What’s The Problem With Apu?
One of the longest-lasting characters on The Simpsons may not be long for this world, but before we write him off perhaps we ought to stop and think.
The producers and writers of The Simpsons are reportedly considering dropping one of its longest-lasting characters outside of the members of the core family due to concerns that it may be feeding into stereotypes about Indian-Americans:
After a year of controversy surrounding the character of Apu, the hit animated show ‘The Simpsons’ may soon be dropping the character from the show.
The impact and lasting legacy of the fictional Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by Hank Azaria), has been sharply debated since the debut of comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem With Apu” in November 2017, which examined the stereotypes about Indian Americans that Apu embodied. The documentary featured several South Asian celebrities and newsmakers, including comedian Aparna Nancherla and actor Kal Penn, as they recalled the way Apu made them reflect on their own identities.
Social media began buzzing on Friday when IndieWire published an interview with film producer Adi Shankar, who told the site that he had heard from several people close to “The Simpsons” that Apu would soon be dropped from the animated show. While Shankar is not affiliated with “The Simpsons” or its network Fox, he began a contest in April inviting creators to write scripts in which the character of Apu is reimagined beyond his current portrayal of a stereotypical Indian immigrant.
“I’ve verified from multiple sources now: They’re going to drop the Apu character altogether,” Shankar told IndieWire. “They aren’t going to make a big deal out of it, or anything like that, but they’ll drop him altogether just to avoid the controversy.”
Shankar would not elaborate on his IndieWire interview when reached by phone by NBC News, stating that he didn’t want to give away his source. A spokesperson for Fox released a statement from “Simpsons” executive producer Al Jean to NBC News stating, “Apu appeared in the 10/14/18 episode ‘My Way or the Highway to Heaven.'”
In response to the rumors that Apu might be written out of “The Simpsons,” Kondabolu said he wasn’t necessarily thrilled. “There are so many ways to make Apu work without getting rid of him. If true, this sucks,” he tweeted.
Since its premiere last year, Kondabolu’s “The Problem With Apu” has opened up a wide-ranging conversation about stereotyping, typecasting, and the lack of diversity in comedy. Azaria, who has voiced the character since “The Simpsons” debuted in 1989, told late night host Stephen Colbert in April that he was willing to “step aside”from the character.
As noted, this isn’t the first time that the controversy over Apu has come up. The release of Kondabolu’s documentary nearly a year ago started a debate that has been going on for the better part of a year now, and it appears to be headed in a direction that will ultimately lead to an end to the character well before The Simpsons itself comes to an end. In an interview with The New York Times in July, for example, Simpsons creator Matt Groening addressed the issue without giving a definitive answer on whether or not the character would be dropped from the show entirely, or whether it would even be acknowledged on the show if they did drop it. In the meantime, there’s been much discussion about whether the character is really offensive or if people are being overly sensitive.
In April, for example, Vikas Bajaj, a member of the New York Times Editorial Board made particular note of the fact that, in addition to playing into many long-standing stereotypes about Indian-Americans, the character is voiced by a white man and the voiced used is one that has often been used to mock people of Indian ancestry for whom English is a second language. In doing so, he made a comparison between Hank Azaria’s characterization and the old and largely discredited (except apparently for Megyn Kelly) practice of white actors applying blackface to play African-American characters, usually in a racist manner. While I don’t think it’s fair to say that the portrayal of Apu is racist per se, Bijaj raises some compelling arguments about how the character is seen by at least some first and second generation Indian immigrants.
At the same time, Amar Shah, an Indian-American who works as a writer and producer in the entertainment industry offered a different perspective on the character:
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the beloved and controversial Indian business owner who has been operating the Kwik-E-Mart since his debut in 1990. For me, the question of Apu is much more complicated. For me, the child of Indian immigrants, raised in stores much like Apu’s, it’s personal.
In fifth grade, I became obsessed with “The Simpsons,” particularly Bart, who was my age. When Apu appeared, I wasn’t cognizant of the stereotypical accent or how he was used for cheap laughs. I just couldn’t believe someone like my dad was on TV. The only other character of South Asian origin I had seen was Jawaharlal Choudhury, the foreign-exchange student from India on “Head of the Class.” In video games, we had the Great Tiger, the boxer in “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out” who teleported around the ring wearing his trademark white turban with a red ruby, and Dhalsim from Street Fighter 2, a yogic contortionist with the power of fire. Apu was comparatively real, someone I could understand firsthand.
In 1968, my father left Nadiad, a small town in the Indian state of Gujarat, for the United States at age 17. He was so nervous on the 30-hour flight from Mumbai to New York that he didn’t get up from his seat once, not even to go to the bathroom.
