The Simpsons' Response to Apu Controversy is a Dismissive Disappointment

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor
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The Simpsons is far and away one of the most influential, well-recognized animated television shows. The show has run for 29 seasons and counting and has racked up 31 Primetime Emmy Awards as well as numerous other accolades, often earning a top spot on “greatest TV shows” lists.

But The Simpsons has been more than just wildly successful for the past few decades; since 1990, the show has been reinforcing a damaging stereotype of South Asians through the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian owner of the “Kwik-E-Mart” convenience store. For a long time, Apu was not widely considered an issue. However, last fall, a truTV documentary called The Problem with Apu, written by Hari Kondabolu, brought the controversy to light, exposing how the problematic character of Apu helped proliferate harmful stereotypes. In the documentary, Kondabolu spoke with several other South Asian-American entertainers — including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, and Hasan Minhaj, and detailed his own experience living in the shadow of Apu. They traded stories of how the stereotype his character popularized has dominated their lives, from being constantly called “Apu” to hearing the character’s famous catchphrases shouted at them by strangers to being asked to deliver their lines “like Apu” while performing.

The documentary also highlighted the disturbing (but not entirely unsurprising) fact that Apu is voiced by a white man, Hank Azaria. Azaria, who also voices several other characters on the show, avoided answering questions for Kondabolu’s documentary, but has addressed the issue in the past. In a 2013 Huffington Post interview, he stated that “[he really does] love the character and [does] try to do right by him accent-wise and character-wise” but that he did “understand why people could have been offended or upset, and [he’s] sorry for that.”

On Sunday, the creators of The Simpsons finally addressed the controversy in a new episode. However, instead of acknowledging their mistake, the show’s dismissive response deflected the blame to an over-eager politically correct culture. In the scene, Marge, the mother of the Simpson family, reads a book to her daughter Lisa that she has edited to make less culturally offensive. Lisa then looks directly at the camera and states, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect.” As she looks at a picture of Apu with Bart’s catchphrase, “Don’t have a cow!” written alongside it, she asks, “What can you do?” Marge then offers a cryptic response, saying, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” “If it all,” Lisa adds, before the scene comes to a close.

Many people instantly criticized the show, with Kondabolu tweeting, “Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.” He later also tweeted: “In The Problem with Apu, I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons’ response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”

However, the biggest issue, with The Simpsons’ response to the controversy is that it is yet another attempt to normalize the stereotype. The show has been doing this since Apu was introduced, and much of the reason derives from the show’s structure. The satire-based show seems to revolve around stereotypes with many of the characters fitting directly into them—such as Ned Flanders (the goofy, overly-friendly neighbor); Chief Wiggum (the donut-eating, lazy, negligent cop); or Mayor Quimby (the power-hungry, opportunistic politician). Many of the show’s jokes riff off of these stereotypes. The character of Apu also fits directly into a stereotype, but while Flanders, Wiggum, and Quimby all conform to occupational stereotypes, Apu’s is a product of his race. Despite this crucial difference, the show does not approach Apu’s stereotype in a different way, and therefore attempts to make a blatantly discriminatory stereotype seem acceptable.

The Simpsons’ recent response tries to do the same thing. Lisa’s line “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect” is particularly troubling. Here —via the show’s writers — she is essentially arguing that because something has been accepted and praised before, it should not be criticized now. By looking to the past, The Simpsons tries to make the stereotype appear normal. But like Kondabolu declared in his tweet, this form of normalization is a dismissal of “what many of us consider progress.”

This argument in favor of tradition and the normalization of what was considered acceptable in the past shares a lot in common with the “make America great again” ideals of many on the far right. Much of what they are fighting for stems from preserving what has been established and preventing political correctness from spreading. While this is not to assume that any of The Simpsons writers subscribe to this political ideology, their excuse for keeping around a damaging and hurtful stereotype echoes the far right’s claims, with an attempt to look to the past for what was considered normal and socially acceptable.

Perhaps even more ominous are the final lines of the scene. While Marge’s line, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date” suggests a glimmer of hope, Lisa’s follow-up, “If it all,” immediately casts doubt on whether The Simpsons will ever fully acknowledge the harm that Apu’s stereotype has caused and if the show will ever make a change.