Image: The Simpsons/Fox

The Apu Controversy

For a long time, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was about the only representation of South Asian-Eastern people on American television. The Kwik-E-Mart proprietor was praised for a while for the positive representational value he provided, but the tide has turned against this Simpsons character – now, Apu is the subject of a battle regarding his portrayal in the future.

In November 2017, American comedian Hari Kondabolu debuted the documentary The Problem with Apu which explores the representation of negative stereotypes of Indians and South Asians created through the character of Apu. The documentary sparked a larger dialogue about the importance of representing marginalised groups.

Now, Apu is the subject of a battle regarding his portrayal in the future

The Simpsons responded to The Problem with Apu in a recent episode titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.” In the episode, Marge reads Lisa an old book, which used to be one of her favourites, and they realize it is now considered culturally offensive. Marge edits the story to avoid stereotypes and meet modern standards, and both are in agreement that the story is not as good as the original. Then Lisa breaks the fourth wall and addresses viewers with the rhetorical question: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect – what can you do?” Then, a cut to a photo of Apu, signed ‘don’t have a cow’.

Predictably, the internet blew up, slating the show for reducing the controversy down to just a matter of political correctness, and for joking about the issue rather than changing the character. It got to the point when Hank Azaria, Apu’s voice actor, offered to step aside from the character if it were the ‘right thing to do.’

Much Apu About Nothing? (Reece Goodall)

The Simpsons, despite its cartoon trappings, is an incredibly mature show, and it has treated any number of themes with a great deal of insight and thought. It’s not that Apu has escaped this and is the only one-dimensional element still hanging on – he’s not simply a dumb immigrant running a convenience store. Many episodes have spent time developing his complexity as a character: he is educated (he holds a PhD in Computer Science) and has struggled with traditions in his faith (he is terrified by the spectre of his arranged marriage). He has faced tribulations in his marriage, contending with his eight children and the fallout from his affair, and contemplated his place in American society when immigrants become the target of a new law. Critics attack Apu working in a convenience store, but this is a choice motivated by his love for his friends and of his town.

Scrubbing the show of anything that could be considered negative is a step backward

Every single character in The Simpsons is a stereotype of some description – although you could argue that Apu has had more impact because of the scarcity of South Asian-Eastern characters. The show has been equally happy to depict (both positively and negatively) Scots, Brits, Italians, the French, Germans, Christians, Jews, the Japanese, the Chinese, black people, white people, Mexicans… you get where I’m going with this?

Obviously, it’s not particularly pleasant to hear that children were bullied because of a character, and the creation of such a character nowadays would probably be dismissed as lazy and racist (I think that Apu being established and developed helps negate this in The Simpsons). However, scrubbing the show of anything that could be considered negative is a step backward – perhaps the show could use Apu further to explore discussions around his culture, but trying to force it because you personally don’t agree with the representation would be the beginning of the end for The Simpsons and, in the end, comedy itself.

In an article examining the issue, immigration activist Ali Noorani assures readers that he was all for cultural humour, but only if it never hurts anybody’s feelings. This misses the point on so many levels. Comedy needs to provoke and offend because that can facilitate discussions about things that matter. And then, nobody is specifically targeted by The Simpsons. It’s not a matter of ‘laugh at Apu, the funny brown guy’ – rather, it highlights that everybody has faults and flaws, but also tons of positive characteristics.

Is there a problem with Apu? Possibly so and, if there is, the discussion we’re having now can go a long way in helping to tackle it.

The Bigger Picture (Manny Pannu)

The representation of South Asians on television is improving. Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project and Aziz Ansari’s Netflix original show Master of None have both been noted to have leading South Asian characters and to show alternative depictions of South Asian characters with the content not being grounded in their ethnicity. Kumail Nanjiani, who plays the character of Dinesh in HBO’s Silicon Valley, has mentioned how the show is able to play on racial stereotypes and make crude racist jokes for comedic purposes without his ethnicity absorbing the totality of the character. However, The Big Bang Theory, despite having a prominent South Asian character, “Raj” Koothrappali, is reliant on stereotypes for the character’s background and many of jokes centred around him. Perhaps at some point, we may have to face the question of stereotypes in comedy and how they are used.

The Apu controversy brings to light many key issues that television and media industries are facing

Recently Bill Maher, an American Comedian who hosts the weekly talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, weighed in on the Apu controversy and revisited old programming with the standards of the present. Maher found it particularly problematic that audiences are visiting or revising programmes to the surprisal that some of the content is what society would now consider inappropriate and offensive.

The sitcom Friends, which last aired in 2004, has not resonated with modern audiences who found many of the jokes and plots problematic, labelling them transphobic, homophobic and sexist. The show has also been criticized for its lack of diversity and engaging with body shaming. However, it is not only modern audiences who find an issue with the content of shows that have aired decades ago. Actress Molly Ringwald revisited The Breakfast Club in the age of #MeToo, finding some of the content troubling in hindsight. Ringwald’s article engages with the ongoing problem of enjoying things that no longer fit with present standards and the problem of reconciliation for the context of things we have affection for.

Maher holds the conviction that we cannot be annoyed because we were not always who we would eventually become as a society and that perhaps, every generation could be called the ‘what were you thinking?’ generation. Maher comments that we cannot “blame someone for not being ‘woke’ before ‘woke’ was a thing,” and that we are currently tolerating things that we will be ashamed about in the near future.

The Apu controversy brings to light many key issues that television and media industries are facing: how to address the representation of marginalized groups, the problematic use of stereotypes in comedy, and to what extent we can impose today’s standards on things that were created and distributed many years ago.

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