In recent years, there has been a surge of diversity entering the mainstream media. There are shows that highlight LGBTQ+ people, minorities and women. Long gone are the times of flipping on the television and only seeing white men starring in leading roles, with the only diversity being in the form of stereotypes. Yet, some of these stereotypes have taken longer than others to weed out. One of the most famous, is Apu from The Simpsons, which made its debut in 1989 on the Fox channel. The satirical cartoon has had more than thirty seasons.
In 2017, the documentary, “The Problem with Apu” premiered. Comedian Hari Kondabolu wrote and starred in this production, attempting to address the issue of South Asian representation in the media. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon runs a convenience store and has a thick, exaggerated Indian accent. Kondabolu is an Indian-American who grew up watching The Simpsons in his hometown of Queens, New York. He once admired the recurring character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon; he was the sole figure on television that Kondabolu saw that resembled him. As an adult, he noticed how controversial the character was. Behind the humor of Apu’s character was a slew of stereotypes.
The Simpsons wrote Apu in a stereotypical fashion that the documentary labeled as, “brown face.” The show’s creators categorized him to represent all people of South Asian descent. Every person is unique, and no one individual represents their race as a whole. In the past decade, mocking another’s culture as a comedic strategy was okay. Now that there has been a push for political correctness and mutual respect, it is simply unacceptable.
This, along with Kondabolu’s eye-opening documentary, prompted fans to begin a discussion on Apu’s character. The question of whether or not to keep Apu in the show circulated across the internet. Although there have been rumors of Apu’s exit from the long-running series, it has not been verified by the show’s producers.
This is a sticky situation. On one hand, I can see how Apu would be deemed offensive. Though he is one of the few South Asian characters on a primetime show, he is a caricature of Indian people. He lives up to many of the stereotypes that Americans hold of an Indian man. The issue is that people want to see more than one Indian person on television, and more than the cliches that come with them. An individual cannot speak for an entire culture.
Those that want to keep Apu on the show argue that he is a good character. He represents a college-educated, hardworking man that immigrated to Springfield for a better life for his family. He is also the owner of a frequented convenience store. Apu hits home for those who have watched The Simpsons since their pilot episode. He has been a character on the show since 1990, and is voiced by Hank Azaria. Azaria himself said that he is willing to step aside from voicing the character due to concerns around his character’s depiction.
Personally, I do not think Apu’s character should be written off. This is one of the few shows that features a man of South Asian descent on American television. Erasing his character from the show would set us backwards. There is no issue with continuing to have Apu featured on The Simpsons. The problem is with his portrayal. At times, it is blatantly racist. The creators have downgraded his race to stand in for his personality.
It is possible to have a humorous, satirical cartoon that does not rely on stereotypes to give the audience a laugh. Bob’s Burgers, another adult cartoon that also airs on the Fox channel, is a prime example of this. They have never used someone’s race to crack a joke; instead, they use the characters’ zany personalities to produce comedic gold.
With that said, The Simpsons is still a great show. It has been wildly successful over the span of three decades. Their content has reached out to millions and is widely enjoyed. There comes a time when everything has an adjustment period. In the past, they relied on racial and ethnic stereotypes to get the audience into fits of laughter. In recent years, they have attempted to bring the cartoon into the present era. They have recently worked with drag queens RuPaul and Raja. They are slowly changing their cultural narrative for the better.
The millennial generation called them out on these extreme exaggerations of a culture. Yet, Apu does not need to be written off the show. Correctly representing Apu’s character would lead to viewers having a more positive image of diversity in their minds. It would be ignorant to delete him from the show because his depiction has been offensive in the past. Apu needs to be rewritten as a strong, complex character, rather than killed off by writers who originally created him as a stereotype.