When you think about iconic television shows, I’m sure that many come to mind. The question is very subjective, but for me one of the most iconic shows is “The Simpsons.” When I was growing up, everyone watched it. My parents weren’t huge fans of the show—and certainly weren’t fans of me watching it—but I was able to get my fill by heading over to a friend’s house. It probably wasn’t the best show for an elementary/middle school-aged child to be watching, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do. In fact, when “The Simpson’s Movie” came out in 2007, my friends and I got tickets to see it as fast as we could. As an Indian-American, however, there was one thing that eventually ruined the show for me; the man who ran the Kwik-E-Mart, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
A few months ago, I watched a 2017 documentary created by and starring comedian Hari Kondabolu called “The Problem with Apu.” If you couldn’t tell by the name, he is also Indian-American. Kondabolu focuses the documentary on basically how Apu was used in “The Simpsons” to make fun of Indian immigrants and how that negatively impacted many Indian-Americans growing up. In the documentary, he talks to many high profile Indian-Americans who talk about the bullying they received because of the show and the problems that all of them have with the character.
Last week on April 8, “The Simpsons” show writers appeared to come up with a response to Kondabolu’s documentary with the airing of the episode titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.” The episode basically consists with Marge realizing that a childhood story she loved is no longer “politically-correct” and in changing it to make it “PC,” she is taking away from the meaning it had before. There was a specific nod to Apu with Lisa saying “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do,” as a photo of Apu sits in frame. Most people viewed the episode fairly poorly, including Kondabolu, who tweeted out how he was disappointed that his entire argument about equal representation was reduced to something being “politically correct.”
When I was in high school, there was a lot South Asian representation. I could turn on the TV and watch Kal Penn or Mindy Kaling in shows like “House M.D.” or “The Office.” Now, Hasan Minhaj is a mainstay on “The Daily Show,” and Dev Patel is getting international acclaim for his work in movies like “Lion” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” It’s really nice to see some kind of representation of people like me in mainstream media.
But when I was growing up, that representation wasn’t really there. My friends could turn on Sunday morning cartoons and watch Batman and Superman save a city. I, and many other South Asians, didn’t have that. The closest thing I had to all of this growing up was some Indian comic books based on the Indian history/mythology and a store clerk voice by a white guy.
Apu is one of the most racist and offensive characters ever created. For starters, he is voiced by Hank Azaria, a white voice actor who has openly said he chose the most racist Indian accent that he could think of. And he plays into many of the stereotypes that people have about South Asians: He runs a convenience store, he’s a cheapskate and he can’t really speak English. He’s not the lowest of the low (I’m looking at you, Barney Gumble) but is pretty darn close.
I understand that “The Simpsons” makes fun of everyone and that gives it its broad appeal, but the fact of the matter is, up until recently, South Asians didn’t have anyone to look up to in media. And for those who are going to try and defend Apu, let’s be very clear on something: You only like Apu because the horrible caricature gives you something to laugh at.
If there were other representations of Indian-Americans in the media when I was young, that would have been fantastic—except, there wasn’t. Even now, many of the times they are written into shows, South Asians are used as the brunt of a joke. They are made fun of for being too smart and not understanding how to interact with others, like Raj Koothrappali on “The Big Bang Theory.”
This can have larger effects than not just giving Indian-Americans role models. In media effects studies, there is a term called role schema. Schema is the mental shortcuts and organizing pattern we created for dealing with information. Role schema is specifically attaching shortcuts and information to a specific role. Maybe you create the shortcut that all convenience stores are run by South Asians—did you ever call a convenience store a “Gandhi-mart?” Congratulations, you have adopted some clear, underlying racism caused by the horrible representation of South Asians in the media.
The solution to all of this isn’t easy. For starters, characters like Apu should be completely removed. They are an insulting joke to all of the immigrants who have come to this country, like my parents, and worked their way for a successful career. If we are going to make fun of people for living the American dream, then we are hypocrites.
The more important thing is getting rid of the notion that we are doing something politically correct by criticizing a character like Apu. It’s not being politically correct if you are ending something racist and disrespectful. The issue is about getting positive and accurate representation of minorities, specifically South Asians. If you can manage to do that, then we can think about discussing potential caricatures.