Earlier in October, I was devastated and frustrated to learn that Apu Nahasapeemapetilon may be cut from "The Simpsons." However, it turned out to be just rumors spread by Adi Shankar, producer of "Castlevania." Al Jean, a senior writer who has been with "The Simpsons" since episode one, shot down those rumors by tweeting: "Adi Shankar is not a producer on the Simpsons. I wish him the very best but he does not speak for our show."
The controversy and criticism of Apu surfaced after the 2017 documentary "The Problem With Apu" in which filmmaker and comedian Hari Kondabolu expressed his disapproval of racist elements like Apu's accent and job. A few months after the documentary aired, "The Simpsons" responded with a quick remark at the end of one of their episodes: Marge attempted to change a bedtime story that she was reading to Lisa in order to make it politically correct. Lisa objects and Marge asks what she would rather her do. Lisa responds with, "It's hard to say. Something that started a long time ago decades ago, that was applauded and was inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" And then a framed picture of Apu is seen next to Lisa.
Many, including Kondabolu, were not happy with that scene or the way the show handled the criticism. Kondabolu turns to Twitter and posts "Wow. 'Politically Incorrect?' That's the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked?" in response to Lisa's comment. So, creator, Matt Groening replied, "It's a time in our culture where people love to pretend they're offended." Best. Statement. Ever.
I have not seen Kondabolu's film nor do I ever plan to. Kondabolu and anyone else's feelings and opinions are valid and shouldn't be brushed off; however, this show needs to be watched with a grain of salt. The only reason why it's okay to have slightly racist characters in "The Simpsons" is because they make fun of everybody equally. If they only took jabs at Indians then the show would never have become what it became. They don't just throw those jokes in there for cheap laughs. They are commenting on exactly what their audience is thinking and making fun of the stereotypes themselves. After all, it is a satirical show. They make fun of almost every race, ethnicity, culture, subculture, sexual orientation, gender, accent, political stance, and profession. Hank Azaria, the voice of Apu and many others, believes "The Simpsons over the years has been pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people. They've done a really good job of being, shall we say, uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful."
Now I admit, I may have a more blunt sense of humor that can appreciate the artistry of a well-created joke even if it is slightly offensive. Maybe I just have tough skin or no heart. But as a person of fully Chinese descent, I have never once been offended by any of the Chinese or stereotypically Asian characters on the show. Cookie Kwan, number one on the west side, has never offended me with her stereotypical Chinese accent and pushy demeanor. Several times Homer has equated getting good grades or being obedient to being Korean or other Asian ethnicities, and other "low-hanging fruit" comments. A Chinese couple, who were clearly Americanized, put on "the act" for Homer when he stepped into their Chinese restaurant and said things like "You not come long time!" with exaggerated Chinese accents and a costume change.
Azaria rightly says, "the most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people ... about what they feel and how they think about this character and what their American experience of it has been." But the greatest part of this whole issue is that it seems like fans of the show in India have no problem with Apu's character. This is exactly what happened in an opinion piece I wrote in response to the controversy over high school senior Keziah Daum wearing a traditional Chinese dress to prom.
Everybody in America seemed to have an issue with it, but everybody back home in China, including myself, loved it and saw it as a young woman appreciating Chinese fashion wanting to show off its beauty on a very important night in her life. Several Chinese-Americans retweeted "my culture is not your prom dress," but residents of China didn't see it that way. Something about being an American citizen makes people hypersensitive to their other racial identities.
Sidharth Bhatia, Mumbai-based founder-editor of "The Wire," is quite a fan of Apu. When asked his opinion on the matter, I think he hits the nails on the head: "The controversy about the stereotyping is classist snobbery - Indians in America don't want to be reminded of a certain kind of immigrant from their country - the shopkeepers, the taxi drivers, the burger flippers. They would rather project only Silicon Valley successes, the Wall Street players and the Ivy League products, with the proper accents, people they meet for dinner - by itself a stereotype. The millions of Apus in America, the salt-of-the-earth types, with their less 'posh' accents, are an inconvenience to that self-image of this small group of Indian-Americans."
As hard as it is to swallow, Apu may be based on stereotypes but there are many real people like him out there. Yes, he owns a convenience store, speaks with a strong accent, has an arranged marriage, and practices Hinduism. But he's also a hard-worker with a Ph.D., a ladies man, and an excellent singer. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a classic "Simpsons" character that explores our own prejudices and sheds light on our own racist thoughts.
Through everything the show has faced, I am very glad that "The Simpsons" is proud of their work and unapologetic for the controversy that they produce. Like Lisa says, what exactly are we supposed to do? There's always going to be somebody somewhere offended by something that somebody else says or does. I'm not at all saying that people deserve to be marginalized and made fun of and that people should just get over it because it's funny. But what I am saying is that it took 30 years for people to get offended by something that has stayed essentially the same for decades. Groening's perfectly frank comment is addressed to people who think it's cool and perhaps politically correct to be offended by everything in fear of looking ignorant. And look where that's gotten us.