In the midst of growing controversy surrounding the character of Indian store-owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons, there has recently been uncertainty as to whether the character will remain in the show, with rumours saying he’ll be cut completely. While nothing has been confirmed yet, the debate is one that has definitely split opinion across the world and again reiterates the need for a discussion on diversity and the representation of people of colour in mainstream media. Is there reason to get rid of Apu and what does he mean to the Indian diaspora across the world?
Comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary released a year ago titled The Problem With Apu first sparked the fuse for this controversy and raised several important questions whilst doing so.
Taking aim at the character, Kondabolu addressed how profoundly this character affected young South Asians growing up in America in the 80s and 90s upon the show’s release, and how Apu being nothing short of a heavily-accented stereotype encouraged racist bullying for him and many of the interviewees featured in the documentary. In addition to this, there was even an insight into how the show, with Hank Azaria, a white voice actor playing an Indian character in a mocking way, is similar to minstrelsy and the minstrel shows of the past that ridiculed black people and culture.
To a live audience in a 2007 interview, Azaria talked on how his introduction to playing the character involved producers allegedly asking him explicitly “how offensive” he could make the Indian accent, which signifies that, despite it maybe not being outwardly intended as a malicious and xenophobic attack on Indians by those running the show, Apu’s character is a symbol of the West’s obsessions with those who aren’t white and immigrants as a source of humour, derision and amusement.
I’m a teenager who still remembers barely any representation of people of colour as a child, and although a different generation to Hari Kondabolu, like him, I was also grateful for any representation of myself and my culture. I was grateful for anything: anything that even slightly strayed from a typical white narrative, anything that I, as a British Asian and child of colour, could relate to.
Significant changes have been made in the past few years. Representation, in a short time, has come a long way. With box-office hits like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther exploring the narratives of people of colour, normalising us without making us feel “other”, I don’t and shouldn’t feel that need anymore to accept what I’m given, and have the right to the truly authentic stories and presentations of people of colour in mainstream Western media, which in this case is another one of the main reasons people are speaking out.
This Indian store-owner and father of eight who had an arranged marriage is presented as “servile, devious, goofy” (as mentioned in the documentary), and ultimately fairly alien in Springfield which Kondabolu said reflects the way America perceived Indians at the time.
But, what we shouldn’t forget is that Apu in himself is a construct. Despite being one of the more three-dimensional characters in the show as a whole, he was not made for Indians, living in America, India or elsewhere. Apu’s culture is the basis of his existence in the show, and while he has assisted the plot in many episodes over the course of the show, the inclusion of him more likely than not stemmed from his Indian background and the choice to make him so racialized in the first place. It can’t be said that he was made focally for Indian people to watch and completely empathise with.
Airing for 29 years with 30 seasons under its belt, The Simpsons is celebrated as iconic, and perhaps more importantly, as a mirror, held up to expose both the faults and idiosyncrasies of American society. For a cartoon, the show has targeted everything from Fox News to the Iraq War as material as part of its satire.
Nonetheless, this is the first real criticism of its kind for The Simpsons and the way it’s been dealt with by the programme’s producers and directors has arguably aggravated the debate further instead of diffusing it. In using Lisa, notably one of the show’s most liberal characters, to dismiss Apu’s racialized and stereotypical depiction in saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and was inoffensive is now politically incorrect”, makes it disappointing to see The Simpsons using progress and changing times and changing attitudes as an excuse for something that misrepresented a whole group of individuals in a time when there was hardly any representation of them at all.
I personally can’t claim to have the answers to this dilemma, but there is something positive that can come from this. Nothing can be done to change the experiences of Hari Kondabolu and those like him in relation to this character in the past, as he himself said it was “too late” for actor Hank Azaria to “step aside” however with growing representation of South Asians across the world, the show itself could be part of a movement of positivity and progress for the better.
Perhaps exploring the lives of Apu’s children and their cultural background, as second-generation Indian immigrants, voiced by Indian Americans, could be a more useful way of reinventing something that was considered harmful into something diverse and representative. Omitting his character completely shows an unwillingness to develop. In light of this controversy though, one thing has been made completely clear: diversity is essential to the media, to TV, and shouldn’t be anything but a fulfilling and enriching exploration of characters from varied backgrounds, good and bad, to the same extent that white characters receive. It still isn’t too late for future generations to be inspired and to feel included.
Images courtesy of Hari Kondabolu and Flickr