The most recent shallow and silly controversy to erupt in our nation’s culture wars is apparently . . . the racial insensitivity of The Simpsons’ portrayal of our favorite Indian American, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
You may be forgiven if you didn’t even realize there was a controversy. In fact, in last week’s Simpsons episode that inflamed the ongoing fight over the character, I am willing to bet the vast majority of viewers missed the apparent slight to the social-justice warriors fighting to get fairness for the Indian cartoon character.
A little background is necessary before we move further. A moderately well-known South Asian standup comic, Hari Kondabolu, late last year produced a documentary called The Problem with Apu. Kondabolu both praises the character, for providing him with the basis for Indian-based humor as a child, and chastises the same for the racial stereotypes that he feels it propagated and for greater prejudice that it promoted in our society.
Kondabolu’s complaints are not without some basis. Indian Americans were virtually unrepresented in American media well into the 1990s. I myself, growing up in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, thirsted for Indians in American culture I could look up to as models to emulate. In many ways, Apu was American society’s introduction to Indian culture.
That said, Kondabolu’s tirade largely runs off the tracks as he blames the Apu character for all sorts of slights and insults during his career: “Apu was the only Indian we had on TV at all so I was happy for any representation as a kid. . . . He’s funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you.”
The ridiculousness of this statement is almost too much to bear. On the show, Apu is a strongly accented, traditional Indian immigrant. As such, he is the owner of a convenience store (obviously a nod to the many 7-11s and other small businesses owned by Indians throughout the northeastern United States), who later gets an arranged marriage, has octuplets, and is shown as a fantastic father and husband. He is also, among other things, a gun owner who is extremely religious and devoted to his Hindu culture.
Now . . . what in the above paragraph is insulting or demeaning? Literally nothing, to anyone with an ounce of common sense or perspective on reality. It takes a fantastic amount of intellectual gymnastics to blame such a character for any racial slights any of us Indians have experienced in our day-to-day lives. To be sure, Apu, like all of the characters on the show, has his moments of buffoonery, but none of it amounts in any significant way to racial animus.
Kondabolu’s complaints about the repercussions of Apu’s entrance into popular society abound. For example, he points to the fact that people yell catchphrases from the TV show at him during his comedy bits. He has even complained that Apu’s most famous catchphrase — “Thank you! Come again!” — has been yelled at him at times by drunks on the street.
This is absurd.
For anyone who grew up in the U.S. as a minority, such supposed atrocities are the most minimalist racial affronts one could think of. I can just picture my African-American friends, who grew up being called the N-word on a regular basis, guffawing at the supposed outrage that Indians feel at having quotes from an American cartoon show shouted at them.
That isn’t to say there isn’t and wasn’t racism against Indian Americans. I grew up in a mostly white, Protestant town, with almost no minorities (where the population of Indians in my school numbered exactly one: me). That said, I grew up largely before The Simpsons ever aired. Was I exempt from the random racial epithet? Of course not. And this is where Kondabolu’s complaints are so ridiculous. Racists and bigots will find something to use to denigrate the ones they hate, regardless of the available source material. If Apu had never existed, would Kondabolu and his cohorts have gone through life exempt from any racial comments and insults? I think not.
A few like-minded, left-wing Indians are trying to dictate how Indian Americans view American society.
Kondabolu compounds the ludicrousness of his complaints by saying that because The Simpsons was largely written by white Americans, and Apu was voiced by someone who is white (Hank Azaria), the character cannot be taken seriously. This adds to the hysteria; the portrayal of Apu, in and of itself, is what is relevant, regardless of who is writing or voicing the character. Is Kondabolu’s argument that if I, as an Indian, had been chosen as the voice of Apu, using my even worse interpretation of an Indian accent instead of Azaria’s, somehow that would have cleaned the slate?
To the credit of the writers of The Simpsons, they confronted this with comedy and nuance. In the scene that drew the ire of many liberals, Marge, speaking to Lisa, has rewritten an entire book, in order to make it inoffensive. In response, Lisa is largely left speechless:
“It’s hard to say,” Lisa responds. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
(With that last rhetorical line, Lisa glances at a picture of Apu, which rests on her nightstand. “Don’t have a cow,” the autographed photo reads.)
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge then says.
In many ways, that clip nails it. Apu, like many of the characters on a show that is largely built on stereotypes, has himself grown from a single-dimensional character into one that is fleshed out with a family, profession, and personal desires and needs. What more can you ask for, in a storytelling venture?
I think, as an Indian American, that what bothers me most about this entire new episode in our continual culture war is that a few like-minded, left-wing Indians are trying to dictate how Indian Americans view American society. The truth about Indian Americans? We are doing fine. We are currently the richest, most educated minority in America. We litter the halls of academia, medicine, and even Hollywood now. Our voices are heard in the White House, the United Nations, Congress, and state houses across America. If you want to pick a minority that has suffered from media biases, the last one I would pick is Indian Americans.
So, you want to educate America about racial slights? You want to make them more sympathetic to the feelings of minorities, including Indians? Be my guest. It is always a moral good to educate others on how their actions affect others. But if you can’t, in good nature, laugh at the goodness and true comedic value of a character such as Apu . . . maybe you should find an industry to work in other than comedy.