My Problems With: The Problems with The Problem with Apu

I’m really doing this? Okay, let’s do this…

The Problem with Apu is a 2017 made-for-TV documentary made by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu for TruTV.  It talks about his complicated relationship with the Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, and his effect on the South Asian community in America being one of the only depictions of that culture on American TV.

Now, when I first saw this doc, two thoughts came to mind:

  1. Huh, what a fair, balanced, and funny take on an issue I never could have given much thought about before.
  2. Man, are people going to misrepresent this to *fuck*

And to fuck they did. It received some backlash when it first aired, but more recently got more attention when The Simpsons themselves made a response in a recent episode. I’ll discuss the show’s reaction in a minute, and while this won’t be a review or analysis (per se) of the documentary, this is more a response of some frequent criticisms of the documentary that pop up all the time. They tend to be deliberate strawmen or proof that the person making the claim just hasn’t actually seen it. My main advice is…watch the documentary, but seeing as this seems like too much of a laborious task for people to sit down and see 47 minutes of content before lambasting it on social media, here are a few recurring complaints that either miss the point  or were actually addressed.

I guess I need to make this clear, though, if you’ve seen The Problem with Apu and still disagree with Kondadolu’s points, that’s fine. We may not exactly agree, but you are perfectly entitled to disagree with the guy if you’re not deliberately taking his arguments out of context or just…assuming what they are. This is more targeted at people who just imagined what the arguments made were, as it comes from an annoying and growing trend on the internet. Reframing an argument based on how people have argued similarly on the topic and attacking that, regardless of if the person you are talking to has a more nuanced take. We’re all guilty of this, but seeing as this entire discussion is made up so much of people deciding what this guy is saying, it annoyed me to the point that I wrote this.

Got it? Everyone gonna ignore all this? Good, let’s start off with:

“But The Simpsons is full of stereotypes, not just Apu!”

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This is the most common and pervasive argument. All The Simpsons characters are stereotypes. And they make stereotypical depictions of other ethnicities, like Jewish people, Italians, Scottish, Mexicans, etc. It’s a cartoon that depicts all cultures in broad, satirical ways, so why get mad over this one?

This one just annoys the shit out of me a lot, so I’m gonna quote the documentary directly:

“The thing is The Simpsons stereotypes all races. They stereotype the alcoholic, the deadbeat dad, the f-up kid, the overachieving daughter. They stereotype Italians, Chinese, Japanese. They spare no expense. The problem is we didn’t have any other representation in this country.”

That’s the issue. It wasn’t that Apu was a caricature. It’s that he was a caricature of a race and ethnic group that saw fuck all else to represent them at the time.  He’s a relic from the time he was written, was the only representation of South Asian people on TV in the 90s for the large immigrant population in that country, and he’s still kind of…around. It also had the negative add-on of pigeonholing Indian and South Asian actors and comedians into very specific types when being cast for roles, because these things are not in a vacuum. Apu being so popular and so distinctive a caricature has a knock-on effect, for good or for ill.

Also, if you think Groundskeeper Willie has negatively affected Scottish people in America, Luigi has affected Italians, Bumblebee Man has affected Mexicans, etc., nobody is stopping you from criticising that. I know most are just saying this to silence discourse, but if you really feel that these characters have impacted on their respective cultural representative, make your own talk pieces or documentaries about it or die mad.

Moving right along:

“Apu isn’t a stereotype, he’s a complex and well-rounded character! He’s a business owner, a family man, very well rounded!”

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I’ve honestly seen this argument lined up with the stereotype one? Like,  they’re sometimes said alongside each other? Apu’s not a stereotype and is good representation, but he is a stereotype but that’s okay because they all are. Hmm…

This one won’t be as long, because Hari doesn’t really address this as it’s beside his point, but he does mention early on that Apu is more fleshed out than he appears. He’s one of the smartest characters on the show (though that isn’t a high bar), and that a lot of the humour written about him was exposing American’s idiocy and the struggles of the average immigrant. People don’t find him funny and likeable because he’s well rounded and actually has on point satirical elements to him. People, on average, like him because of the jokes and his more cliched characterisations which define him. His stinginess, his deviousness and his silly ‘foreign’ traits. It’s a bigger issue of how Americans saw him and, in turn, used that to reflect how they saw other South Asian people because of this.

