The Marge and Lisa B-plot involves the two discovering that one of Marge’s favorite books from her childhood is full of racist caricatures, which results in Lisa saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” before panning over to a photo of Apu. (My colleague Caroline Framke has a further dissection of the scene.)
It’s, to say the least, a stupid way to respond to the controversy (and has only been made worse by showrunner Al Jean’s week on Twitter, which mostly involved retweeting people telling him that they didn’t find Apu offensive, in the classic “lighten up” posture of anybody who doesn’t want to change a thing about themselves). But it’s even stranger in light of the rest of the episode, which features Apu, but in a non-speaking role, and also casts Jimmy O. Yang, an actor who was born in Hong Kong, in the role of Sun Tzu, rather than having Azaria affect an exaggerated Asian accent (as it might have done in the ’90s).
Comedian Hari Kondabolu loved The Simpsons until he thought harder about the character of Apu, an Indian convenience store owner whose thick accent came courtesy of Hank Azaria doing his best Peter Sellers. So while at first he was excited to have an Indian character on TV — as he told Vox, “even if it’s brown paint, you’re glad there’s something” — he reevaluated his affection for Apu and realized that the stereotypes the character embodied were maybe doing more harm than good.
The result was The Problem with Apu, a documentary featuring Kondabolu interviewing comedians, South Asian and otherwise, about their complicated relationships to Apu and how it might have changed over the three decades The Simpsons has been on the air.
The Simpsons team gave glancing reactions to the documentary as it picked up some steam, with Azaria calling the criticism of Apu “distressing” and promising that the show would address the controversy. Since the turnaround time of an episode of The Simpsons is generally several months, that response finally came via the April 8 episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” — and amounted to a deadpan shrug.
The moment comes out of a storyline about Marge struggling to share one of her favorite books from childhood with Lisa, only to discover that just about every page is heavily laced with racism. “Another childhood classic bites the dust,” says Lisa, to which Marge responds by trying to revise the entire book to fit what she sees as 2018 standards. (For example: The princess goes from being a petulant little slaveowner to a “cisgender girl” fighting for net neutrality.)
But rather than liking this “inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati” version better, Lisa furrows her brow and complains that if the character starts out perfect, she’s got no room to grow, so what’s the point?
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,”Lisa says, her eyes flicking over to a framed picture of Apu on her nightstand. “What can you do?”
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge replies.
“If at all,” Lisa adds.
Here, both turn to look pointedly at the “camera,” blinking embodiments of that “what can you do” shrug — and that’s it....
That Lisa is the character to make the pronouncement not only seems out of character for the most righteously indignant and sanctimonious know-it-all in the regular cast, it could sugges tthat the writers have to be aware of Lisa's general character traits. For Lisa Simpson to say "What can you do?" isn't like Cartman saying whatever Cartman would say. As the article notes, an episode of The Simpsons can take months to put together. It's not like an episode of South Park where the script isn't necessarily done until within a day of a production deadline like, say, "Woodland Critter Christmas." Which is to say that The Simpsons may have just pulled what might be annoying or funny from South park but altogether expected from a show that has passed the twenty year mark.
Jeet Heer has written about the matter over at The New Republic (because that's where Heer writes).
It's possible for something to not seem offensive over the last thirty years and have it seem offensive recently. I.e. the way The Simpsons writers chose to handle things could have fueled a fire that was maybe not so much a fire before.
Older desi, not just me and Shanker but Kondabolu’s own parents (who joke about his “Apu hair”) see Apu as a minor inconvenience. But younger desi, including many comedians and actors that Kondabolu spoke to for his film, have experienced a very different reality. They grew up in a world where The Simpsons was a pervasive part of popular culture and Apu the only Indian-American character everyone knew. They were taunted and bullied in school, with Apu’s name and catch-phrase (“Thank you, come again.”) used as an insult. It’s their lived experience of growing up with Apu that shows why this minor character is so pernicious.
