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“The Simpsons” To Critics Who Say Apu Is A Racist Caricature: “What Can You Do?”

The long-awaited response from “The Simpsons” team to the Apu controversy is here and it’s . . . not good.

“The Simpsons” To Critics Who Say Apu Is A Racist Caricature: “What Can You Do?”
[Photo: courtesy of The Simpsons/Fox]

What: A long-awaited answer to the question of whether The Simpsons team would ever address the Apu controversy on-air.

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Who: The Simpsons staff and comedian Hari Kondabolu.

Why we care: “Thank you, come again!” Apu Nahasapeemapetilon utters this stereotype-crystallizing phrase less than a dozen times across several decades on The Simpsons. But he said it often enough to make a huge impact on comedian Hari Kondabolu and many other American children of South Asian descent who grew up with the Simpsons’ resident convenience store clerk. Kondabolu went on to make a poignant documentary about the phenomenon called The Problem with Apu. In it, the comedian makes a compelling case for why the show’s depiction of the lone Indian character borders on minstrelsy. He also offers some constructive suggestions for how the show could address the matter, such as letting Apu prosper as the owner of a chain of Kwik-E-Marts, or by letting his perennial infant children grow up so they can have storylines of their own. The documentary, which aired on TruTV last fall, got enough attention that it seemed possible the writers of the show might address it.

“I think the documentary made some really interesting points and gave us a lot to think about and we really are thinking about it,” said Apu voice actor Hank Azaria back in December.

Of course, the more telling remark is what he said next: “Definitely anybody that was hurt or offended by it, or by any character or vocal performance, it’s really upsetting that it was offensive or hurtful to anybody.”

It’s a classic dodge, a way to acknowledge that people are offended without conceding that they’re entitled to feel that way. As rote and insubstantial as Azaria’s response was, it seems like late-Christmas Carol Scrooge-level introspection compared to how the show itself reacted to The Problem with Apu.

On Sunday night’s episode of The Simpsons, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Marge has a difficult time editing an old children’s book into a woke 2018 version. In the final moments of the episode, Marge and Lisa lament the seeming impossibility of remaining in step with the times and not hurting anyone’s feelings. Then, this exchange happens:

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Marge: Well, what am I supposed to do?

Lisa: [Turning to look at viewer directly] It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” [Turns to look at framed photo of Apu]

Marge: Some things will be dealt with at a later date.

Lisa: If at all.

[Both turn to look at the viewer directly again.]

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It’s not even a cop-out. Instead, it’s something in between a noncommittal nod toward the controversy and a defiant nose-thumbing at it. First of all, was the show’s portrayal of Apu ever applauded? White audiences latched onto it because it gave them a pop culture-sanctioned vocabulary for safely diminishing brown people. If nothing else, The Problem with Apu served as a case for re-evaluating why people liked the character in the first place. And then, to reduce Kondabolu’s legitimate criticisms of the show to “political correctness” is self-serving and patronizing. It places the show as hapless victims of oversensitivity, rather than powerful creators of culture who got something wrong and refused to ever change it.

“What can you do?” At one point, the answer was just “Do better.” But considering the show’s steep drop-off in quality and its hostility to criticism, what The Simpsons could do is go away and let fans remember its problematic good years in peace.