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Solving ‘The Problem with Apu’ really isn’t that hard

You can’t do anything if you don’t bother trying.

Carlos Villicana, Special Projects Editor

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After nearly 28 years on television, backlash is not new for “The Simpsons.” The most recent wave of it grew in response to a scene in the episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.”

The scene in question drew both criticism for what was perceived to be a reference to the 2017 documentary “The Problem with Apu,” which explores how “The Simpsons” character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has affected Indian people. The documentary sees comedian Hari Kondabolu critique of the character, an Indian immigrant, because of its role in perpetuating stereotypes of the people it claims to represent.

Apu’s voice and catchphrases are cited as examples of things which are used to mock people who look or sound like him. As pointed out in the documentary, Indian people have minimal representation in widely consumed American media — thus the few that are seen, such as Apu, become more influential in shaping how the people they represent are perceived in the real world.

The series’ producers used this scene to claim they don’t know how to deal with the Apu character in a manner that satisfies all parties. I don’t believe them, and it honestly isn’t that hard to start taking action.

The show’s creators express this through a storyline in the episode which sees Marge Simpson attempting to pass on a book she loved in her youth to her daughter, Lisa. They both quickly realize this book is outdated and offensive. After Marge is told that her efforts to edit the book render it pointless, she asks Lisa what she should do.

“It’s hard to say,” Lisa begins. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

The frame zooms in on Lisa’s face as she says this, staring at the viewer as if she were addressing them. She turns to a picture of Apu as she says this. This scene concludes with Marge stating that some things will be dealt with at a later time. “If at all,” Lisa adds as they both turn to the viewer. Clearly, the two are speaking on behalf of the show’s producers.

The logic employed here is wilfully ignorant and exceptionally moronic.

To claim that this stereotype was once “applauded and inoffensive” overlooks any criticism the show has previously received. In 2007, Hank Azaria acknowledged that the voice was “not tremendously accurate” and “a little, uh, stereotype.” A writer of the show later stated that this wasn’t the case, but being aware of Azaria’s comments shows that both parties have been aware of this critique for at least more than a decade.

An act being applauded by most at one point in history does not mean it’s inoffensive. You aren’t likely to see many applaud depictions of blackface and other similar practices anymore.

The makers of “The Simpsons” don’t have to write the character off of the show. It’s not too late to make changes to the character and actually try using it for some good purpose other than comedy. Changing the character may upset some viewers, but this show isn’t exactly new to that.

A point which Kondabolu focuses on in “The Problem with Apu” is that the character has been voiced by Azaria, a white actor, since he first appeared in 1990. This is the cartoon equivalent to actions such as blackface — his portrayal of a character from a race he is not spreads harmful stereotypes. Testaments given by numerous actors of South Asian descent in the documentary show the effect Azaria’s role has had.

“We lived next to 7-Eleven and there was always like a sense of ‘oh please don’t let it be an Indian person working behind the counter because if it is then my friends are going to do the Apu thing,’” actor Maulik Pancholy said in the film.

Azaria voices many characters on the show. Having an actor of Indian descent voice Apu in Azaria’s place would not cost the actor a job. In the documentary, Kondabolu acknowledges that the show’s writers have developed the character by giving him traits not tied to a stereotype. If they’ve done this before, they can continue to do it. Stereotyping isn’t necessary; it is lazy representation.

Kondabolu also claims that the show has been especially effective at molding how viewers see Indians because it has often been the only representation of Indians in widely consumed American media. “The Simpsons” could contribute to correcting this via the aforementioned character development. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask to have other new characters of Indian descent, especially when being of a certain race is not an emphasized trait of the character.

That “if at all” lines makes it pretty clear that the matter is of no importance to the creators of “The Simpsons.” They’ve given in to doing nothing because taking action is hard, especially when you don’t know where to start. The problem with this is that I do not believe the producers are genuinely this clueless about how to fix this situation.

Instead of asking what one can do to an audience that cannot directly respond and create change, the showrunners could try reaching out to actual Indian people. “The Problem with Apu” features about a dozen actors they can speak to, and there is no reason that they have to be limited to on-camera performers. Having different perspectives contributing to the show can only help it.

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