By now, dear reader, you may have surmised that some of us are Mad Online™ about how The Simpsons addressed its largest and longest-running controversy: The character of Apu. Sunday’s episode had Lisa and Marge vaguely alluding to the Apu controversy only to shrug it off and say they might never address it – and that’s just sad.
A quick brief on Apu: Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart owner is an Indian immigrant voiced by a white man (Hank Azaria, who’s listening to the noise) and mostly written by white writers. In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu made a documentary about and called The Problem With Apu which featured prominent South Asians from Hasan Minhaj to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy describing how the character informed people’s preconceptions of them as they grew up.
And that’s what’s so hugely wrong with The Simpsons responding to the growing criticism in this way. Yes, comedy can be offensive. Yes, The Simpsons is full of stereotypes. But for so many years – too many years – Apu was one of the only South Asian characters on TV. (And whatever other characters existed, none stuck like Apu did.) There are positive fathers and husbands to offset the representation of Homer, and cops who work hard unlike Chief Wiggum. Apu didn’t have a counterexample.
Even if the writers did their research and had the best intentions (although evidence suggests that they really just didn’t care), Apu was always going to bear the burden of representing approximately one billion people. He arrived at a time when visibility alone could feel like a victory for South Asians, when many of us were actually excited to see ourselves on The Simpsons or in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom without considering that maybe we deserved a more accurate or nuanced portrayal.
In 2018, what the Simpsons creative team must face is the legacy of their creation; the generation of South Asian artists and children of immigrants who answered for Apu every single day. Dismissing the concerns of people who used to feel invisible is exactly the wrong thing to do (and not a good look).
What stings even more is that The Simpsons has actually done good work with Apu in the past, such as an episode that turns Homer and the town around about illegal immigration or the 2016 episode which introduced his American-born nephew. The current analysis could have led to a full Apu spotlight episode – a chance for the show to give him more depth and course correct for the future, not to mention bring in South Asian writers and actors for authenticity.
More than anything, it looks like The Simpsons‘ writers did this to cause a stir, which is exactly what they’ve accomplished, and that’s disheartening. They’re saying “We hear you” and “We’re annoyed with what we hear,” and then going against their critics just to be edgy and part of the conversation.
We’re lucky now to be in a time where Apu is less damaging, because we have more complex and varied South Asian characters on TV. Maybe, as Marge suggested in the episode, “Some things will be dealt with a later date.” But it’s more than likely that, as Lisa counters, they won’t, and that this is the show’s official response which diminishes a bigger issue.
I hope at the very least that an entire generation of children doesn’t have to answer again for the show digging its heels into this caricature. The political correctness mocked in this episode is what finally got us more and better South Asian representation on TV – from New Girl to Silicon Valley and with so much in between – while The Simpsons remains static. I’ll be watching those shows instead.