Last year, director Michael Melamedoff and comedian Hari Kondabolu released The Problem with Apu, a documentary about how South Asian people have dealt with seeing most of their American representation on television come from The Simpsons’ yogi and convenience store owner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Kondabolu discusses his own experience with Apu, who he describes as sounding like “an impression of a white guy making fun of my dad.” He interviews people like Kal Penn and Aziz Ansari, who talk about how Apu’s accent and stereotypes have been used to mock or bully them. In an episode that aired April 8th, The Simpsons responded to the controversy directly, with a flippant non-apology for being “politically incorrect.” Although the episode attempts to stay timely, with pop culture references to Amazon’s Alexa and Minecraft, it dates itself by making surprisingly tone-deaf statements about modern issues of representation.
In the episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” written by Jeff Westbrook, Marge revisits her favorite childhood storybook The Princess in the Garden. But when she attempts to read it to Lisa, she realizes the plot and characters are more racist than she remembered. The story is about a girl enjoying a colonized land, while her servants, people of color who are “naturally servile,” fan her and bring her food while she threatens to whip them.
Horrified, Marge flips to what she hopes is a more appropriate part of the story, and runs across an Irish stereotype. The book character asks her indignantly, “This is the part you deem acceptable?” That’s the show’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on how all stereotypes are bad, but stereotypes about people of color have gotten louder disapproval lately. The episode also draws on the rhetoric used by the show’s loudest proponents — the idea that since the show stereotypes everyone, not just marginalized people of color, it’s not that bad. To prove the point, the episode includes a cameo from Scottish stereotype Groundskeeper Willie, and a subplot about Bart getting ideas to deal with Homer by reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War, narrated by Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang in a heavy accent.
There was no other counterexample to Apu on TV
This is, however, a point Kondabolu already specifically addressed in his film. The “Simpsons stereotypes everybody” line of thinking assumes that everyone is already treated equally in society and media, that widespread, systemic racism aren’t issues, and that Apu wasn’t the main source of media representation for South Asians when the show launched in 1989. While characters like “Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel” and Groundskeeper Willie are satirical stereotypes, they’re specific stereotypes of narrow subgroups, and there are plenty of counterexamples of Southern people or Scottish people on television. By contrast, Kondabolu makes the point that Apu is a broad amalgam of every possible ethnic stereotype about Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis that the writers could think of. And in an environment where there was no other counterexample to Apu on TV, the character made those stereotypes more popular and prominent. In Kondabolu’s experience, Apu led people to think it was funny (and potentially even socially accurate) to shout his catchphrase, “Thank you, come again!” at South Asian-Americans or imitate his accent and fake bow when talking to them.
The Simpsons episode responds to Kondabolu’s well-reasoned argument and personal experience with a dismissive metaphor that buries the controversy under false equivalencies. It’s a pity that the show writers decided to go in this direction because “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” could have been a useful way to contend with the stereotype. Lisa, the target of Marge’s old, racist storybook, has been well-established as a progressive character who’s sensitive to racism, stereotyping, and other people’s feelings. It would have been natural for her to question the racist tale or to ask what Marge loves about the book that makes it worth keeping.
Instead, Marge attempts to rewrite the story in the most pandering way possible, making the main character a net neutrality activist who rescues wild horses. Lisa immediately shuts her down, saying the heroine is too perfect, so she couldn’t possibly have “an emotional journey to complete.” “What am I supposed to do?” Marge asks. “It’s hard to say,” Lisa says, staring straight at the camera. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
It’s an odd betrayal that the show’s most liberal activist character is being used as a mouthpiece for the writers to communicate, “Our hands are completely tied, and there’s certainly no way whatsoever to make our modern racial caricature less offensive.” Given that Kondabolu’s objections to Apu go back to his earliest days and that only recent cultural shifts have allowed people to pay attention, it’s also annoying that they’re claiming no one was ever offended by the character before now. Finally, they wind up with a vague, hand-waving contradiction that has nothing to do with the show’s actual storyline: Marge says, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” “If at all,” Lisa adds. And they both stare meaningfully into the camera. It’s as if the writers are saying “Maybe we’re not going to do a thing about this. But who knows?” That sort of lazy moral ambivalence sounds more like Homer Simpson than Lisa.
Even the fundamental basis of the argument of “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” to keep Apu in the series unchanged is built on a weak foundation. By relying on a metaphor with an old book Marge read as a little girl, The Simpsons suggests Apu is a relic of the past that for some reason must remain completely unchanged 30 years after his inception. When Marge tries to update her storybook, she says, “It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character out of a book,” suggesting that it would be not just hard to improve Apu, but that making him something other than a broad stereotype would remove his “spirit.”
But as Linda Holmes notes in her NPR analysis, Apu isn’t an abandoned relic of the past, he’s part of an ongoing TV show that’s still being written today, and in modern episodes, he continues to repeat the same catchphrases and tics from 30 years ago. He hasn’t changed much. It’s a bizarre notion that there’s any spirit or character to be enjoyed in a racist caricature, voiced by a white man doing an exaggerated accent, consciously based on Peter Sellers’ role as an Indian doctor in brownface in 1968’s The Party. What is so important about Apu that he has to remain unchanged? Is The Simpsons actually hinting that without ethnic stereotypes, there would be no show?
In The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu designed his own metaphor about the long-running cartoon series: “The Simpsons is like your racist grandfather. And if he can’t change, maybe it’s time for him to die. And you can just remember the good stuff about him.” That caustic remark demonstrates how grating Apu’s presence on the show has been, and it must have made some impression on the writers. But “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” openly says, “Yes, this show is your racist grandfather, but there’s absolutely no possible way to get around that, so why bother?”