Brow Beat

The Simpsons Responds to The Problem With Apu With a Dismissive Shrug

Lisa doesn't know how to address the problem with Apu on The Simpsons.
“What can you do?”
FOX

Last fall, comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary The Problem With Apu, in which he interrogates the history of The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Kwik-E-Mart operator and, for decades, the show’s token Indian character. Through interviews with other prominent South Asian Americans (including Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, and Hasan Minhaj) as well as drawing on his own personal experiences having grown up with the character, Kondabolu called out The Simpsons’ creators for relying upon painful stereotypes and what is essentially brownface in the form of Hank Azaria voicing the role.

Kondabolu documented his attempts to reach out to Azaria for an on-camera interview, but he declined. The voice actor has addressed the issue publicly as recently as earlier this year, when he expressed sympathy for those upset by the character and said that the creative team would “definitely address” this on the show. And as of Sunday night’s episode, called “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” they finally did.

While reading a bedtime story to Lisa, Marge edits the fictitious children’s book The Princess in the Garden so that any trace of content that would be considered objectionable in 2018 —”naturally servile” natives in South America, “feeble-witted and drunk” Irish—is gone. It turns out it’s much less satisfying (and much shorter), lacking in an “emotional journey” for its protagonist. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” an exasperated Marge says.

Lisa turns and looks directly at the audience: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The camera then pans to a framed photo of Apu on the nightstand next to Lisa’s bed, signed with the phrase, “Don’t have a cow.” And then:

Marge: Some things will be dealt with at a later date.

Lisa: If at all.

Unsurprisingly, this pat, resigned reaction to the controversy didn’t sit well with Kondabolu and many others.

Later in the episode, Lisa brings Marge to Springfield University to meet scholars of the fictional book’s author, Heloise Hodgeson Burwell. (The name is presumably a reference to Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose beloved classic The Secret Garden features a white English girl arguing that the family’s Indian house staff “are not people.”) They claim that Burwell’s “whole life was a protest against conformity,” because she was unmarried, never had kids, and lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She’s a “lesbian icon” and her “offensive stereotypes were actually a self-consciously ironic protest against her own oppression.” When a skeptical Marge asks them how much of that characterization they actually believe, they respond, hesitantly: “Most.” They deal with the incongruities with the help of alcohol.

The basic framing of that earlier meta reference and the scene at the university is a startling misrepresentation of the issues Kondabolu and many others have brought forth. To suggest that Apu (who was created nearly 30 years ago when on-screen Asian representation was even more dire than it is now) was ever “inoffensive” is only true if you’re speaking about it from the perspectives of the non-Asian segment of the population, which obviously wouldn’t have any reason to be offended. Yet for many Indian Americans who grew up with The Simpsons, this character, the brainchild of white creators, was all they had. And in merely poking fun at the stereotypes (the “self-consciously ironic protest” bit), the writers deflect responsibility even further, admitting that they’ve had to reflect upon their creative choices and have come to the conclusion that there’s nothing more they can possibly do.

During an interview for my Slate podcast Represent, Kondabolu told me that he didn’t want the writers to take the “lazy” way out in addressing the controversy and kill off Apu. They didn’t wind up doing that, but instead did something that’s perhaps just as much of a cop-out: looked directly at their critics, dinged them for being “politically correct,” and then shrugged it off. What can you do?

Update, April 9, 12:30 p.m.: Hari Kondabolu has released an “official” statement on the episode.

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.