This also didn’t stop the writers from playing up his more outlandish and less nuanced traits for comedy, which included some subtly offensive tropes, because this is a comedy. Speaking of, while we’re here:

“He’s just an easily offended SJW/snowflake!!!”

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He lampshades this early on, but because these complaints are rather useless pejoratives that don’t really mean anything in discourse. His tone throughout the doc is light and calm. He makes jokes about how Apu ruined his life and how he needs to get Hanks Azaria to kill him, but it’s clearly not meant to be serious. If you think exploring the complex relationship between media and how it’s used to reflect on culture, in particular of its depiction of an ethnic group that aren’t broadly represented on TV, and the knock-on effect it has, isn’t something worth looking into, okay, but that’s on you. I don’t think you need to be offended by something to look at these themes.

“He wants to destroy The Simpsons!!!”

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You might need to provide evidence to this ‘cause I didn’t really see it. He states more than once that he’s a huge fan of the show and it influenced him growing up. Not liking one aspect of a show you love doesn’t stop you being a fan, and outlining that in a long form criticism doesn’t mean you want to destroy it. Hari uses Apu’s depiction and its reflection of pop culture to open up a bigger discussion of South Asian representation in American entertainment and how certain negative depictions were pervasive and had to be overcome. I feel like a broken record here, but you have a fundamental misunderstanding of these criticisms if you honestly think anyone’s out to destroy the show.

I mean, come on. The Simpsons is nearly 30 years old now. It’s survived and thrived under way worse. If you honestly think this will completely undo the show, you’re really imparting a lot of power onto it than I think most of the people who worked n it thought it would have. Is criticism really that scary? It’s not like people have not thought the show should have ended years ago, anyway…

“He wants to destroy Apu!!!”

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Actually, he states pretty clearly that he’s not comfortable with just killing off Apu or removing him outright (‘You just can’t win with you’ is one of my favourite jabs in the doc).  There is that complicated relationship between ethnic stereotypes of whether you should improve or remove them, and Apu himself holds a very special place being a distinctive Indian immigrant character in an incredibly popular show. To just kill off this ‘problem’ seems a rather prosaic and antithetical solution. Plus, you’d get a lot of pissed off fans, and if people had exaggerated problems with this before!

I can’t really speak for Kondabolu’s intentions with making the documentary, but I think he did it for two reasons. The first is to explore what a unique specimen this character is. Both as a racial stereotype that stood for a culture largely underrepresented in the 90s, and his longevity due to the fact that the Simpsons has been around for nearly 3 decades and doesn’t tend to change its formula. Discussion is the key to changing these kinds of things, and that feels more what the doc wants to encourage (at least, you know…constructive discussion). Discussing racial depictions and their effects on culture are a hell of a lot more productive than some attempt to ‘destroy’ a 28-year-old cartoon character, or some boycott for a show everyone has claimed they stopped watching years ago.

The second is to encourage broader and more diverse representation of South Asian and Indian people in the entertainment industry. Celebrate the successful voices of Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, to name a few, and encourage that the way to change this is with more of these voices being active both in front of and behind the camera. One of the biggest complaints about Apu is a rather obvious one; he’s voiced by a white guy doing a really broad Indian impression. It’s important that, if South Asian immigrants and their descendants are going to be represented on television, they get their voices heard and do it themselves.

Hey, actually, while we’re here…

“He just picked on Apu to get famous!!!”

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This isn’t really one I can use the movie to refute, because it speaks for some nefarious scheme Hari Kondabolu apparently has that he wouldn’t make too apparent. The only thing I can say, though, is even if this was just some desperate plea for attention (and I really doubt it was), who cares? What does that disprove about the doc? Does that automatically make the points he brings up wrong? Of course not, it’s a silly ad hominem argument that does nothing to disprove the issues he raises.

