The Problem With Apu?

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.

39 Comments

Filed under Around the World, Popular Culture, Race, U.S. Society

39 responses to “The Problem With Apu?

  1. Steve-O-in-NJ

    Or he could just get nailed by the dotbusters. Yes, there really was such a group some time ago here in Jersey City, who went around roughing up Indian people. In my more outspoken days I made up a song about them to be sung to the tune “Ghostbusters.” Who ya gonna call?

  2. Other Bill

    Nice, nice post, Jack. I’d suggest anyone who has a problem with Apu go to India for a couple of weeks.

  3. Raj (Kunar Nayyal) seems to be embroiled in a current controversy, over a scene that saw humor in long Indian names: http://www.storypick.com/kunal-nayyar-racist-tbbt-clip/

    I think the great, wildly outrageous Greek stereotype in a sitcom was Patti LuPone’s portrayal of Frasier’s incredibly violent Aunt Zora, made all the funnier because the Greek side of the Crane family was never heard of before or after that episode.

    I’m starting to wonder how many of these dust ups would occur if people were required to pay a penny for every post or comment they make on the Internet.

    • Steve-O-in-NJ

      That last paragraph is the best idea I have heard in a LONG time.

    • “I think the great, wildly outrageous Greek stereotype”

      Ever see “Casino Jack?”

      Perpetually angry, Greek-born casino owner Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis (Daniel Kash) gets into a brutal “pen” stabbing incident with Adam Kidan (hilariously played by Jon Lovitz).

      Howse about Krauts depicted as cluelessly imbecilic addlepates: Hogan’s Heroes’ Colonel Klink & Sergeant Schultz.

      And the “F Troop” Hekawi tribe’s Chief Wild Eagle, Crazy Cat, et al?

      I wish I’d been sufficiently…um…”woke” enough to be offended.

      There a statute of limitations on such things, may apply the “Paula Deen 27 Year Look-Back>/b> Standard”?

      • I loved F-Troop. Still do. I can sill sing all the lyrics from the opening song, too…

        Where Indian fights are colorful sights and nobody takes a lickin’…
        Where pale face and redskin both turn chicken…

        Did you know that Melody Patterson, who played Ken Berry’s girl friend, was only 16 when the show began?

        Reportedly Roy Moore was the casting director…

        • Good one! With the attendant plus of kicking the dust off an obscure memory: “It is BALLOON!”

          “Where pale face and redskin both turn chicken…”

          Get Thee to the Diversity/Sensitivity Gulag!

          Both myself and my Dear 92 1/2 year old Father still remember this 50 + year old exchange:

          Sgt. O’Rourke: [O’Rourke and Agarn bring a cannon to Chief Wild Eagle] Well here’s your cannon, Chief. Now you owe me two dozen blankets.
          Chief Wild Eagle: Just one minute. We’ve been stuck before by a fast talking paleface.
          Cpl. Agarn: I tell ya boys this is the real cannon. It works perfectly.
          Chief Wild Eagle: Me see first. If not good, me sue.
          [Excitedly]
          Chief Wild Eagle: Oh – me not Sioux, me Hikawi!

      • Larry Storch (still around at 94) was a one man micro aggression factory, playing outrageously exaggerated Russian, Mexican, and French Canadian cousins of Corporal Agarn. F Troop was shameless in casting nearly Jewish comedian as a Hekawe. The Flying Nun is another treasure trove, with virtually every character actor of the 60s stretching his or her wings and playing Puerto Rican.

      • As I recall, Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz were both played by Jewish actors, along with some of the other recurring German characters like General Burkhalter and recurring actors like the guy whose characters always say “Who is this man?!” (referring to Hogan).

        That’s a great example of cultural appropriation right there. Why couldn’t they have found some real Nazis to play the parts, like a real life equivalent of the playwright in The Producers?

        …I can’t type this without giggling.

        Moreover, though, if Schultz counts as a Nazi, then I challenge anyone to find a more sympathetic depiction. That simply won’t do. It confuses kids as to who the bad guys in history are. Never mind that the Nazis lose hands down in every episode.