He graduated from the University of New Haven with a degree in engineering during the sluggish economy of the early 1970s, and he took the only gig he could get: pumping gas on the late shift at a Gulf station on Queens Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway. When his father, my dada, visited from India and saw my dad sweeping the parking lot, he wasn’t happy. My dada had raised his family in a big house, with a car, a chauffeur and one of the first telephones in town, and now he wondered why his son was doing menial work. But my dad didn’t intend to pump gas for other people forever. He had Gatsbyish dreams.
By 1975, my father was working as an engineer and ready to get married. He returned to India to meet my mom, an arranged match. He was smitten and so was she. Three weeks later, they married in Nadiad.
In the early 1980s, he made the down payment for his first store, Taj’s Grocery in Scotch Plains, N.J. He later expanded the place and added a pizzeria, renaming it Famous Pizza and Deli. He learned to make pizza from scratch, and my mom mastered the pick-it lotto and memorized all the customers’ favorite numbers. They learned to make 42 types of subs. My Hindu parents threw a Christmas party every year for their employees at our house, where they served wine and Indian snacks like samosas and puris. And I was there for all of it, a toddler sleeping on my mother’s lap late at night.
Shah goes on to note that his father sold the business in New Jersey and moved south to Florida where they acquired a business similar to the one that they had owned further north:
The store was like home. It smelled of oil, cigarette smoke and Bubble Yum. I’d walk in after school, say hi to my dad and dash to my favorite place to do my homework — the walk-in cooler. It was 42 degrees in there, but that’s where I worked on my cursive, sitting on a 12-pack of beer in my Catholic school uniform — a white polo shirt and blue slacks — and sipping a fountain drink.
Eventually, my parents owned and operated businesses all over central Florida. Gas station life was rich. I met people I never would have otherwise. There was Mary, the first lesbian I ever knew, whose partner passed away in a car accident; Don, the wise manager of our Zellwood store, who always had advice for my dad and succumbed to cancer; John the DJ; Joe the pimp; and Herb, my dad’s best friend, a 6-foot-7 former cop who rode a Harley, looked like Samuel L. Jackson and once shot a robber to death in self-defense.
And there was the food. The jars of delicious pickled eggs and pigs’ feet soaked in red vinegar. My dad was Vaishnav vegetarian, but his vice was convenience-store hot dogs with relish and sauerkraut, a dollop of onions, and a squeeze of ketchup and mustard. My brother and I were sworn to secrecy about his habit. My mom was never to know.
I loved the fountain drink dispensers. I would mix all the flavors into a sugary concoction that had me buzzing for hours while I covertly opened packs of Topps baseball cards from a wax box, hoping for a Dwight Gooden card. I browsed the cooler and wondered what malt liquor or Bartles & Jaymes tasted like while I swigged orange Slice.
Apu is more than an offensive accent or a stereotype. I can’t hate him, because Apu in so many ways is my dad. Amid the controversy, I asked my father what he thought about Apu. “Who?” he said. “I don’t know who that is. I have an inspection to worry about.”
Is Apu politically incorrect? Maybe. Is he incomplete? Yes. Does he offend me? No, because some part of him is real. As a writer and producer myself, the onus is now on me to tell our stories, create the characters and build the platforms that defy expectations of Indian Americans. That’s already happening with Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Priyanka Chopra and others like Hannah Simone, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Tiya Sircar . We’re stars, writers, directors and showrunners. Just like my dad, we’ve moved past Apu and the Kwik-E-Mart.
Along similar lines, Pradheep Shanker, an Indian-American medical doctor living in the Midwest, wrote a piece for National Review pushing back against the entire argument against the Apu character:
On the show, Apu is a strongly accented, traditional Indian immigrant. As such, he is the owner of a convenience store (obviously a nod to the many 7-11s and other small businesses owned by Indians throughout the northeastern United States), who later gets an arranged marriage, has octuplets, and is shown as a fantastic father and husband. He is also, among other things, a gun owner who is extremely religious and devoted to his Hindu culture.
Now . . . what in the above paragraph is insulting or demeaning? Literally nothing, to anyone with an ounce of common sense or perspective on reality. It takes a fantastic amount of intellectual gymnastics to blame such a character for any racial slights any of us Indians have experienced in our day-to-day lives. To be sure, Apu, like all of the characters on the show, has his moments of buffoonery, but none of it amounts in any significant way to racial animus.
This is absurd.
For anyone who grew up in the U.S. as a minority, such supposed atrocities are the most minimalist racial affronts one could think of. I can just picture my African-American friends, who grew up being called the N-word on a regular basis, guffawing at the supposed outrage that Indians feel at having quotes from an American cartoon show shouted at them.
Kondabolu’s complaints about the repercussions of Apu’s entrance into popular society abound. For example, he points to the fact that people yell catchphrases from the TV show at him during his comedy bits. He has even complained that Apu’s most famous catchphrase — ”Thank you! Come again!” — has been yelled at him at times by drunks on the street.
