The Problem with Apu is a 2017 documentary film written by and starring comedian Hari Kondabolu. In response, show creator Matt Groening seemed to simply not give a shit. “People love to pretend they’re offended,” he said about the Apu controversy in April.
Lisa asked in an episode: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The camera pans over to a photo of Apu on her nightstand signed with the words: “Don’t have a cow. Apu.”
Late October of 2018 Megyn Kelly made comments on her early morning NBC show, where she confessed to not understanding why blackface was wrong. “But what is racist?” Kelly asks her all-white panel. “Because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.” This seemed to baffle even the other panelists, with few people in the audience nodding their heads but even more staring in awed silence. It was very confusing as to how someone as seemingly educated as Megyn Kelly made it all the way to 2018 without knowing how racist blackface is. But it seems that even in the current era, white people pretending to be another race isn’t universally understood as being racist.
In 2017 comedian, writer, actor (and my imaginary boyfriend) Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called “The Problem with Apu” where he described the role that the Simpson’s character Apu had in his life. The controversy was almost immediate, with people online decrying the movie before anyone had even seen it. The movie was a personal reflection of living in a country as big, affluent and influential as America with only a single representation of Indian people on TV, and that representation is a narrow, uninformed, racist caricature. I couldn’t help but think back in my own life and reflect on the biases I’ve had against Indian people and how much of that actually came from the Simpsons. I thought that Indian people were spendthrift, workaholics who had funny sounding names and accents. I’ve said “Thank you come again” in that mocking, Peter Sellers-style voice several times in my childhood, finding the whole thing hilarious. The same way that people must have felt putting on blackface and singing Jump Jim Crow. The thoughts and feelings of actual Indian people were the furthest things from my mind, because, well, I didn’t really care. It was funny. I was complicit. It doesn’t matter that I was a child.
When the documentary came out the negative response was overwhelming but mostly for me, confusing. We’ve been having the conversation about representation in the media for at least the past decade, so who can be surprised that a 30-year-old show which constantly uses racial stereotypes as humor wouldn’t come up somewhere along the lines? What also struck me were how many people were so attached to Apu, a fictional Indian, that they would start attacking Hari, an actual Indian on the thoughts and feelings of actual, human, alive, breathing, 3 dimensional, Indian people. Writer Ketan Joshi, explains some of the vitriolic and racist attacks by Simpson’s fans in his sarcastically titled ‘Friends, join me for a pleasant journey into the very tolerant world of Apu fandom’. But I know my place.
You see, I’m not Indian. I’m black. Not even the cool, “my mama was a Haitian and my daddy was a Nigerian prince” black, just regular descendant from American slaves black and unlike white women watching a child raise money for family vacations, I know how to mind my own business. It wasn’t for me to say what Indian people should or shouldn’t be angry about, or offended about. But as a black American, I was intrigued by the connection between the two events. In the course of one week both “blackface is bad” and “brownface can be ok, if it’s funny” conversations were had at the same time. People debated about whether Apu was racist, while Megyn Kelly was fired to saying that she ok with blackface as long as “it was a character”. It puzzled me.
Asian Americans haven’t fought the same battles as black Americans have. With the profusely popular use of blackface in American media, through the 20th century we understand that it is racially insensitive, or at the least inappropriate. Although people [read: Megan Kelly] still seem to not understand why America has largely abandoned the practice in the mainstream. So then why is Apu any different? It seems like for many people the difference is that black people rallied against blackface for centuries but brownface against Asians is a “new” concept. In an episode titled, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Marge and Lisa discuss the lengths to which a book has to go through to be labeled “culturally sensitive” until it loses its original identity. Lisa, who up until now had been the most socially educated character says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The camera pans over to a photo of Apu on her nightstand signed with the words: “Don’t have a cow. Apu.” It’s a way for the creators to back out of responsibility, by dismissing the claim of racism as being trivial and that something that was once praised for its progressiveness, can never lose that title. It will always be progressive, no matter how much the times change, or how much the cultural conversation expands to include people that it once ignored. No. The voice actor of Apu, Hank Azaria was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance in 2010 so how could they ever be accused of doing a bad?
If The Simpsons made a character named Jherome MaCoonface BiglipsMcgee, made him a single father of 12, and had him drinking 40oz every week voiced by Tom Cruise, that would be an obvious racist character but having an Asian character named Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (not a real Indian name, just a mockery of how Indian names sound), who works in a convenience store with 8 kids, who meets his wife through an arranged marriage is fine. It’s comedy! It’s a cartoon! But I’m really struggling to find the difference.
Filmmaker Adi Shankar tried to extend a creative solution in a way that seems like way too much effort for the creators by holding a contest for a script that solves the problems with Apu. If there was such a character aimed at black people, a boycott and an apology would have been made but since these are of the Asian community this whole Apu thing is up to them to shoulder the weight. Get over it or get nothing. Stop complaining about Apu or Apu will be taken away completely.
The Simpsons had their liberalism called to task, their reputation for being a progressive cartoon that never punches down or engages in bigotry was truly tested. It appears that the tenants of what the Simpsons had gotten credit for having, weren’t actually that strong. When confronted by the communities that they actually affected, they doubled down and refused to admit any wrongdoing. When people say that if someone was offended by this they should have said something about it over 20 years ago when it aired, it’s asinine, because people are saying it now and no one gives a shit. Do you think that Indian people writing a strongly worded email on AOL in the ’90s would have made that much more difference?
So an olive branch was shown, an Indian man came to a team of mostly white men and said, “here’s a possible solution” and gave them a creative out. A way to look like they had a sense of humor. They, of course, would not have adopted Adi’s script or brought him on as a producer but they could have said “we have thought of an idea all on our own and it is to bring in an Indian writer and give Apu and Indian voice actor because we are woke and educated!” but no instead they are reportedly writing the character out. Their responses have been cowardly.
The reactions to this have been disappointing. How are there so many people who don’t understand this? How are there so many people who can understand why blackface is wrong but brownface is funny and unable to be criticized? It seems like there’s still room in the conversation to talk about the depiction of non-black people. And despite the fact that people vaguely know that blackface is wrong, due to the lengthy history of black shoe polish covered white people crying “mammy!”, we don’t have that for Asians. Asians as a concept, seem to just be hitting the American mainstream. Present in the country for decades we are just now seeming to understand that they have things like “feelings”, “ideas”, and “opinions” and that just because the American Delegation of Indian Simpsons Viewers didn’t submit a formal complaint about Apu 30 years ago, doesn’t mean that they can’t have those feelings now. It also doesn’t mean that no one has had these views all along, as the documentary showed most of those people were barely adults when they watched the Simpsons.
As a black American, I watched this whole drama play itself out week after week. It’s not my place to tell Asians what to feel, or how to express their feelings. Knowing how black Americans have fought these battles before might be useful information, or it might be irrelevant. It took many decades for black people to get white people to stop dressing up like us, to stop the greasepaint, and the big lips, and we continue to fight for representation on the screen. To acquiesce to white creators and tolerate any form of characterization even those that are narrow and outdated, doesn’t help in the long run. These ideas perpetrate further ideas and when we the audience have had a single idea of what Indian people are like, it makes it harder to accept new different characters.