I think like a great many of the world’s population, I just gradually stopped watching The Simpsons. Not because it did something offensive or wrong, but much like the old school friend you used to see everyday, you just gradually drift apart. Long gone are the times when an episode starring America’s yellowest family could draw in around thirty million viewers. These days a viewership of five million is generally considered a success.
Now The Simpsons has had its share of controversies during its tenure. At one point it even reached the White House, with then President George H. W. Bush stating in a 1992 speech: “We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.”
Now he wasn’t the first, nor last person to have felt offended by The Simpsons. But considering it’s been running for nearly 30 years, I was fairly confident that the days someone would put The Simpsons and “controversy” in the same sentence were long gone.
Apparently not, as on 19th November, broadcast on American TV will be a one hour documentary titled “The Problem With Apu”. Brought to the screen by standup comedian Hari Kondabolu, his documentary seeks to unpack how the portrayal of Apu has affected the lives of South Asian Americans.
Now to be fair, I haven’t seen the documentary in question. And considering I live in the UK, it will most likely be several months before it’s legally available on this side of the Atlantic. I also can’t speak as to how similar Hari’s and my own life experiences might be; but in terms of our broad backgrounds I sense that there are at least a few shared connections. For example both our parents are first generation South Asian immigrants who left their homes in search of a better life (His were doctors, mine were lawyers). And like him I grew up stuck between the two worlds of east and west.
One aspect that is clear from watching the trailer is that Hari is seemingly uncomfortable with the fact that Hank Azaria, a white man, is the one who has been voicing Apu since his inception.
Now on this point I am completely on the opposing side of Hari. While I appreciate the need for diversity in a visual sense for the screen and stage; I’m far less supporting of that attitude when it comes to voice-acting. Do we really need our voice actors to reflect the exact same racial makeup of the characters they voice?
Hari clearly believes they do (at least he does in relation to Apu), but I myself find people voicing characters they are not one of the most attractive parts of acting. Maybe that’s because of my theatre background where, in order to save costs, most actors play multiple parts. But even if we were to just look at animation, why can’t people like America Ferrera voice a blonde white girl, as she does in the How to Train Your Dragon series? Or Linda Larkin voicing Jasmine, an Arab princess? Or does diversity only work in one direction?
I suppose that fundamentally is the problem when it comes to issues of diversity. Where do you draw the line? For example (and if you’ll bear with the tangent), I was pleased that Warner Brothers stuck to the Asian part when casting for the main leads in the upcoming adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians. And yet for some that wasn’t enough. Specifically actress Jamie Chung, who on finding out that Henry Golding, the male lead, was mixed-race, stated such casting was “bullshit”.
Though she later clarified her statement, stating she meant no offense, it’s still a blatant example of how people within the same group can’t even agree what “good” diversity is. As the old adage goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
But to return to “The Problem With Apu,” according to several TV spots Hari also takes the time to interview other famed members of the American South-Asian community, including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Hasan Minhaj, Russell Peters, Sakina Jaffrey, and former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy.
One shared problem that is made loud and clear in these short interview clips is that the portrayal of Apu had caused some of them to be bullied and taunted by their childhood (and later adult) peers. Sad as that it, should a TV show really be blamed for the behaviour of the ignorant? Isn’t it the responsibility of the majority to seek out more information? Or at the very least the responsibility of the minority to make themselves heard?
Apu, in my opinion, was just a way to focus the insults. Would these people have suddenly stopped making jokes at the expense of Hari and his colleagues if Apu didn’t exist? Of course not. They would have just been bullied with a stereotype unrelated to The Simpsons.
The pains of the past can’t be erased. But that doesn’t mean South Asian people as a whole need to be treated with kid gloves. Especially since The Simpsons has a long tradition of stereotyping literally every single cast, creed and ethnic group on the planet.
That’s the thing about stereotypes. You can’t simply erase it by hiding it. Rather you erase it by adding more and more roles so that the original stereotype becomes insignificant. For example we’ve had hundreds (maybe thousands) of different Scottish characters on screen. Because of that Groundskeeper Willie is seen as just one example of what a Scottish person can be.
I suppose Hari’s biggest argument here could be that roles for South Asians just aren’t there. And he would be right. Which is why works such as The Mindy Project or Master of None are increasingly critical to the perception of South Asians by wider American society.
And it’s working, as according to a review of Hari’s documentary by The New Yorker
(Kal) Penn tells a story about a time when a young, drunk South Asian man at a bar complained to him that people often called him Kumar, the character Penn played in the the “Harold and Kumar” series of stoner movies. Penn relates the conversation with a measure of pride. It’s better than being called Apu, the two men eventually agreed.
It’s a small change, but the change is there. You didn’t need to get rid of Apu. You just needed to show someone different.
In Hari’s defense, I am coming at this predominately from a London-raised British point of view. Our racial differences and the impact of our pop culture is vastly different to those in the United States. If anything The Problem With Apu may only be truly relevant to the American South Asian diaspora.
Regardless though, I am really looking forward to seeing his documentary.
So what’s your opinion of Apu? Racist caricature? Harmless stereotype? Let me know in the comments.