The Simpsons Can Do Better
Sunday night’s episode was a step backward for a forward-thinking show
ate last year, the actor and comedian Hari Kondabolu wrote and starred in The Problem with Apu, a short documentary which circled around the stereotyping and misrepresentation of people of color in the entertainment industry. Although the movie overarchingly contended with the industry’s tendency to typecast and marginalize, most discussed was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a fictional Indian character prominently featured on the long-running animated sitcom The Simpsons.
In the film, Kondabolu clarifies that, while he had been a major Simpsons fan for most of his life, he increasingly found himself bothered by the figuratively cartoonish way Nahasapeemapetilon has been portrayed for the last three decades. In addition to being voiced by the white actor Hank Azaria, Nahasapeemapetilon embodies many Indian stereotypes, topped off by an exaggerated accent. (Azaria once said that, while the character was developed, he was asked to do an Indian accent as offensively as possible.)
For many, the character has long served as a source of pain. South Asian entertainers interviewed in The Problem with Apu said that they have often been affected by Nahasapeemapetilon’s popularity in their personal and professional lives. Growing up, schoolyard bullies used his name for the sake of mockery. In their careers, the audition process has often been marred by requests on the part of casting agents to recreate Nahasapeemapetilon’s over-the-top accent.
In the aftermath of the documentary’s release, Azaria, who refused to participate in The Problem with Apu in spite of several requests by Kondabolu, more or less apologized. Devoted fans hoped the show’s creators would address Kondabolu’s misgivings in a respectful and productive way.
In the most recent episode of the sitcom, which aired Sunday, the Apu controversy was, after so many months, finally tackled. But rather than apologizing or at least thoughtfully acknowledging Kondabolu’s claims, an uncomfortably pat non-apology was offered instead. Many The Simpsons fans, including myself, aren’t so sure it will be possible for the show to recover.
At the end of the episode, which revolves around Marge Simpson’s discovery that one of her favorite childhood storybooks is full of racist imagery, her daughter, Lisa, having just read the story, looks directly into the camera. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” she sighs. “What can you do?”
Then, bizarrely, the camera pans to a framed photo of Nahasapeemapetilon, who is not even featured in the episode, on a bedside table. “Don’t have a cow!” is inscribed on the bottom corner of the portrait.
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge replies.
“If at all,” Lisa smugly adds.
For the last three decades, The Simpsons has rarely, if ever, misstepped this severely. Since debuting in 1989, the show has intelligently, albeit irreverently, lampooned the hypocrisies and conventions of American society.
Lisa’s fourth-wall-breaking lament plays up to the sickening “stop being so sensitive” aphorism that’s so frequently directed toward marginalized communities expressing their concerns over misrepresentation, and it is out of line with the usually perceptive nature of the show.
What the writers don’t get is that people troubled by the caricatured rendering of Nahasapeemapetilon are not being ultrasensitive or unreasonable. In the entertainment industry, people of color have been mocked and inaccurately written for decades, and Nahasapeemapetilon is, whether they like it or not, part of that problem. Some could argue that the series pokes fun at everything and that people are taking the issue too seriously. It’s different, though, when you’re misrepresenting individuals who are already so commonly misrepresented in the media in the first place.
Undoubtedly, the acceptance of Nahasapeemapetilon in popular culture has essentially okayed other caricated depictions of South Asian characters; Azaria, after all, has won four Emmys for his voiceover work in The Simpsons.
So The Simpsons, a show that has always felt so ahead of its time, suddenly feels out of touch. Evidently, it is run by privileged creators who don’t understand that the injuries inflicted by stereotyping do more than just hurt feelings. Their dismissal of a very real problem is a slap in the face.
Maybe, though, this thoughtlessness isn’t all too surprising. Last August, Mimi Pond, who penned the show’s pilot episode, alleged that she wasn’t hired as a full-time writer because the showrunner at the time, Sam Simon, did not want any women on the writing staff due to his recent divorce. And since its inception, the show has primarily been written by white men.
It would have been sufficient if the show’s creators simply offered a statement acknowledging Kondabolu’s qualms. They could have easily repurposed Lisa’s out-of-character grievances in such a way that would express that, at the time of Nahasapeemapetilon’s creation, stereotyping had not been thought about, but it was now understood that it is an issue.
So self-importantly preaching that it’s our fault for being offended, and not their fault, for perpetuating an offensive stereotype, is, at its core, a more creative way of giving the finger. Because I have long admired the brilliant, witty mockery put forth by The Simpsons, I hope those involved will come to realize that something needs to change. In this increasingly inclusive era, there just isn’t a place for these sorts of stereotypical representations.
- APRIL 13, 2018
This piece also appeared in The Daily.