“Release the hounds!”
As we live and breathe the era of outing in Tinseltown, another revered and hugely successful icon has been exposed: The Simpsons.
A documentary released last year, called The Problem with Apu, made by actor and standup comic Hari Kondabolu, takes aim at the show’s portrayal of the Kwik-E-Mart owner, Apu, using some big name celebrities to argue that the character is a racist stereotype.
As Ned Flanders would say, “Okily Dokily.”
The show has now released a new episode titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”, in response. In it, Lisa turns to the camera and says: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
Lisa then looks at a picture of Apu with the catchphrase “Don’t have a cow!” written on it.
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge says.
“If at all,” Lisa responds.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect… What can you do?” pic.twitter.com/Bj7qE2FXWN
— Soham (@soham_burger) April 9, 2018
The documentary director, Kondabolu, tweeted this in response:
Wow. “Politically Incorrect?” That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad. https://t.co/lYFH5LguEJ
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018
Whilst I agree it’s a shame that the episode is seemingly dismissive of the discussion, that’s where my alignment with Kondabolu ends.
Like the director, I too am first generation born to Indian immigrants, so I understand where he’s coming from; but I just don’t agree. Apu is definitely a stereotype – just like every other character in the series. That’s the problem that I have with The Problem with Apu. There’s not really much of a problem at all.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Problem with Apu’ to understand the director’s perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.
I grew up thinking of Apu as I thought of every other Simpsons’ character – a caricature. Bart was a stereotypical 10-year-old boy. Flanders, Marge, Dr Nick Riviera, Lionel Hutz Attorney-at-Law – these were stereotyped characters exaggerated in the name of humour. The star of the show, Homer, was the biggest parody of hopeless husband and fatherhood failure there’s ever been. The show was, and is, comedy gold.
I’ve never felt insulted about Apu, mainly because there were some beautiful aspects of Indian culture that were also shown. And undoubtedly, Apu was smarter and a better person than Homer in every scene.
Just take a look at this clip of Apu’s arranged wedding, which Homer crashes pretending to be the Hindu god, Ganesh. It’s proof that almost every moment in The Simpsons is merely a set up to show Homer at his hilarious worst.
There is just one area that I do agree with when it comes to this documentary: if the show were new in 2017, we wouldn’t stand for a South-East Asian character to be voiced by a white man. Hank Azaria, using a terrible, unrealistic accent, has always been the voice of Apu. In 2017, we know that’s so unnecessary, that we have an actual term for it – ‘whitewashing‘. But we’re a much more aware society, these days.
In the trailer, Kondabolu makes the point that people of Indian descent have overlooked the aspects of the Apu stereotype that made them uncomfortable because they were so thirsty to see something they could relate to on screen. I think that’s true. Because, at the core, this all comes down to representation. The real problem with stereotypes occurs when there is a total lack of other representation. And we do need more of it, which is why our love for Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari is growing.
I still think, in the context of the tone and intent, and the astute commentary on professions (teachers, cops, nuclear technicians), personalities (alcoholics, wealthy, depressive, lonely), and marginalised groups (gay, single people, ethnic groups) – the portrayal of Apu sits firmly in the realm of satire.
If you’re still not convinced, let’s look at it in another context: let’s look at Malcolm Roberts. The then-Senator was busted last year for not declaring his dual British and Australian citizenship. In response, he tweeted this, to distance himself from the fact he was born in India, even though it was his British dual citizenship that was in question:
— Malcolm Roberts (@MRobertsQLD) July 18, 2017
Wow. Ok, calm down, Mal – we all know you’re too good to own a convenience store, which people do to earn an honest living providing a service to the community…and the last I heard, no Kwik-E-Mart owners lost their jobs this year due to unconstitutional behaviour…
But I digress.
Roberts didn’t need to be so patronising about an Indian stereotype. Couldn’t he have said, “No, I’m not a surgeon. I’m not a lawyer”? That’s also a stereotype – but one with much more positive connotations.
Instead, he chose to use #NotIndian.
The Mamamia Out Loud team tackle a listener question from a woman who’s catching herself having racist thoughts. Post continues after…
Under pressure and in the spotlight, Roberts deliberately used an example that he thought Aussies could relate to, no matter how demeaning it was to the people he was trying to separate himself from. #NotFunny
Roberts’ actions are vastly different to the approach in The Simpsons; he’s infamously exposed himself as much more Krusty the Klown than Apu. And looking at the concept of stereotype that way, that settles the question for me as to whether The Simpsons is racist or not.
For the record, I related much more ten-year-old troublemaker Bart than Apu. So eat my shorts.