hacky writing that the once mighty Simpsons had descended to.
I would argue that aside from the “brownface” acting, Apu did not start out as a racist character. He may well, however, have ended up a lazy, racist cliche as the show wore on interminably. Like a lot of people, I stopped watching The Simpsons around the year 2000, and according to people with more tenacity than myself, I haven’t missed much in the interim.
In an attempt to address the criticisms of “The Problem With Apu,” The Simpsons recently had Marge attempt to read daughter Lisa a bedtime story, only to find that old childrens’ books are problematic and contain a lot of casual racism. Lisa responds by saying that “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
She then pointedly looks at a picture of Apu bearing the legend “Don’t have a cow.”
Some people have interpreted this as a dig at Apu’s hinduism as well as a nod to one of Bart Simpson’s catchphrases and general advice to all concerned, but sadly it just backs up the point about lazy writing – the same joke was made in the episode “Lisa The Vegetarian” in 1995 when Apu himself points out that the hotdogs he sells are in fact made of tofu, and points to his “Don’t Have A Cow” t-shirt. This means that The Simpsons’ response to Hari Kondabolu’s entire movie was perfunctory and used a recycled joke from a much older, better episode. That Lisa, originally the show’s most strident defender of political correctness and civil rights, should be the voice to dismiss allegations of racism is a perfect indicator of how The Simpsons doesn’t write its characters anywhere near as well or as consistently as it once did.
The Simpsons has been painted into a corner somewhat on the issue of Apu. They can’t ditch a longstanding character without a backlash, but they also can’t have an Indian actor come in to play someone who has slowly become an unfunny Indian stereotype. The best we as an audience can do, as is so often the case with The Simpsons, is to remember how great it was twenty five years ago and try to ignore the mess it has become.
Indian-Americans (or Indian Indians, for that matter) are probably justified in finding Apu an uncomfortable and patronising character. The only defense that The Simpsons has left is that all of the characters have slowly become unfunny and one-dimensional. It’s not down to racism so much as it is down to hacky writing on a show that should have been canned eighteen years ago. Or, perhaps more accurately, Apu is now a racist character and the racism is because of the hacky writing.
The best thing to do would be to finally call time on The Simpsons. For all of our sakes.