Why Apu doesn't have to be a problem for 'The Simpsons'

The show, which has been on air since 1989, should evolve with viewer attitudes, say experts.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Many viewers have been looking at The Simpsons, and one of its main returning characters, differently since the release of Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu, which examines the legacy of the show’s often-mocked Indian character.

However, communications pros say it doesn't have to be this way. The show could take a page out of the book of Hank Azaria. The actor, who voices convenience store clerk Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, said on Tuesday’s episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that he is willing to "step aside" from playing the character or "help transition him into something new." He also called for more inclusion in The Simpsons’ writing room, adding Indian and South Asian writers into the mix.

Stephen Macias, SVP and diversity and inclusion practice lead at MWW, applauds Azaria’s stance. He concurs that it is time to not only "put Apu’s character to bed," but also to ax other stereotypical characters from TV shows.

"As language and society has evolved, so should some of the characters on TV," says Macias.

Another option is to replace Azaria with an Indian actor as the voice of Apu, suggests South Indian food blogger Ann Ittoop.

"This is kind of like how they had [English actor] Ben Kingsley play Gandhi," says Ittoop. "It was a beautiful movie, but it was weird an Indian actor [wasn’t chosen] when there are so many to play the role of someone who is Indian."

When an animated character is created, his or her voice starts with the actor’s own experiences and those of the people he or she knows, explains Brian Talbot, CMO and principal partner for The Value CMO. Talbot has also worked as a voice actor since the 1980s for commercials and video games.

"Some of that includes stereotypes that are out there," he says. "All cultures and societies have stereotypes."

However, he notes that taking away stereotypes from characters in a show makes everything "homogenous." He says dismissing Apu would be a mistake and would send The Simpsons down a "slippery slope."

"If you’re going to eliminate Apu, or eliminate all the characters that might be offensive, they might end up eliminating the show," says Talbot. "[The show] is a fabulous commentary on our society, and to start picking it apart for political correctness would be a travesty. That starts to tear into art or creativity or performance."

Like any other form of entertainment, The Simpsons is open to the interpretation of viewers, Talbot explains. He likens the show to an exhibit he saw at the Guggenheim, featuring two fluorescent lights on a blank wall.

"To some people, that was amazing art; to me, it looked like an electric hazard," he says. "It is open to interpretation. I don’t think most people create with the intent to offend."

However, Kelley Heider, VP of innovation and social media at SSPR, doesn't believe getting rid of Apu would lead to the deaths of other characters.

"I think that because the bulk of the controversy is around Apu, they don’t need to extrapolate that out and get existential about it," she says. "Comedy is satire, and sometimes those lines blur and that is intentional. But sometimes you have to be conscious about where those lines are and where the boundaries lie and what you can get away with and what you can’t."

Heider adds that the show should be sensitive to the audience’s response. Many critics contend it's been dismissive of their concerns about the character, despite The Problem with Apu attracting media buzz.

Kondabolu’s documentary, which calls out the cartoon for portraying Apu as a negative, stereotypical representation of South Asians, debuted last November. But it wasn’t until this month that The Simpsons responded. In an episode, the character Lisa Simpson said to her mother Marge, "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?"

Lisa then glances at a framed photograph of Apu on her nightstand, inscribed with the message "Don't have a cow."

It wasn’t the response many critics wanted. Ittoop says the show will continue spinning in circles if it avoids the issue.

"They are dancing around the lines of saying, ‘We kind of addressed it, but we are still doing nothing about it because he is still here,’" she says.

Ittoop took issue with the "don’t have a cow" line, noting that the saying "boxes in" the Indian community.

"That line is clichéd to Indians overall, assuming everyone is Hindu and doesn’t eat beef," she says. "There are plenty of Hindus that don’t follow that diet."

Robin Rothberg, senior lecturer of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, adds that The Simpsons hasn’t shown a willingness to engage the Indian-American community.  

"They gave the excuse of ‘it was okay years ago’ and whether that is true or not, longevity of incorrect behavior is not a legitimate defense of that behavior," says Rothberg.

Heider adds that the show could alienate viewers if it does not adapt and evolve with the way attitudes are changing.

"What was funny [when the show first aired in 1989] isn’t always going to register as funny presently, so they need to be aware of those changes," she says.

However, Azaria’s response outshined that of the show because the actor made clear he is willing to listen to and learn from critics.

"Modern comms demands we listen when someone says, ‘What you did was racist, it offends me,’" Rothberg explains. "Vocal members of minorities should be engaged with. This is a relevant activist group."

Macias adds that The Simpsons marginalized the Indian community by referring to the conversation as "politically incorrect."

"The idea that something is politically incorrect demeans and dismisses genuine concerns from communities around how it is they are being addressed or spoken about," says Macias. "The term has been used over the past couple of years as the mechanism to justify racism and homophobia."

Experts say the problem is not irreparable for the show, but the creators should show what they are willing to do to ensure communities of color are represented in the cartoon. Rothberg suggests the show’s writers conduct a listening tour with Indian-Americans.

"They have a platform to bring together members of the creative community with communities of color to be able to talk about the evolution of characters on TV," says Macias. "They can do that online, in person, they can work with the writers and producers, along with community leaders in a way that can be a productive situation."

He adds that the show can turn this situation into something positive, but it must start with a respectful dialogue.

"Bart doesn’t age," says Rothberg. "But even though the show is locked in time, the writers don’t have to be. They can grow, listen, and change as is appropriate."

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