Since 1989, creator Matt Groening has brought us a rich ensemble of personalities in the cast of The Simpsons. After 642 episodes we as an audience have had many years to grow to love Lisa’s smart retorts, Bart’s bad boy nature and of course the infamous Homer belch. Now a shadow has been cast over the long-running animated comedy series, as the filters of political correctness find it more and more difficult to accept the South Asian character Apu anymore.
Voiced by Hank Azaria, Apu is a character that runs a convenience store known as the Kwik-E-Mart and is generally recognised for his distinctive Indian accent and his tendency to sell food far beyond its expiry date. Controversy recently ensued when comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary entitled The Problem of Apu, featuring himself, other actors, and comics of South Asian heritage discussing the negative impact this character has had on their lives. Kondabolu describes how he was regularly asked to replicate the voice of Apu for the pleasure of audiences during his comedy gigs, understandably making the comedian feel uncomfortable.
Whilst he was glad that Apu’s character represented the Indian minority he belonged to as a young man, being subjected to insults at school about how he resembled the character was understandably irritating. The matter of the character being removed quietly or even being killed off from the show has recently been voiced by YouTuber Adi Shakar, who hinted that the caricatured character Apu’s ‘days were numbered’.
“Rather than axing a character who is widely enjoyed by many, resolving our past issues with race should be a priority. Apu’s character should embody the fact that everybody can be represented equally in something that we all love.”
One point that is important to remember is that Apu is a construct. He is a character moulded by Hank Azaria’s experiences with Asian convenience store owners in downtown Los Angeles and partly inspired by Hrundi V. Bakshi, a character from the film The Party. The character is not frequently a victim throughout the episodes and though he faces problems typically associated with South Asian culture such as arranged marriage, he also faces similar everyday problems to the other characters such as finding the right romantic partner in the episode The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons. He is embraced by the other characters as a neighbour and not seen as just a convenience store owner. In fact, jokes against him are often ones that he makes up himself at his own expense. Yet no other character is marred in greater controversy. Matt Groening is not frequently mobbed by gangs of angry, balding fathers suffering from alcoholism complaining that Homer is offensive to them for his stupidity or his proneness to injury in every episode.
Our problem is not with Apu as a character; it is with our relationship to the issue of race as a society. Race is a distinctly uncomfortable topic because of its dark history and the subsequent tension surrounding it. We struggle to be light-hearted about the issue of race as it can make us feel uncomfortable due to all the previous discontent that surrounds the issue.
Many people love Apu’s character and would certainly be disappointed to see him removed from the animated series. What people don’t love however is that Apu’s character echoes the racial stereotypes of South Asian people that are now frowned upon. Rather than axing a character who is widely enjoyed by many, resolving our past issues with race should be a priority. Apu’s character should embody the fact that everybody can be represented equally in something that we all love. We see that as an audience through his inclusion in episodes and his relationships with the other characters in the Springfield community. He isn’t marginalised or abused anymore than the other groups of characters such as hillbilly Cletus, the Scottish Groundskeeper Willie, or the Spanish Bumblebee Man.
In short, the character shouldn’t be the problem that we focus on. We should instead focus on removing cruel victimisation and racism from society, rather than targeting comedy.
If you have an opinion about Apu as a character and whether or not he still has a place in the show, feel free to share your thoughts with the Galleon team.
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