The Simpsons has responded to controversy over Indian character Apu in an episode aired in the US on Sunday night with a short message to its audience: “Don’t have a cow”.
The scene, however, was immediately criticised as “toothless” and “sad”.
The character of the Kwik-E-Mart owner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, has been voiced by white
But a recent documentary by Indian-American standup comic Hari Kondabolu, The Problem with Apu, criticised the character as an example of harmful and widespread stereotyping of south Asians on American television, which “reflected how America viewed us: servile, devious, goofy”, and which has fuelled bullying of and racism towards people of colour.
Sunday night’s episode, No Good Read Goes Unpunished, was the first time The Simpsons creators acknowledged the controversy, but their response has not gone down well.
In the scene, Marge Simpson wants to read Lisa a book she loved when she was a girl, but realises it is filled with racist stereotypes. She then edits it to feature a “cisgender girl named Clara” who fights for “horse rescue and net neutrality”. But Lisa complains that by making the story “inoffensive” and its lead character “perfect”, Marge has stripped Clara of her emotional journey.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asks.
Lisa turns to face the viewer: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
She then gestures to a photograph of Apu by her bed, inscribed with Bart Simpson’s catchphrase – “Don’t have a cow” – a directive to relax.
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge promises.
“If at all,” Lisa deadpans.
Jon Levine (@LevineJonathan)
The Simpsons executive producer, Al Jean, pre-empted a social media maelstrom, tweeting just before the show aired: “Twitter explosion in act three”. He wasn’t wrong.
Kondabolu himself was among the first to respond, criticising the scene as dismissive and “sad”: “Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.”
He continued: “I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”
Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu)
In “The Problem with Apu,” I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.
Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz)
The fact that The Simpsons had Lisa (!) be the one to slap down the legitimate conversation around Apu is maybe the grossest part of this
Francis Skelton (@SkeltonsHead)
That’s really terrible. They have completely betrayed Lisa’s beautifully defined character.
We all know she would not have made such a comment.
Scott Weinberg (@scottEweinberg)
The old “talk directly at the screen” thing is not new for The Simpsons. That’s how they write satire when they’re sure that the people complaining about something are stupid.
Areeq Chowdhury (@AreeqChowdhury)
Disappointed in The Simpsons. @harikondabolu‘s doc was fair and articulate about media representation of South Asians.
The Simpsons’ writers shat on it by getting the most progressive character (Lisa) to dismiss it as “politically incorrect” & followed up with a Hindu/cow joke. https://t.co/HePO5qspTk
But some fans have defended the scene as satirical, and the show as one which revels in “equal opportunity” stereotyping.
This is frustrating because the outrage is not consistent. It just singles out Apu. If you’re offended by Apu then how could you get through a single episode of South Park or Drawn Together? I don’t understand having one target when there is a landscape of stereotypes in shows.
Dan gets it (@danbrickes)
The outrage over Apu from the Simpsons astounds me. He’s a stereotype, who on that show isn’t? The show is a satirical reflection on suburban American living. Either you’re against the show stereotyping literally everybody or your not. You can’t hang your hat only on Apu
Azaria himself weighed in earlier this year, telling reporters that the show would “definitely address” the controversy after “a lot of thought”.
“The Simpsons over the years has been pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people: Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, high school principals, school principals, Italians, you name it,” he said.
“And they take a lot of pride over there in not apologising for any of that. I think, over the years, they’ve done a really good
Azaria also said the fact that it had caused any kind of harm and suffering was “disturbing” and “distressing” to him, adding: “The idea that anybody was marginalised based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally.”