Last night, The Simpsons aired an episode in which they briefly addressed the 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu. The documentary discusses the cultural impact the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has had on South Asian representation in other media, as well as the direct impact of the character on prominent South Asian and Indian actors’ lives.
Now, I won’t actually be speaking on whether the representation of Apu is fine or not in this post. I’m not Indian and I just don’t think I really have any say or insight into what is or isn’t offensive representation. However, I still think the way writers displayed their views on the subject was still ignorant.
While I was growing up, watching The Simpsons would’ve been better described as a dedicated ritual than a favored past-time. Like all the great sitcoms of our time, it was so much more than just a comedy. The Simpsons was smart, nuanced, and often poignant. (There is definitely more than one episode that I’ve sobbed my eyeballs out to) But above all else, it was relatable.
As the precocious middle child of my own family, I related most to Lisa. The way she navigated the tensions in her life was something I always found myself reflecting on when it came time for me to do the same. Most important to me was the way she negotiated her extreme wealth of empathy and opposing social norms. The show did a fantastic job of giving the audience a sense of Lisa’s internal struggle, and how she felt about the outcome of whichever decision she made.
Lisa was usually far from arrogant, and her inquisitiveness pushed her to understand a situation as deeply as she could (well, as deeply as any 8-year-old can).
This is what makes the 1-minute clip linked above so infuriating. Lisa, who is said to be “the most thoughtful and liberal” character, should never have been the spokesperson for this issue. As I’ve been discussing this entire time, Lisa is far too empathetic to voice her opinion in this way in such a “case closed” fashion. I know that The Simpsons and its characters have come a long way since the show’s early days, but it’s like the showrunners completely disregarded years of character development to make her a puppet for their beliefs and ideals. Lisa’s 180-degree philosophical flip is made even more ironic when you take into account that the whole issue is that the showrunners refuse to reconsider the principles behind Apu’s character. As someone who used to feel deeply connected to Lisa’s character, I have no connection to her current version.
Even more upsetting is the logic Lisa uses to justify the character of Apu. Lisa states,
Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?
as she glances over at a portrait she keeps of Apu by her bedside.
Firstly, there have been plenty of things that were once accepted that we now recognize as universally offensive, the most obvious that comes to mind being minstrel shows. So that logic is immediately and easily thrown out the window.
Secondly, I have trouble believing that absolutely nobody took any offense with Apu from the beginning. But even if there was no negative discourse surrounding Apu from the beginning, I can see why no one was vocal about their disdain for Apu.
There has been a historical lack of representation of South Asian people in the media. Utkarsh Ambudkar, known for his work in The Mindy Project, even states in the trailer for The Problem With Apu that Apu was some of the only representation of Indian people on all of TV at the time. I can understand the lack of uproar, as ridicule may be considered to be better than no representation at all (See Clark’s four stages of representation).
But the character has existed for nearly 30 years and in that time, South Asian and Indian representation has not greatly changed. Apu is still one of the most prominent portrayals of Indian people on TV today. Frankly, it’s not unreasonable to be upset that Apu is still what comes to American audience’s minds when they think of Indians on TV.
As I get deeper into this issue, I start to understand The Simpsons’ sentiment when Lisa says “What can you do?” Is it really fair that we give all responsibility of fair and equal Indian representation to the Simpsons? But then again, if they are the biggest representation of Indian people to this day, maybe it actually isn’t so ridiculous to give them the lions share.
To reiterate, my main point has nothing to do with whether Apu is offensive or not. I just think that if the writers put in even 50% the amount of thought that myself and many other fans have put into this situation, regardless of the consensus they actually would’ve arrived at, their comments on the documentary would have been far better received.
So now I want to turn it to you. This has been a super tense issue on Twitter so I’d love to know what other users on other platforms think! Let me know in the comments below!