Posted by Wordsmith on 15 April, 2018 at 1:14 pm. 5 comments already!

I quit watching The Simpsons years ago. Not due to anything in particular. Just lost interest (plus I’ve not had a working television for almost the last 20 years, now).

Recently, a comedian kicked up some brouhaha over one of the Simpson characters in a documentary: Apu, a Hindu Indian immigrant stereotype in that he has a thick Indian accent and owns/runs a convenience store. (Gee, so unrealistic, right?)



The Simpsons volleyed back:

Mr. Kondabolu accuses the makers of “The Simpsons” of racism and laments that Apu’s accent—voiced by the Greek-American actor Hank Azaria —sounds like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”

In response, the show gave viewers a scene in which Marge Simpson reads her daughter Lisa a bedtime story so stripped of all political incorrectness that it’s “as boring as a Sunday in Cincinnati.” The camera then pans to a framed portrait of Apu on Lisa’s bedside, in which he’d inscribed an exhortation to the young vegetarian: “Don’t have a cow!” Predictably, the critics went bovine, accusing “The Simpsons” of treating Mr. Kondabolu with disdain.

Kondabolu has earned some ridicule. A comedian who can’t laugh at “himself” in cultural caricature?

Hari Kondabolu’s documentary can be viewed here.

In the documentary, an interviewed actor, Utkarsh Ambudkar, acknowledges that The Simpsons stereotypes EVERYONE. Every character is a walking stereotype. Why should an Indian character be the exception, just because you are Indian? According to Utkarsh and Hari, it’s because in American pop culture there is no other Indian representation out there. So all the other ethnic, religious, political, gender, and occupation stereotypes get a pass from Hari who was a big fan of the show; but he- a comedian by trade- can’t feel his funny bone being tickled by Apu? That he was bullied growing up as an Indian-American on account of the Simpson’s character?

Is the name racist? Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The last name is ridiculously long and based on nonsense stereotyping. I mean, “Kondabolu” would have been less offensive, since it’s real, right? After all, The Simpsons isn’t meant to be a caricaturized, fictional universe, poking fun at everything, right?

Hari then goes on to dissect where the first name of “Apu” comes from. Matt Groenig says it comes from the “Apu Trilogy”, a series of three Bengali films directed by Satyajit Ray. Vogue film critic John Powers describes the character of Apu as a “multi-dimensional human being who grows living through pain and tragedy and beauty.” Powers takes issue with the name of the film hero to be associated with the Apu of the Simpsons’ store clerk as a “huge diminishment”. Really?!

In the world of The Simpsons where every character is a walking, breathing stereotype, and where the town is filled with a huge ensemble cast of recurring characters, Apu has been fleshed out into a very multi-dimensional character that rises above the stereotyped packaging. And he is heroic. His story is the success story of American immigrants in a good, positive light.

He is as American as Gulab Jamun:

Let us accept that Apu’s accent is inauthentic. Does it matter? He’s a caricature, like everyone else in the show—most notably Homer Simpson, an exaggeratedly feckless, underemployed blue-collar white guy who guzzles cheap beer at midday. He is coastal America’s archetype of a Trump voter, although he first appeared 31 years ago.

But the quintessence of Apu—and the fundamental flaw in the critique of his character—is that he is both foreign and very American. Apu is lovable in his familiarity: the stalwart, law-abiding proprietor of a 24-hour shop who, through his hard work and desire to succeed, enhances the neighborhood community. He gives idle teenagers a place to buy Squishees, and dads a place to pick up diapers and beer at 2 a.m. He represents the American trajectory of immigrant success and assimilation.

Apu is not a cultural separatist but an American, with American friends of all ethnicities with whom he shares a common culture—in parallel with the culture of his South Indian roots. He honors his origins by marrying his harridan mother’s choice of bride, and his American friends celebrate the Indian wedding. He had been Springfield’s most sought-after bachelor, because—caricature alert!—he has an advanced degree and his own business. He also drives an eye-catching Pontiac Firebird.

His accent apart, Apu is a Midwestern pillar. Would the critics really have him speak like the other characters in the show, as if to say you’re not American unless you sound like someone from Des Moines? Are all caricatured accents racist? Should we ban “foreigners” from comedy shows altogether?

Political correctness and issues of free speech sometimes cuts across political lines, seeing liberals such as Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher coming to the defense of the Simpsons. Al Jean,

The showrunner also shared a link to a column by Andrew Sullivan defending The Simpsons and how they handled the issue and stereotypes across its long history. Sullivan does end up working in a reference to The Atlantic / Kevin Williamson saga, but he joins Maher in applauding the show standing its ground against criticism and singled out the focus on Lisa Simpson during the scene in question:

The one objection to the scene that had a point, it seems to me, is that Lisa is the wrong character to say this. By 2018, surely her do-goody, NPR-listening, 1998, liberal egghead persona would have morphed into a permanently aggrieved racial activist, intent on removing every lamentable obstacle on the march toward boundless diversity. But maybe Lisa, I like to think, is too smart for that (as are many liberals in private). Maybe she’s precisely the right person to push back against the left’s latest attempt to police and stymie artists and writers.

Jean adds that the article doesn’t mean the show is right, but maybe is there to show that the debate has multiple sides. Still, you have to feel that the response made things worse than anything the show had done with Apu. If anything, The Simpsons will have plenty of chances to deal with it through the end of this season and the next.

Bill Maher:

There’s a reason why stereotypes exist. They have some foundation in reality. And stereotyping can be related to racism and prejudice. But stereotyping (and the use of generalization), prejudice, and racism are 3 different things.

As far as the hurtfulness of bullying issues related to archetypal stereotypes and representation in pop culture, ok, this isn’t nice, but wrong:

Like most Americans, I’ve become very familiar with Apu over the years. But in my case, as a Pakistani American, it wasn’t just seeing him on screen – it was being called Apu in locker rooms, being mistaken for the clerk in convenience stores, hearing people mock my family’s accents by saying, “Thank you, come again!”

However, this isn’t unique to Indians. So how can Hari have found any of the other Simpsons stereotypes and caricature characters funny, yet not be able to laugh at seeing his own “self” represented in the same manner? Yes, Indians had no other representation. But I also grew up in the 70s when I, as an Asian kid, was expected to know kung fu and karate. Our representation was either Bruce Lee or, during the 80s when I was in high school, we had this:

So what. How did I survive it? By identifying with on-screen characters that had nothing to do with melanin count or ethnic culture. Oh yeah, and the Donger? He was funny as frak!

On a side note, I had two Vietnamese, Bible-studies-thumping roommates in my college dorm named Dung Le and Dat Tat Do. And yes, we laughed over their names.

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