Outside of that, though…dude’s doing pretty okay. Networks just don’t give random comedians hour-long slots to talk about a cartoon character. He’s made successful comedy albums, his podcast has done pretty well, he’s gotten acclaim for his stand-up. Hell, the Mayor of New York declared a day after him in October 2017, a few weeks before the doc even premiered. He’s been talking about Apu being the product of “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father” since 2012, on a segment for a show he used to write for called Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. It really hasn’t done much for his career. Hell, this wouldn’t have gotten nearly the attention it did if The Simpsons hadn’t responded to it.

I guess I need to talk about that response, don’t I? Goddamnit…

The Simpsons response to The Problem with Apu

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The Simpsons have responded to this issue prior to the documentary. After Kondabolu’s skit on Totally Biased, a Huffington Post article in 2014 discussed it, even interviewing Hank Azaria. In 2016, the episode ‘Much Apu About Something’ premiered, facing the convenience store owner off with his younger, more in-tune nephew, voiced by Indian-American actor Utkarsh Ambudkar. While it calls Apu out directly for his stereotypical characteristics, he’s portrayed more in the negative side as being the more disingenuous hipster. I mean, the criticism is not with his heritage and more his attitude, but still. Also they offset that by bringing out Luigi complaining about stereotype accusations, which kind of misses the forest for the trees.

But, yes, they responded more directly. In April 2018 No Good Read Goes Unpunished aired. The reference to the documentary is in the B-plot, where Marge discovers a book she loved as a child has a lot of questionable racist and discriminatory depictions in its writing. When she tries to edit it to be make it more ‘modern’, this exchange happens between her and Lisa, pointedly panning over to a framed picture of Apu saying ‘Don’t have a cow, Apu’:

Lisa: It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?
Marge: Some things will be addressed at a later date.
Lisa:If at all.

Then they deadass look straight into the camera.

So, again, this has a problem with reframing the documentary into saying something it’s not. It’s not ‘political correctness gone mad’, it’s identifying how cultural depictions can have a knock-on effect if they go unchallenged or unexamined. Also, the use of the book is really weird, because it’s implied to be written around the Modernist era of the late 19th/early 20th century. Even ignoring the fact that there are academic papers and attempts to course-correct the insensitive depictions in those stories, they’re from hundreds of years ago where most of the writers are dead. Apu was created and developed in the late 80s/early 90s, most of the people behind his creation are very much alive. Rudyard Kipling is not making new versions of The Jungle Book, The Simpsons is still astonishingly on its original run. What you can do is anything outside of condescendingly backhand people who dare criticise your show.

(also, as many have pointed out, why the fuck did they give Lisa that line to say?!)

Something I forgot to address is this idea that this is some attempt to censor or alter Apu’s past appearances, and no, that’s not the case. Whatever will happen to him in the future is completely up to The Simpsons to decide, but nobody wants to go back and remove Apu from the show’s history, at least not those who are involved in this discussion. It wouldn’t exactly remove him from public consciousness one way or another.

Matt Groening was also asked about it, and he said that people love to pretend to be offended nowadays. Again, the issue isn’t that Apu was offensive, it’s a broader, subtler effect he had. Funnily enough, considering how the documentary plays out, the person who seemed to handle it the best is Hank Azaria.

Conclusion

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Look, I get the defensiveness some have. People grew up with The Simpsons. As did I. I absolutely adore the show. I just don’t think it’s above reproach or fair critique. I think this criticism is fair, personally, regardless of whether you feel Hari Kondabolu is right or not. And let me reiterate, if you have seen the documentary, if you understand and can assess the points it raises, and you still disagree with it, that’s fine. Go ahead and say it’s wrong and raise your points against it, other people have. I am not telling  you to 100% agree with every issue brought up in this documentary. I just think it’s extremely unfair to argue against its points in bad faith.

The good years of The Simpsons has this cart blanche from being examined and criticised to some. Like, the only things people will say about the show is that the early seasons were kind of rough and the later seasons are just a ghost of what it used to be. I agree with both these things, but this makes The Simpsons the only judge against The Simpsons. And that is not how art is challenged.

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