Culture

The Problem with Apu Does Not Deserve to Be Taken Seriously

Hari Kondabolu in The Problem with Apu (trailer image via YouTube)
A new book mistakenly revives interest in America’s tardiest social-justice warrior.

Hari Kondabolu is a 35-year-old quirky hipster who was bullied as a child, when stereotypes in The Simpsons still made their way onto schoolyards. In fact, he was so gravely wounded by the accent of the character Apu that he rebelled with an unwashable slushy spill on the conscience of the series’ declining fanbase — down to an average of 3 to 4 million viewers from 15 to 20 million in its heyday. The show still performs well with the prized 18–49 demo, but with a decline in ratings, along with a noticeable disconnect from today’s youth culture, no rational person would suddenly protest The Simpsons.

The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary merchandizing his eggshell-thin skin, is an unpunctual publicity stunt that’s become an everlasting cultural annoyance. “I hate Apu,” actor Kal Penn tells Kondabolu in the documentary, where Kondabolu proceeds to demand that Apu be voiced by an Indian American or even removed from the show. Kondabolu then paints the portrayal of Apu by a white voice actor, Hank Azaria, as being no different from blackface minstrelsy, a cavalier gamble with the race card as blindly ignorant as normalizing the myth that early Irish immigrants had it as bad as the African slaves.

Kondabolu is fanning needless paranoia, perhaps from an aching grudge rooted in a time when kids actually aped voices from The Simpsons. The fact that he’s America’s tardiest social-justice warrior means his argument shouldn’t be taken seriously. But because he’s a micro-famous Indian-American comedian, he’s been empowered by the mob to try Apu before a leftist Nuremberg court that wants to execute the rebellious, politically incorrect spirit that birthed The Simpsons as a punk-rock answer to the yuppie ’80s sitcom. And a new book takes all this seriously, as something every Simpsons fan should know. Nonsense.

The documentary ranks 75th in 100 Things “The Simpsons” Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, a BuzzFeed-style listicle minted into a book by comedian Julia Prescott and Allie Goertz, an editor at the rebranded and more socially aware Mad magazine. This is a book advertised to Simpsons fans and newbs alike, which carries with it some responsibility, as there are those who might pick it up and naïvely be led to believe that Apu is as offensive to other Indian Americans as it is to a delayed adolescent such as Kondabolu. In fact, there’s no evidence to suggest it is, and the chapter casually mutes the voices of several South Asian Simpsons fans who’ve since protested Kondabolu’s irrational take on Apu. These include Pradheep J. Shanker here at National Review, as well as Amar Shah, who penned an essay for the Washington Post in April providing a more nuanced take on growing up with a proud Indian father who, like Apu, owned a convenience store, an example of the American Dream — which Apu stereotypes, certainly; but Shah, an adult, isn’t crippled by dated stereotypes from a cartoon.

What makes this chapter especially guileful is that the offended party is linked to the authors’ own comedy coterie, which they do not mention or detail at all. But Goertz and Prescott aren’t charlatans — just liberal dittoheads aping the censorious push to make The Simpsons more woke, which peaked with The Problem with Apu. The pair is also content to endorse the film and leave it at that. Indeed, the cultural-sensitivity theater of Apu is the only offense they dedicate a chapter to from anything the series has done over the last 30 years. It’s practically a Trojan horse, as the book lists benign details about The Simpsons and then blindsides the reader with a jarringly political request that feels uncomfortable: that we are to watch and accept a political propaganda film that has as much merit as an angry Twitter thread. Goertz and Prescott never examine its claims critically or apply its complaints to other aspects of the show. Why?

***

Like Kondabolu, I’m a 35-five-year-old ethnic minority; and like the rest of us, I was bullied. I’m an Armenian refugee who spent the first two years of his life in a German refugee camp, a luxury resort compared with the Iran my mother saved me from. As Saddam’s bombs fell around us, she wrapped me in a blanket and prayed to God for safe passage west. I went to Los Angeles elementary schools in the ’90s, surrounded by mostly Mexicans, other Armenians, and Koreans, where white kids were the minority, so they got it the worst. In those days, if you didn’t play football or drive a nice sports car, things did not go well for you. One of my best friends was a Pakistani computer nerd named Omar, who was bullied constantly until he started lifting weights and training to be an offensive lineman for the high-school football team. I was bullied for all kinds of reasons, including not being brown enough and befriending white people, which was frowned upon.

Everyone has a bully in his life. But I grew up and adapted to the American experience; my patriotism was never injured because of the color of my skin. Unlike Kondabolu, I never felt that my brownness made me feel less American. He says in his film that in the days following 9/11, he felt more like a minority than, say, a patriot. I’m sorry, but the paranoia in the aftermath of 9/11 was felt by everyone. It haunted us, and unless you lost someone in the collapsed rubble of the Twin Towers, you should dutifully remember that being racially profiled by scared white people isn’t that big of a deal in comparison.

Some of us also never had the luxury of having our ethnicity satirized on The Simpsons through fully developed and ambitious characters such as Apu. Even though Armenian stereotypes play a role in the show, historians have mostly ignored it. We’ve been marginalized to the point of being deported out of Springfield because — and this is just being brutally honest — Armenian Americans are fighting to save the old country from the rubbles of natural disasters and poverty, and to heal the wounds from a brutal genocide, not for representation in a godforsaken cartoon.

