For those who expected more from “The Simpsons” other than a weak retort on its Apu situation, the joke is on us. In last night’s episode, “No Good Reads Go Unpunished,” the FOX comedy finally responded to the conversation surrounding comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem with Apu.” In doing so, the creators continued to dig a hole for themselves.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect… What can you do?” pic.twitter.com/Bj7qE2FXWN
— Soham (@soham_burger) April 9, 2018
“The Problem with Apu” dealt with Apu Nahasapeemapetillon, the token Indian convenience store owner from “The Simpsons.” You know the one, he has a thick Indian accent, he’s oh so cunning and cheap, he has an arranged marriage and his wife gives birth to octuplets. Ever since his debut on the show, Apu became the epitome of what South Asians sound like, act like, and behave like. Ironically, Apu is voiced by white actor Hank Azaria.
While we now have a much better case for accurate representation of South Asians on TV, Kondabolu was naturally affected by Apu, growing up in Queens as the son of Indian immigrants. He wasn’t the only one. In his 50-minute documentary, Kondabolu spoke to several other South Asian-Americans from the entertainment industry like Utkarsh Ambudkar, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Aparna Nancherla, Hasan Minhaj, Sakina Jaffrey. He spoke to former surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy. Their experiences of being bullied with the Apu accent, not getting meaningful roles because of their ethnicity, and just the blatant racism were pretty much unanimous.
Apu’s problematic existence was already in question but this documentary put a heavy spotlight on the character. However, the show’s creators remain indifferent and dare I say, arrogant, with the message they’ve chosen to send: ‘we hear you but we will ignore it and continue perpetuating racial stereotypes because it seems to have worked for so long, why would we bother correcting it now?’
This was “The Simpsons” chance to really reflect on its history. While they can’t fully take back all the years of Apu being a stereotyped Indian immigrant, this was an opportunity to embrace their faulty ways and give us hope about Apu’s future. They chose to go another way.
In the episode last night, Marge Simpson reads her favorite childhood book to her daughter Lisa, only to realize that its filled with racial stereotypes. To rectify this, Marge rewrites the entire book and eliminates these stereotypes so the book is “as inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati.” But Lisa immediately points out that there is no point to the book anymore. Together, they wonder can be done?
Lisa: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
Marge:”Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”
Lisa: “If at all.”
Cue a blank stare at the viewers. During this conversation, the camera pans to a photo of Apu on the nightstand, which reads “don’t have a cow, Apu.” Real subtle stuff.
There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, Apu was always offensive. The makers just happily ignored how offensive he is. Dana Gould, one of the writers, basically admitted to this in “The Problem with Apu.” He said, and I paraphrase, that Americans find certain accents funny and that is why they made Apu the way he is. Does that make it okay? Certainly, certainly not.
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.
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018
It’s hard to understand what the show was trying to prove with this little stunt last night. In a way, they’ve just acknowledged what we’ve been saying for years and what Kondabolu made an effort to emphasize. On the other hand, with one quick scene, they’ve completely abandoned their own notions with their feeble excuse of political incorrectness.
Over the years, “The Simpsons” has almost always had a witty take on many a pop culture phenomenon. You’d expect the writers and creators would take the time to come up with at least a dignified response. I mean, if it took four entire months for *this* to be their comeback, maybe it is time to finally just bury them in the hole I was saying they’ve successfully dug.
TO THE JOURNALISTS WHO HAVE ASKED ME FOR A PUBLIC STATEMENT ABOUT LAST NIGHT’S SIMPSONS EPISODE, I JUST WANT SAY: “Congratulations to the Simpsons for being talked about & being seen as relevant again.”
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018