Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Problem With Apu?



I'm almost certain everybody knows who Apu is. He is one of the most recognisable characters from The Simpsons. When I watched the show growing up I did not realise many people, particularly those from South Asian communities would find the character offensive. However, with a growing consciousness towards 'cultural appropriation', I can now scrutinise the character, who is voiced by Hank Azaria (a white actor) with a more critical eye.


Comedian Hari Kondabolu has produced a documentary which deals with his extreme hatred towards Apu called The Problem With Apu. Kondabolu interviews fellow entertainers Aparna Nancherla, Kal Penn, Aasig Mandvi, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Hasan Minhaj, Maulik Pancholy, The Simpsons writer Dana Gould and comedic legend Whoopi Goldberg.

The aim of the documentary, according to its trailer, is to discuss the cultural effect of Apu becoming one of the most recognisable Indian characters not only on American prime time television, but across the world over the last 30 years. Kondabolu also raises the question of whether the character is simply a minstrel show.

Apu like many of the characters in The Simpsons are based or inspired by stereotypes. Some of the show's stereotypical characters include the likes of Ned Flanders and his perfect, suburban Christian lifestyle, Scotsman Groundskeeper Willie, troublemaker Nelson who has a morally challenged and promiscuous single mother and absent father, and the meek Principle Skinner who still lives with his overbearing mother. All of these stereotypical characters can be somewhat damaging for people who in some ways relate to these character's attributes however, it is important to remember that The Simpsons is a satire of real life. Apu himself contains many stereotypes - his has a long, almost unpronounceable surname, dozens of children, a thick Indian accent but, in my opinion, none of these character attributes are damaging enough to repress the entire South Asian community in the United States or across the world in the same way blackface misntrel shows were. Minstrel performers used negative stereotypes of African-Americans to degrade and mock the African American community. Do I feel like Apu is used to mock or degrade the South Asian community? No. I don't. It would have been preferable to have an Indian American/South Asian voice actor play Apu however, I can overlook this.

Ultimately I do not think a thick Indian accent, a long surname or having a large number of children are damaging qualities for an animated character. Though the character does have stereotypical qualities,Apu appears to be one of the only South Asian characters on an American television programme to be married to another South Asian character (Manjula).

- Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project) is now married to a white Jew.
- As is Cece from New Girl.
- Dev Shah from Master of None had a white romantic interest during the first season.
- Raj from The Big Bang Theory held a focus group with his ex-girlfriends... who were all white.
- Alex Parrish from Quantico has a white boyfriend.
- Kumail Nanjiani's new film The Big Sick is all about his interracial relationship with his white wife.
- Dr Ravi's (iZombie) ex-girlfriend Peyton is white.

So while all ethnic characters can be potentially damaging in regards to stereotypes, I do not believe Apu is a damaging or harmful character for the South Asian community. Yes, Apu's character follows many stereotypical ideas of Indians, none of these stereotypes are necessarily bad in my opinion.

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