Commenting on the recent attacks from progressives on the allegedly racist drawings of Dr. Seuss, I wrote,
I’ve missed it: have social justice warriors been protesting “The Simpsons”? No? Not even Apu, the Indian immigrant Springfield resident—Wait! Isn’t the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield?–who has the stereotypical ethnic occupation of a convenience food proprietor (Full disclosure: my local 7-11 is owned by an Indian American)? You know, this guy?
Apparently I inadvertently set something in motion in the zeitgeist; I’m so sorry. For the New York Times informs us that a new documentary debuting Nov. 19 on truTV is called “The Problem with Apu,” and “wrestles with how a show praised for its incisive humor — over the years, it has explored issues like homophobia and political corruption — could resort to such a charged stereotype. Making matters worse is the fact that the Indian character is voiced by a non-Indian (albeit an Emmy-winning) actor, Hank Azaria.”
The article goes on,
“In the film, Mr. Kondabolu places Apu within the broader history of Hollywood’s depiction of Indians, including Peter Sellers’s brownface rendition of an idiot in the 1968 Blake Edwards film “The Party” and the Indians feasting on chilled monkey brains in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” He also reached out to a who’s-who of South Asian actors to talk about their experiences in Hollywood.”
The Indian-Americans quoted in the artical are especially upset that Apu’s accent isn’t authentic; it’s just funny. Can’t have that.
Move through the muck and emerge in the b right sunlight of reality, there is no problem with Apu. There are problems with lacking a mature reaction to humor and satire, being deliberately hyper-sensitive, power-grabbing using group-identification politics, and cynically looking for offense to justify claiming victim status, but there is no problem with Apu.
I would love to know why Indian-Americans feel all the other characters in the show can be outrageous stereotypes and extreme caricatures, but Apu is unacceptably offensive and insensitive. This is contrived victimization. One cannot reasonable compare the Indians feasting on bugs and chilled monkey brains in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” to Apu because 1) Apu is entirely benign: he is one of the smartest, sanest and nicest characters in “The Simpsons,” and 2) he’s a cartoon. Cartoons are always exaggerated, and if they are not, they aren’t funny. They also aren’t cartoons.
The dilemma this kind of victimization gotcha! creates for writers and artists should be obvious: if all they are going to get is complaints, why have an Indian character at all? Apu was one of the very first characters of Indian descent to be in any TV series. “The Simpsons” deserves credit, not blame. I don’t take offense that the main character in the show, a bald, white guy, is portrayed as an insensitive cretin. His father, Abe, is elderly, and talks like a stereotypical vaudeville old man. His stories wander; he falls asleep mid-sentence. We used to tease my late father, when he got lost in one of his rambling stories, that he was beginning to sound like Abe Simpson. He got it. Lionel Hutz, sadly deceased, was a lawyer who became transfixed when he heard an ambulance siren. Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel is as cruel a caricature of a poor rural hick as one will ever see. (But funny!) Professor Frink, the local scientific genius, has thick glasses and talks like Jerry Lewis. Ned Flanders, an Evangelical Christian, is an absurdly mild-mannered do-gooder. Officer Wiggum, the Chief of Police, is always eating donuts. Mr. Burns, the town tycoon, is a polluting, conniving, murdering, cackling personification of evil. There are two frequently appearing Italian characters: one is a Mafia leader, and the other makes pizza, has a big, curled mustache and talks like Chico Marx.
I could go on and on, literally, because there are over a hundred such characters, all of them stereotyped and extreme, all of them effective comic devices. I wish there was a Greek-American character on “The Simpsons.” He would be a restaurant owner, and have curly hair, a big laugh, and olive skin. He would regard anyone who wasn’t Greek as a lower species, speak a weird hybrid of English and Greek around family, listen to balalaika music, and tend to hug people so hard they passed out. My relatives would see the humor in the exaggerations, and I would not issue a screed titled “The Problem with Stavros.”
Well, my smarter relatives, anyway.
Why are Indian-Americans anointed with special privileges that they should be immune from the gentle self-mockery that was once a strength of this culture? They’re not.
I think “The Simpsons” should kill off Apu, and announce the cause of death as excessive political correctness. Then Indian-Americans would be left with Raj on “Big Bang Theory.”
Oh, wait: he’s racist too.