By Laura Varley
Since it burst onto our screens in a flurry of colour and chaos in 1989, The Simpsons has been a staple in the lives of many. The longest running sitcom of all time, it has welcomed success in abundance, but it is no stranger to controversy. Comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu has made clear the shifting feeling towards the representation of minorities; and it is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart, who has caused the most controversy. Voiced by actor Hank Azaria, Apu is a richly developed character whose stereotypical idiosyncrasies have caused a media furore. But has it gone too far?
Yes, the character of Apu embraces stereotypes, but this is hardly unique to him. Homer Simpson is an overweight, unintelligent, beer – guzzling American. Groundskeeper Willie, a red – headed, uneducated Scotsman, has an accent that borders on the incomprehensible and Fat Tony is an Italian – American mobster acting out the glory days of a 1940s mafia don. So, what is the difference? Where are the protests when Groundskeeper Willie, inebriated and wearing a kilt, is ranting about century old grievances with the British? Where is the public backlash when Fat Tony “whacks a guy” or “offers him a deal he can’t refuse”?
Who decided the depiction of an Indian man running a convenience store breaches the rules of acceptability but a fat, lazy American is just clever writing?
Apu embodies the notion of stereotyping but The Simpsons is a cartoon, and its representatives are caricatures. We switch on shows like The Simpsons to enjoy the zany antics of characters whose lives are far removed from our own. I can’t imagine anyone watches The Simpsons for its realism and relatability.
Furthermore, what is wrong with owning a shop? Why should a South – Asian character have to be a doctor, a CEO or a high – level official for Indians to feel well represented? Bhaskar Sunkara, an Indian – American journalist, wrote; “It would seem that the solution is to have every media depiction of an Indian guy in America be Kal Penn playing a doctor. But a lot of us pump gas too. A lot of us say things like “thank you, come again.”
It’s fair to say that there is some truth in stereotyping. Irish people do overindulge in alcohol, Americans have a higher obesity level than most countries, and Indians run a high percentage of convenience stores. The problems arise when people lose the ability to poke fun at themselves. If you look to The Simpsons to provide you with an accurate and culturally sensitive representation of your people, then clearly the blame starts with you. For many, Apu was a source of humour, good – natured fun and an Indian everyman. It’s easy to hear an over the top accent and decide that the character has no merits beyond that. He’s a cartoon. Does he have to be culturally generic to make people feel comfortable? Arguably, relatability and depth come from the normalcies and flaws of a character.
Ultimately, Apu and the entirety of characters from The Simpsons were created to entertain. Looking beyond that role to find something more true to life is just setting yourself up to be disappointed. Enjoy The Simpsons for what it is and stop making much ado about nothing.