  4. Mark Putnam

    Killing off Apu with excessive P.C. opens up the the door for lots of different story arcs in the Simpsons Universe. Once the super hero movie craze dies down The Simpsons will rise again with trilogies gallore.

  5. Wayne

    More “I’m offended” cant from progressives who lack development of the sense of humor lobe in their pea brains. Of course it’s fine to laugh at clueless Homer Simpson since he is a middle aged white guy.

    • Chris

      Is Homer the only middle-aged white guy on the show?

      Is he being laughed at for being a white guy, or for other, more individual traits?

      • The Wednesday Woman

        1. Definitely not, but that’s a consequence of being on a show about a mostly-white town in middle America. Whether those towns are overrepresented is a different conversation.

        2. I think we frequently laugh at Homer for being an ignorant middle American white guy. One example: https://frinkiac.com/meme/S06E10/165548.jpg?b64lines=IEhleSwgTWFyZ2UsIHRoaXMgZ3V5CiBsb29rcyBsaWtlIEFwdS4=

        Homer does have more unique traits that don’t come from his race or nationality, but so does Apu. Remember, he likes to cook, is a good listener, and enjoys assembling furniture then having a discussion about where it should be placed in a room.

        • Apu also knows more about his adopted country than the native born Sringfielders, especially white guy Homer, and has a great sense of humor. When he was officially pronounced a citizen, he exclaimed, “Wonderful! Now where do I apply for welfare? KIDDING!!!”

  6. Rich in CT

    Professor Frink, (Floven) the local scientific GENius, has thick glasses and talks like Jerry (cough, cough) LEWis. (Hooven)

  7. carlbrizzi

    We are pathologically over sensitive. That said, I am currently looking for a safe space to post this because typing while triggering is challenging.

    Speaking of clueless middle aged white guy stereotypes. A Republican prosecutor and judge prone to power abuse and pedophilia. A racist, entitled, homophobic, gun owning redneck who’s been banned from a mall. Who gets banned from a mall…seriously? Thanks Roy!

    I wish you were just a cartoon character…

  8. ”as cruel a caricature of a poor rural hick as one will ever see.”

    As an Honorary Kentucky Colonel (Appalachian American, if you prefer) and Grandson of a PROUD poor rural hick (Mercer County, KY) my experience is that poor rural hicks are fair game and never out of season.

    Jonathan Martin (Politico 01/31/2012): “Chuck (Todd), a lot of the counties in the Panhandle, in north Florida, the cracker counties, if you will…more resemble Georgia and Alabama than they do Florida.”

    FL panhandle residents aren’t as “dialed in” as the rest of the state, and are more like GA & AL, where apparently no one’s “with it.”

    Shouldn’t matter, the term “Cracker” isn’t intended as derogatory in the least, but merely acknowledging, nay complimenting, the area’s “Rich Cowboy Heritage,” right?

    Anywho, A year-n-a-half later, Trayvon Martin pal, Rachel Jeantel testified that Martin referred to “White” Hispanic George Zimmerman a “creepy-ass cracker,”

    To which Über Lefty moron Tommy Christopher jumps the shark by saying: “although the term (cracker) is derogatory in much of the country, in Florida, it’s a source of pride.” It symbolizes a “rich cowboy heritage.”

    http://www.mediaite.com/online/cracker-means-something-entirely-different-in-florida-a-source-of-pride/

    Yeah right; anyone with any knowledge of the history of poor Southern Whites knows otherwise.

    • Other Bill

      Paul, having grown up in the Sayouth (well, sorta, Miami, Florida. Which, pre-Castro Brothers, used to be a little, pretty much redneck/cracker town with a little bit of Brooklyn and the Bronx added in from nearby Miami Beach) I grew tired of Southerners always being called rednecks without their being a comparable term for the gumbahs in the north who rocket around in rusted out Camaros drying their mullets. After one trip to beautiful Utica, New York, I finally coined the term, “Morons of the North” for these guys. Feel free to apply it to taste as required in Wesconsin or Ellenois. I find it’s a great corrective. Always makes me feel better.

