• Homer and Marge, and Manjula and Apu on Much Apu About Something episode. (FOX Image Collection)
The reaction to Apu’s reckoning is as racist as his ugly origin.
By
Ketan Joshi

4 May 2018 - 9:45 AM  UPDATED 16 Oct 2018 - 3:05 PM

Sitting in the playground at lunchtime, I hastily unwrap my sausage roll. As I lift the treat to my mouth, a pack of notorious bullies come running down the nearby hill, having spied me sitting on my own, totally vulnerable. I eye them warily. 

“Hey!”...“It’s APU!”, they begin. I’m nervous, but I don’t say anything. “You’re a successful small business owner!” I relax.  They continue in unison, pointing and screaming, “Your nuanced characterisation is a vital exploration of the challenges faced by South Asian immigrants in the United States!”

The pack leader comes up to me, grabs me by the scruff of my collar, and lifts me off the ground. “Your gainful employment makes you a positive role model, unlike many other stereotypes on beloved prime-time animated comedy, ‘The Simpsons’!”, he screams to my face. I smile and nod. “You’re loveable, decent and hardworking!” 

No, this isn’t how that, or the many incidents like them went down. Apu’s involvement and the sausage roll are the only truthful components of that retelling.

The taunts and the hollering emerged in the misty red haze of a pack of teenagers hunting prey, appealing to Apu’s stereotypical racist caricature on the show, yelling ‘Please come again!’ and wobbling their heads with Lord of the Flies grins on their maniacal faces. It wasn’t fun. 

Don’t worry, friends. You can still make jokes; you just have to make them good jokes, instead of outsourcing the effort of writing clever things to pre-existing xenophobic attitudes. 

 It’s tough when the source material for such unpleasant experiences is a piece of fiction that you love.

 The Simpsons was a staple of my family’s viewing habits, and I still love those early seasons, when the writing was funny and fresh. But those instances of bullying were unforgettable, in which bullies found the shortest path to pain through the language of the most popular show on television.  

Apu originated in a room of white men doubled over in fits of laughter at Hank Azaria’s Indian accent - the original script never specified a race for the Kwik-E-Mart’s clerk.  

“There are accents, that by their nature, to white Americans, sound funny. Period”, says Simpsons writer Dana Gould. Azaria’s own justification elaborates his own encounters with an Indian store clerk, and how he mockingly adopts the accent of people he hates.

Apu’s existence as fodder for bullies makes so much sense, when you learn how he came to be. 

A decade and a half later, the conflict of seeing something I hate born of something I love remains oddly fresh. The kooky Indian stereotype of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (no, that’s not a real Indian surname; it’s supposedly what Indian names sound like to white people) in The Simpsons has had a long overdue reckoning. American comedian Hari Kondabolu’s level-headed documentary, The Problem with Apu, hears from a collection of South Asian actors and comedians who received the same inspired taunts in the playground. 

I can understand why these arguments sound rational when you’re looking out at the world from underneath white skin.

Kondabolu and his subjects aren’t angry. They’re annoyed, but they’re calm. Later in the documentary, Kondabolu says, “If I saw Hank Azaria do that voice at a party, I would kick the shit out of him”. There’s a pause. “Or...I’d imagine kicking the shit out him”. Even in frustration, Kondabolu sardonically acknowledges what we all know: we would never violently retaliate, even if we wanted to. 

The response to Kondabolu’s documentary is the tonal inverse of the level-headedness in the film. The show’s writers responded with Ricky-Gervais-grade spite. They aired their views through Lisa Simpson’s character in ‘No good read goes unpunished’. The long-suffering Lisa turns directly to the camera and says,

"Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?", before glancing at a framed picture of Apu with the line “Don’t have a cow!” scrawled underneath. Al Jean, the current showrunner, hastily begun retweeting defences of the show after the episode aired.

Matt Groening recently said “I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” 

There were also a few South Asian writers who turned their nose up at complaints around Apu, but as New Republic writer Jeet Heer points out, they tend to be older, un-impacted by the show’s cultural dominance during those sensitive school years. 

The only prominent sympathetic response came, surprisingly and refreshingly, from Hank Azaria, the white actor who created and performs Apu’s cringe-worthy voice, who said he’s willing to step aside from the role, and continued with, “The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad”.

No matter how nuanced the argument against Apu is, the response to those arguments is the dismissive rote repetition of a set of incredibly weak arguments that fail to recognise the impact of racism on the lives of young brown kids.

No matter how nuanced the argument against Apu is, the response to those arguments is the dismissive rote repetition of a set of incredibly weak arguments that fail to recognise the impact of racism on the lives of young brown kids.

They’ll references other caricatures (‘what about Willie the Scotsman!’), and Apu’s often sympathetic and complex portrayal is frequently cited as proof that Hank Azaria’s mock Indian accent is harmless and delightful. There’s also the assertion that even without culture-dominating racist stereotypes, bullies would still exist.

I can understand why these arguments sound rational when you’re looking out at the world from underneath white skin.

The fact that my friend at high school with Scottish parents was never surrounded by spittle-flecked bullies doesn’t compute for the robots repeating these lines - skin colour and accent matter. 

Racism rewards mean-spirited mediocrity and stifles nuance, both in its genesis and its irritatingly predictable defence several decades down the line. 

On top of all this, arguing against Apu is treated as an assertion that nobody is allowed to make jokes anymore. Don’t worry, friends. You can still make jokes; you just have to make them good jokes, instead of outsourcing the effort of writing clever things to pre-existing xenophobic attitudes. 

The Simpsons has nosedived beyond the embarrassment of its wholly justified ratings downward spiral. Now, it explicitly speaks in the language of white male identity politics.

Immature moaning about PC culture is the thin veneer masking the panic at losing the ill-gotten glee from racist stereotypes, and their disproportionate impacts on brown and black kids.

The backlash to the backlash against Apu is as racist as his unpleasant genesis. It’s time Apu met his end.

Watch The Problem with Apu on Tuesday 16 October at 9:35pm on SBS VICELAND and after it airs at SBS On Demand:

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