Much ado about Apu: Is The Simpsons character a tired stereotype?
Series showrunner is the latest to respond to criticism after recent episode
The Simpsons showrunner Al Jean is responding to controversy over the series' well-known South Asian character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a heavily accented Indian immigrant and convenience store owner.
"I truly appreciate all responses pro and con," he posted on Twitter Friday. "Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right."
.<a href="https://twitter.com/TheSimpsons?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheSimpsons</a> I truly appreciate all responses pro and con. Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right—@AlJean
The animated character, which first appeared during the show's premiere season in 1990, has been the focus of criticism for being a racial stereotype. In the 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu, Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu examined how the famed Kwik-E-Mart clerk may have negatively affected perceptions of South Asians in North America.
Episode addresses controversy
The Simpsons addressed the ongoing debate on an episode April 7 called No Good Read Goes Unpunished, when Marge edits the fictitious children's book The Princess in the Garden to make it less offensive.
"Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" Lisa says directly to the camera before looking at a framed photo of Apu on her bedside table signed "Don't have a cow."
"Some things will be dealt with at a later date," said Marge. Lisa added: "If at all."
The response — which was teased by Jean on social media before the episode aired — didn't sit well with a lot of people.
People need to calm down about The Simpsons Apu controversy. There's no reason to question the experience of this diverse group of writers. <a href="https://t.co/OyIx32xwqt">pic.twitter.com/OyIx32xwqt</a>—@Pappiness
Honestly, the worst response is always “It was good back then; it should be good now.” Nope. Norms evolve. Societies grow. We learn. We acknowledge mistakes as a society. Something that was acceptable in the past may not be acceptable now. That’s not such an absurd notion.—@kumailn
We know our people better than you. We know our stories. We know our pains. Our dignity. Our power. We know our history. We know our diversity. We know our problems. We know our triumphs. So, sit down. We got this.—@harikondabolu
Among the objections is that the character's exaggerated accent is voiced by Hank Azaria. His work has won him several Emmys.
"I'm not necessarily a fan of a white guy voicing an Indian character," Orlando-based producer Amar Shah told CBC radio host Brent Bambury on Saturday. "But Apu, to me, started off as a type and as the years progressed, the character became more nuanced."
Shah, whose parents owned a convenience store and gas station, is among many fans defending the comedic nature of the role — including those from the South Asian community itself.
"Apu was kind of all we had," said L.A.-based comedian Rajiv Satyal about growing up with a lack of South Asian representation on television.
But he says now, things have changed, with the work of Hollywood heavyweights such as The Big Sick's Kumail Nanjiani, Quantico's Priyanka Chopra and The Daily Show's Hasan Minhaj among others.
"If the argument is that Apu is our only representation, then that's clearly untrue."
Satyal, who wrote an opinion piece about Kondabolu's documentary, also argues Apu's accent isn't all that bad.
"My parents are very well versed in English but my dad still has a very strong accent," he told CBC News. "He still makes grammatical mistakes in terms of slang and things like that. It's funny."
But that's also part of the problem, says writer-producer Jhanvi Motla.
Times have changed
Motla, who was born in India and lives in the U.S., acknowledges that The Simpsons "makes fun of everyone", but says the fundamental difference is that humour has changed significantly since Apu was created and yet the series hasn't kept up.
"It's OK if you make that joke once and then you move on," she told CBC News. "It's a different thing when every episode, you're making the same joke."
She says the industry has had a tendency in the past to make minorities the "butt of a joke rather than being the lead of a joke."
"By consistently reinforcing one image of a character, you inevitably have set a community up to be seen that way. Even if that's not your intention, you've done that."
Motla says as a teenager in the U.S., she was told she "sounded like Apu." Kondabolu's documentary included similar statements. When media informs so much of our cultural understanding, Motla says, shows like The Simpsons have some responsibility.
"Even now they're not willing to take blame," she said. "It's hard for them to understand because they've never been bullied over this."