      • Other Bill

        I guess it should be goombahs.

        • Goombah? Fuggedaboudit!

          ‘Cracker’ is no different than ‘coon’, spic’, ‘slope’, etc.; they’re meant to demean and marginalize.

          But a certain Lefty subset uses it as easily as they draw breath.

          They then try to explain it away: “gosh, don’t be so sensitive.”

          Yet they’re the same ones that’ll get behind an EPIC addlepate (like former Dallas Councilman John Wiley Price) that manufactures offense at the term “black hole.”

          Or the ‘triggering’ caused by Civil War monuments.

    • John Billingsley

      I’m a son of Kentucky, direct descendant of William Settle of Barren County who produced the famed Settle Kentucky Rifle. I now live in the Florida Panhandle. I assure you that going to one of the little towns in the panhandle such as Vernon, AKA Nub City (look it up), and referring to one of the poor Whites as a cracker is not likely to end well for you. My wife lived in Miami in the early 50s and tells me she was admonished by her father not to use the word cracker to refer to anyone.

  9. Isaac

    I hope that hard-hitting documentary will explore the problematic Joe Biden, who said, and I quote:

    “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking!”

    And then there’s Hillary Clinton, who joked about Mahatma Gandhi working at a gas station. Those people are not funny. THIS is funny:

  10. Brenda Pawloski

    Love this post. The PC cops are going to make everything unfunny. Ethnic humor is so American just because of our beautiful mix of ethnicities. I felt left out being a WASP, then I read Garrison Keillor and was thrilled to see church basement Lutherans can be funny too.

    Brings to mind the Pakistani character in Seinfeld, Babu Bhatt (actually an Indian name according to Seinfled Wikia) and the Italian Poppie who peed on Jerry’s new couch.

    They aren’t going to stop until there’s nothing to laugh at unless more people start thumbing their noses and telling them to go away and leave us to our entertainment.

    • Jeff

      “They aren’t going to stop until there’s nothing to laugh at…”

      Well, I suspect they’ll pull up to a halt just before they reach the point where they’d have to say that it’s not okay to make fun of conservative women and all white men. I mean, what’s the point of having just one standard? A double standard is twice as good, right?

  11. ”The PC cops are going to make everything unfunny […] They aren’t going to stop until there’s nothing to laugh at”

    Ya think? What’s the endgame? Everyone walking around, neck bent, too paralyzed by the fear of offending anyone (except White Y-Chromosomal Unit Conservatives) to look up, with eyes unblinkingly fixated on their Boop-Beep-Beep screens?

    “more people (should) start thumbing their noses and telling them to go away and leave us to our entertainment.”

    Run THAT up the flagpole!

    With apologies to Dylan Thomas:

    ”Rage, RAGE against perception of a Slight!”

  12. Paul Compton

    The graphic at the top of this post contains the entire rebuttal of the stereotyping of Apu. Who there isn’t stereotyped, parodied and just plain bagged out by the writers of The Simpsons? Isn’t that what this style of comedy is all about?

    I have to say I am really over the entire ‘Hollywood’ – think of that term in the broadest possible sense – lack of any creative thought at all. The plots are same, same; the action is ludicrous; and the only thing that saves anything is the humour in the face of adversity that is the universal trait of the hero.

    I’m a SciFi buff; can you think of anything that doesn’t involve a disparate band of likable rogues (the antifa trope for the left?) brought together by circumstance who are sticking it to the evil system/corporation? Actually it’s certainly not limited to SciFi.

    These whingers must have to unbutton their shirts so they can see out through their navel.

  13. Chris

    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.

    I really don’t think you would love to know why, because the filmmaker has already explained why, and his explanation was very easy to find.

    http://www.trutv.com/shows/the-problem-with-apu/videos/a-lack-of-south-asian-representation.html

    The answer was pretty much exactly what I expected: Apu was virtually the only representation of Indians in America for many people who grew up with the Simpsons. He’s certainly the only Indian on the show. Homer isn’t stereotypical of a “white man,” he’s stereotypical of a lazy middle-class father. Apu is literally just a stereotype of an Indian. I’m amazed there are this many intelligent, educated people who don’t see the problem with that.