I think, as an Indian American, that what bothers me most about this entire new episode in our continual culture war is that a few like-minded, left-wing Indians are trying to dictate how Indian Americans view American society. The truth about Indian Americans? We are doing fine. We are currently the richest, most educated minority in America. We litter the halls of academia, medicine, and even Hollywood now. Our voices are heard in the White House, the United Nations, Congress, and state houses across America. If you want to pick a minority that has suffered from media biases, the last one I would pick is Indian Americans.
So, you want to educate America about racial slights? You want to make them more sympathetic to the feelings of minorities, including Indians? Be my guest. It is always a moral good to educate others on how their actions affect others. But if you can’t, in good nature, laugh at the goodness and true comedic value of a character such as Apu . . . maybe you should find an industry to work in other than comedy.
Shah’s take on the issue is an interesting one for me, not only because in some sense his father was Apu, but because it mirrors phenomena that I saw unfold during my own childhood and later in life in the area I grew up in. My hometown isn’t very far from the Scotch Plains, New Jersey store that his father operated in the 1970s and during the time I was growing up our community and several surrounding towns saw a huge influx of Indian-American immigrants. Many of them, apparently, were drawn to New Jersey due to the fact that it was the home of technology companies such as Bell Labs and other subsidiaries of AT&T, which was still a virtual monopoly in telecommunications at the time, as well as the presence of universities such as Rutgers, Princeton, and other schools that both at the time and today excelled in engineering, medicine, and other technical fields. After this first wave of mostly educated immigrants from India arrived, others followed largely due to the fact that the area had a large Indian population where they could be around relatives, friends, or simply people like them. Over time, this resulted in many local businesses being opened or purchased by this second wave of immigrants, including, of course, things such as 7-11 franchises and similar establishments.
The adjustment wasn’t an easy one, as is usually the case with a new wave of immigrants, there was at least some resentment toward this new population. The wave of immigrants also brought with it a wave of children who were enrolled in public schools in the area. I will readily admit that these kids didn’t always have the easiest time fitting in, but they also excelled academically and did their best to fit in with their fellow students even if we didn’t always make it easy for them. Things were often said in jest, for example, that I can now recognize as having been offensive, but for the most part, these actions or statements were based in the unfortunate habit of kids to tease the new kids in school. In retrospect, though, it’s obvious that some of it went too far. It was also the case that, in some cases, the kids were reflecting things they heard from their parents, which often did border on racism. In any case, one of the reasons that the Apu character resonated so much is that it was a reflection of reality. Joe Biden got in trouble for saying it, but at some point, it did seem as though every 7-11 in New Jersey and Delaware was owned by and staffed by, Indian-Americans, and many of them did sound like Apu, right down to the accent. When I go back to my old hometown today, the Indian-American population is far more integrated into the area as a whole. Rather than principally living in apartments, Indian-Americans are now homeowners, their businesses have become huge successes, and business such as restaurants that sprung up to attract the new population attract patrons from all over the area regardless of race or national origin.
This brings us back to Apu. If some Indian-Americans find him offensive, I am not going to argue with them about it. They are entitled to their opinion and to share it with the rest of us, and it’s certainly not my place to tell people what they should or shouldn’t find offensive. Regardless of what the producers decide to do with Apu, the criticisms of these people deserve to be considered and listened to rather than rejected out of hand. At the same time, though, I think that there’s a case to be made that, even taking all of those criticisms into account, Apu is actually one of the most positive and likable characters on The Simpsons and that, over time, he has become one of the most likable, positive characters on the show.
While Apu Nahasapeemapetilon started out as a one-dimensional character that arguably did play to stereotypes about Indian-American immigrants, over time he has been fleshed out and become far more interesting and entertaining. Rather than just being the guy who ran the Kwik-E-Mart whose only interactions with the likes of Homer and Bart came when they visited the store, his story has added more detail over time. After two decades he has become a husband, a father (of octuplets no less), volunteer firefighter, a successful businessman, and, to some extent, a friend of Homer and the rest of the gang at Moe’s Tavern. In the seventh season of the show, he became an American citizen notwithstanding Homer’s rather inept efforts to “help” him pass the citizenship test. In episodes that have focused on his character he has come across as a positive character andc certainly come across in a better light than the bumbling Homer, the stereotypical billionaire Montgomery Burns and his effeminate and yet vaguely sexual assistant Smithers, or the uber-Christian Ned Flanders, who has arguably been subjected to more disrespect over the past twenty-odd years than Apu has. The negative stereotypes have been toned down, and the fact that he’s Indian-American is rarely an issue at this point.
As Dr. Shankar notes in his National Review piece, what’s offensive about that?