The Simpsons has been on the air since 1989. I was born in 1990, so The Simpsons is older than I am. Some jokes and characters written three decades ago haven’t aged well. Some are now considered offensive. The character Apu is a prime example.
Recently, a documentary entitled The Problem with Apu sparked a conversation about the character. Apu is a secondary character on the show. He is an Indian immigrant and owns a convenience store. And, of course, he speaks with a heavy accent. In the documentary, comedian Hari Kondabolu examined the character. More importantly, he examined what he means to people of Indian and South Asian descent.
One of the main problems with Apu, according to Kondabolu, is he hasn’t developed much as a character. In contrast, other characters in the show have grown over the years. He has remained the same character with a funny voice since 1989. Not surprisingly, he even has a catchphrase. In short, in part thanks to the long tenure and cultural prominence of The Simpsons, Apu has become the main stereotype of Indian immigrants. These days, attitudes surrounding the character of Apu and what he represents in terms of American attitudes towards Indians may potentially deter Indians from wanting to live in the States. However, it is unlikely to make much difference to the long list of Indians looking to immigrate to America. Even now there are still a large number of immigrants, many from places like India, regularly checking the Visa Bulletin for information on their chances of beginning a new life in the United States.
‘The Simpsons’ Writers Respond
Earlier this month, the writers of The Simpsons tried to address the controversy. In a new episode, Marge and Lisa try to come to terms with an old book and its problematic contents. At the very end of the episode, Lisa breaks the fourth wall. She gives the audience what amounts to a shoulder shrug on behalf of the creators of the show:
“Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
To many, the writers failed to adequately address the problem.
Hank Azaria Offers to Help
Earlier this week, Hank Azaria appeared on The Late Show. Azaria performs over two dozen voices on The Simpsons, including Apu. He has been a member of the cast since the first season. Some saw the writers’ response to the controversy as avoiding the problem. Azaria faced it head-on. He said he is willing to update the character or “help transition it into something new”. In addition, he could step aside so an actor of Indian descent can voice Apu. He also noted his disappointment that the character has been hurtful to so many.
“The idea that anybody was… bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad… I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character.”
The Future of Apu
Last November, Kondabolu made several suggestions for Apu. The Simpsons creators could write additional characters of South Asian descent into the show. They could focus more on the character’s children. Additionally, they could develop him into a more well-rounded character. Fox could bring in writers from South Asian cultures. The writers of the show have not responded to these proposals. On the other hand, Azaria seems prepared to help.
What do you think about Apu? Would these proposed solutions solve the problem? Let us know in the comments!