Apu is now a slur more than he is a character. It’s true, as Shanker argues, that other slurs existed before Apu. But those slurs didn’t carry the cultural authority of The Simpsons. When a bully calls an Indian American “Apu” or says to them, “Thank you, come again,” he isn’t just demeaning the person by himself (though that is wrong enough); he’s using The Simpsons to justify his contempt. As The Problem With Apu showed, Apu makes desi kids feel insulted not just by individuals, but by American culture at large. That’s why the film changed my mind. It featured testimony about Indian-American experiences I wasn’t aware of. I was bullied for being Indian American, as Kondabolu’s subjects were, but I wasn’t bullied with language from one of the most famous shows on TV.
The common defense of Apu is that The Simpsons has many stereotypes (the Italian Fat Tony, the sometimes-Jewish Krusty the Clown, the Scottish Groundskeeper Willy). But none of these characters exist in a cultural reality where they are the only representative of their ethnicity: there are myriad Italian-American and Jewish characters on TV, but for many years, Apu stood as a singular representative of desi culture. That’s slowly starting to change with shows like Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, but these programs haven’t yet had the cultural impact of The Simpsons.
There’s a big difference between the self-deprecating ethnic comedy of Kondabolu and Kaling, which belongs to a tradition of Richard Pryor and Jerry Seinfeld, and having a white man do an Indian accent (as Hank Azaria does for Apu). As Kondabolu argues in a conversation with Whoopi Goldberg, there’s an undeniable element of minstrelsy in Apu. The documentary makes this clear by juxtaposing Apu’s clowning—dancing with a cane, for instance—with blackface antics of early 20th century films. In both blackface and Apu, the main character is a loveable but silly clown, defined by an accent. When I used to watch The Simpsons, I thought Apu was at least more affectionately intended than Peter Sellers’s brown-face character in the movie The Party. But one of the disheartening revelations of Kondabolu’s documentary is that Azaria modeled his accent off The Party.
One of the reasons I think we live in an unjust world is there's still Family Guy anything. I think The Simpsons had a strong start and did okay for a decade. The movie would have been a place to end things. But that's not how American film works. If something is construed as successful you don't do what Bill Watterson did, quit while you're still basically ahead. Nah, you have to keep draining the well until you're squeezing blood from a turnip. You could have a show that was a triumph, like The Last Airbender and then follow it up with a ghastly self-congratulatory trainwreck of entitlement like Legend of Korra.
That comedy shows on television traffic in stereotypes s a given. That after thirty years Apu has gone from being a stereotype that could have been considered innocuous to one that isn't doesn't have to just be a sign of social justice warrior times. I have a mixed lineage, half white half Native American. So when I saw Cameron's Avatar I was startled at how many clichés from the magic white boy joins the Indian tribe and gets the Indian princess idiom were strewn all over James Cameron's film. ever been one for cowboy and Indian films on the whole. Westerns have not aged well because the mythology surrounding the West has so often been dependent on a narrative that has too much racist baggage. It's not that I never liked ANY Westerns. I enjoyed the Coen brothers' take on True Grit, actually. But, obviously, that's a different kind of American Indian character stuff.
I've made this point a few times at this blog, that there are only two basic modes of humor, laughing with and laughing at. I can appreciate why some of a more Puritan bent felt that it was better to be an earnest and even moralizing lecturer than to traffic in humor. After all, jokes tend to be at the expense of someone. I'm not against humor as such, but the Apu situation of late seems like a reminder that jokers who make their livings making fun of this or that don't just decide that maybe they're in the wrong for trafficking in stereotypes.
Maybe Harvey Dent's line in a Nolan film is apt here, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. After all, if The Simpsons had called it quits even ten years ago it wouldn't be part of this cultural moment.
It's not like people are retroactively condemning Madonna for cultural appropriation for songs she released twenty years ago. One of the advantages of knowing when it's time to "fade out" in popular culture is that if you've ended up on the wrong side of trends people can forgive you if only by dint of you not being particularly active. If Woody Allen had stopped making films twenty years ago the debate about his work would have a different tone and substance. But he's been out there actively making films year after year.
Perhaps we can just say that after thirty odd years The Simpsons are like The Rolling Stones, enough of a legacy act that they'll be around a bit but nobody really imagines they "matter" except as legacy by now? Obviously the ... kind of matter, but I stopped watching the show more than a decade ago.