The Indian character on The Simpsons is tagged as a racist stereotype by the Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, landing this decades-old show in fresh controversy, writes Vineet Gill.
For me, the most startling bit of information to emerge from the recent fracas surrounding The Simpsons is that the show is still on air. How long has it been since the TV audiences were first introduced to this interminable epic? Two years short of three decades. Imagine that! Generations come and go, the world changes beyond recognition every six months, but you can always count on being able to warm your hands by the yellowy glow of a new Simpsons episode. This is a cultural fixture so permanent and unvarying that it makes you forget about its existence. And that’s why I had forgotten The Simpsons was still on air, until the scandal broke.
It all started with an impassioned cri de coeur, issued by the Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, who has had enough of the degrading stereotype of Indians that one of this show’s most popular characters embodies. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon—the caricaturing begins with the name—is the cleverest businessman in Springfield, the fictional city The Simpsons is set in. He is also everything else that a one-dimensional NRI character was supposed to be in the ’90s: a streetwise desi who has mastered the art of the deal; relentless pursuer of the American dream; politically conservative mercenary; and yes, a PhD in computer science. Throw a ridiculous “Indian accent” into the mix, and you are good to go.
Indeed, it’s Apu’s accent—of the thank-you-come-again variety—that seems to be at the heart of the larger problem. Last year, Kondabolu made a documentary on this character, called The Problem With Apu, where he laid out his blunt critique. Growing up in ’90s America, Apu became a source of shame and embarrassment for Kondabolu, as for many other Indian-American comedians interviewed in the film. The film presents a brief history of how the “Apu accent” became a tool of mockery, employed just as easily by schoolyard bullies as by respectable white Americans indulging in a bit of casual racism. What made it worse was that the man behind Apu’s voice was himself a respectable white American, Hank Azaria. “It was like,” as Kondabolu put it, “a white man was impersonating a white man making fun of my father’s accent.”
At the time of its release The Problem With Apu generated enough attention to trigger a minor Twitter storm, and made the creative heads of The Simpsons sit up and take notice. There were rumours that a rebuttal to Kondablu’s documentary was in the works. And indeed the rumours proved to be correct. Last Sunday’s episode of The Simpsons, entitled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”, took a direct jab at all Apu critics. The relevant sequence involves a conversation between Lisa and her mother Marge.
They are considering ways to bowdlerise a classic children’s tale to make its language better chime with today’s PC sensibilities. “Well,” says an exasperated Marge, “what am I supposed to?” Then Lisa, directly addressing the audience: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Cue to the next shot: Lisa’s nightstand that has a framed photograph of Apu, captioned “Don’t have
The Twitter storm that had been occasioned by Kondabolu’s documentary returned with the intensity of a category-five hurricane minutes after Sunday’s episode. The anti-Apu lobby was furious. Many Simpsons lovers felt cheated at what they saw as a cheap and lazy putdown. This was a dodge very uncharacteristic of a show that has been known for its politically engaged writing. (Remember when Gore Vidal was given a walk-on part in one Simpsons episode?) Kondabolu responded with the tweet: “Wow. ‘Politically incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.” That the show’s most outwardly liberal and “woke” character, Lisa, was used to deliver the message added insult to injury. “Et tu, Lisa?” asked Kondabolu in another tweet.
But how is any comedian to react to the charge—and this is Kondabolu’s whole case against the creators of Apu—that your humour hurts our sentiments? Rubbing it in has been the default response of comics accused of causing offence, all the way from Jonathan Swift to Ricky Gervais. Nietzsche’s famous line about a witticism being “an epitaph on the death of feeling”, applies to every joke ever told. And some jokes are funny only because they are offensive; because they present not the real picture but an out-of-proportion caricature of reality.
The dramatis personae of The Simpsons is in fact a catalogue of Apu-like caricatures. There are offensive stereotypes everywhere. Homer Simpson represents the worst qualities of the white American middle class: a low-IQ junk-food addict who spends hours drooling before the TV. Lisa is the resident bleeding-heart of the show, given to the pretentious pleasures of books and jazz. Bart is simply a skateboarding little brat. Marge is the gritty housewife who keeps the household sane (the show’s most boring caricature). Among the side characters you’ll find an evil rich guy, a foolish police chief, a shady bar owner, a geeky comic collector, and so on and so forth. Not to forget Groundskeeper Willie, the Scottish janitor at the Springfield Elementary School, known for his tantrums, his alcoholism, his kilt and bagpipe, as well as his indecipherable
I have never found Apu’s portrayal offensive in the least. But then, I didn’t grow up in a milieu where one had to worry about problems of cultural assimilation or grapple with the politics of representation. (I grew up in the benighted ’90s.) The comic revisionists of today, Kondabolu included, are making an important case—that we ought to rethink humour. But perhaps they’re using the wrong argument—of personal hurt. If Apu offends the Indians, Groundkeeper Willie must absolutely offend the Scots, and Homer the WASPs. Where does that get us? The important thing is to demand that our cultural icons get in tune with the times; that they respond to the social and political changes with intelligence, with sympathy. Going by last Sunday’s episode, The Simpsons has clearly failed to fulfil that demand, which was never made in the first place by Kondabolu and his supporters.