    Maybe it’s a generational thing. I remember Indian kids being called “Apu” at my school and being teased to do the accent. It wasn’t a compliment. No one said these things to them because they were among the “sanest” kids on campus. They said them because they were Indian.

    • My obvious meaning is that I would love to hear a GOOD explanation. His explanation is nonsense. It’s not Apu’s fault, or The Simpsons’, that only that show had an Indian character. They deserve credit for that, not contrived flack. What, they are obligated to make the guy a progressive CEO because the OTHER shows aren’t as diverse? This would probably make sense to you.

      Your knee-jerking on weak SJW silliness undermines your credibility when it matters. I think you should work on it.

      • Chris

        My obvious meaning is that I would love to hear a GOOD explanation. His explanation is nonsense. It’s not Apu’s fault, or The Simpsons’, that only that show had an Indian character. They deserve credit for that, not contrived flack.

        My understanding is that the filmmaker gives the show credit for having an Indian character when there were no others out there. But that credit only goes so far when that character is an ethnic stereotype. Surely you understand this? I thought you wrote about it when Will & Grace came back: the show was probably an overall positive force for acceptance of gays, but it also played into stereotypes more often than not, and is this problematic.

        I don’t know where this filmmaker falls on the question of whether Apu was a case of “problematic representation is better than none at all,” but from what I can tell from interviews I’ve seen with him is that his tone is fairly moderate. He isn’t foaming at the mouth claiming Apu is abject bigotry and an irredeemable character. He is pointing out that…the character has problems. Why is that unacceptable to you?

        What, they are obligated to make the guy a progressive CEO because the OTHER shows aren’t as diverse? This would probably make sense to you.

        I hate it when you put words in my mouth. They weren’t “obligated” to do anything.

        • Chris

          And while the creators of The Simpson’s couldn’t control what other shows were doing when they created Apu, they certainly could have been aware of social context, and they could have produced more than one major Indian character. Maybe one wihout a funny accent, who was defined by a stereotype that isn’t directly tied into his race. You know: like the white characters (with the exception of Cletus and *maybe* Mr. Burns) are.

          I’m not even saying it was unethical for them not to do this when the show first came out. I haven’t watched in years; maybe they have other Indian characters now. But it didn’t slip past me that you didn’t address the real effects that Apu’s character had on kids of my generation. I am sure the filmmaker, as an Indian who was a kid when the Simpsons came out, is more aware of those effects than I am.

          • You don’t watch the Simpsons, do you? This is Apu’s younger brother, Sanjay Nahasapeemapetilon:

            So I guess you mean that the Simpsons are obligated to have Indian_Ameriacns who aren’t from the same family, and that operate different businesses or are in different professions. Maybe there needs to be an Indian criminal: all the criminals on the Simpsons are white. Wait—what kind of stereotype is THAT?

            • Chris

              As I said, I haven’t watched in years, and they aren’t “obligated” to do anything.

              Maybe there needs to be an Indian criminal: all the criminals on the Simpsons are white. Wait—what kind of stereotype is THAT?

              It isn’t one.

            • ”all the criminals on the Simpsons are white.”

              Like a Colonel Kurtz “diamond bullet right through my forehead” moment of clarity:

              THAT’S why The Simpsons get a pass on all that other stuff!

    • That behavior is not caused by the work of fiction. Humans all over the world have a problem with projecting their preconceptions onto others rather than learning from others what they are like. This is true no matter where how much representation a group gets, from none to ubiquitous. After all, people can be put into more than one box, so you can just put them into the box you know the least about. Intersectionality and all. When people are different races it makes the phenomenon more noticeable, but it often happens even within families.

      At some point you have to stop trying to control the environment in attempts to prevent people from having the power to hurt others or the ability to conceive of it. That way lies the destruction of humanity in both the physical and mental senses. In order to survive and thrive, humans need both freedom and the maturity to wield it responsibly.

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