The Armenian stereotypes in The Simpsons begin with the sleazy Moe Szyslak, the suicidal owner of Moe’s Tavern, a registered sex offender who describes himself to Lady Gaga as “half monster, half Armenian . . . pick your poison.” This is a man Goertz and Prescott describe as “allegedly the ugliest, saddest, and quietly the most depraved character on The Simpsons.” This is a marginalized person. Moe is number 69 in 100 Things, and not once is it mentioned that he’s an Armenian voiced by a white guy playing a stereotype of every Armenian uncle with a gambling problem.

In fact, Armenians are probably the most overrepresented ethnic minority in Springfield, to the point of cartoonish absurdity, and almost without exception, they’ve been drawn with cruel stereotypes inherited from first-generation Italian immigrants who refused to melt: perpetrators of credit-card fraud, street punks who steal purses, confidence men, crooked doctors, drunkards, and the subject of the book’s 46th thing you should know, Armin Tamzarian — Principal Skinner’s secret identity, who we’re never told in this book is Armenian. It seems the authors of 100 Things either under-investigated the show’s other ethnic stereotypes or limited their concern to minority groups blessed with starring roles or famous friends.

Indeed, while Goertz and Prescott complain that Apu “perpetuates negative stereotypes about South Asians,” countless other characters do the same thing to other groups, which they seem unbothered by. So they never protest the ugliness of Homer’s sexism, Bart’s normalization of bullying and misogyny, or the claustrophobic cage of domesticity that Marge is trapped in, and though they argue, rather lazily, that The Simpsons covers the “entire spectrum” of nerd nuance — it doesn’t, not really — they neglect to tell us that in the ’90s, every young boy with a pair of glasses was viciously mocked by the hopelessly clumsy stereotype of Milhouse. (He’s white, but in a country where liberals want us to believe Senator Elizabeth Warren is marginalized, does it even matter?) The book never protests the fact that kids were endlessly fat-shamed by the stereotype of Chief Wiggum, Springfield’s pig-like cop, or the fact that an Italian, Dan Castellaneta, voices the show’s most cudgeling stereotype, Groundskeeper Willie, a ginger Scotsman who’s basically a drunken Braveheart character with a shovel. There’s no chapter on Groundskeeper Willie, and no mention that every single kid with weird hair was at least once mocked as Sideshow Bob. The fact that Apu is brown doesn’t make his stereotype any more or less insidious than any other. There’s no reason to argue that the writers and actors behind The Simpsons ever had an undiagnosed phobia for Indian convenience-store owners.

“For many viewers during the show’s heyday,” Goertz and Prescott go on, “Apu was the only insight into South Asian culture.” This is an unqualified statement that seems to be the biggest hole in the anti-Apu argument. First, there’s no data or polling to suggest that Apu was how viewers of The Simpsons were first introduced to South Asian culture or for that matter, that Apu was their only exposure to an immigrant culture that’s well documented, more than most, including the Armenians’. I’m the same age as Kondabolu and a Simpsons fans, and I can confidently say that Apu merely reinforced stereotypes that had existed long before The Simpsons. Kondabolu’s anecdotal evidence, backed by a few other South Asian comedians, does not come close to demonstrating otherwise — after all, there’s nothing journalistic or academic about being a disgruntled fanboy.

In Los Angeles in the ’80s and ’90s, most of the convenience-store owners were Indian, Pakistani, Korean, or Iranian. We understood The Simpsons to be an exaggerated fiction of this reality. Also, where is the evidence that Apu conditioned teenagers in the ’90s and ’00s and actually influenced their evolving perception of Indian-American culture? Was it limited to childhood bullying? Until there’s a study to prove that this irrelevant cartoon character molded the way a sizable portion of Americans view South Asian culture, Kondabolu’s view on this is nothing more than an isolated whine, with an echo in the liberal bubble.

***

Goertz and Prescott turn one man’s grievance into a nonexistent epidemic in the Simpsons community. Not only that, they promote it with a blatant endorsement, giving Kondabolu’s personal grudge the historical relevance and verification it doesn’t deserve, arguing that The Simpsons “hurt marginalized groups thanks to a handful of creative choices that could have easily not existed.” Those same creative choices, or at least the artistic license to make them, is why The Simpsons was so popular, and why Goertz and Prescott are such diehard fans. How do they not see this? They even suggest it would have been better to cast Apu as an employee in Homer’s power plant — fictional affirmative action nobody should take seriously, just like The Problem with Apu.

I suppose Goertz and Prescott have simply given in to the mob, or tribal pressures, something The Simpsons’ creators refused to do in the episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” which the authors never suggest we watch. This episode shrugs off the anti-Apu argument in a smart and nuanced takedown of retroactive outrage. But rather than promote The Simpsons’ own take on the Apu controversy, or Matt Groening’s public rejection of it in USA Today, the book sides with Kondabolu and mutes all dissenting opinion — including that from other South Asian and ethnic minorities who simply find nothing offensive about Apu.

It seems the goal of the woke Simpsons historians is to force readers to join in the push to force Groening to submit to this lunacy — perhaps to hire more feminists or liberal South Asian writers to produce a decidedly less impish cartoon. This may have happened organically, but now it seems that Groening, radicalized in ways he never thought he could be, has become the comedy equivalent of the centurions of Rome: the last line of defense between the invading barbarians and our most sacred institutions.

Art Tavana — Art Tavana is a journalist and political pundit at Playboy magazine and a former pop-culture columnist at L.A. Weekly.

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