Simpsons creator Matt Groening famously defended his creation of Apu when it came under fire from comedian Hari Kondabolu in his documentary, The Problem with Apu. Kondabolu would say, “Everything with Apu is like this running joke. And the running joke is that he’s Indian.”
Kondabolu would go on to describe Apu to the BBC, “He’s funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you.”
And that’s the heart of the controversy Kondabolu and a number of others began clamoring that Apu’s depiction on the Simpsons was racist. The show addressed the concerns in an episode with Lisa Simpson speaking directly to the camera.
The controversy would see actor Hank Azaria offer to step down from the role in favor. However, Simpsons writer Mike Reiss would compare the offer to “Val Kilmer announcing he won’t play Batman again – no one’s asking him to.”
Groening would then speak publicly with USA Today stating:
“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.”
Now, in a New York Times interview, Groening is doubling down on his defense of the show and his opinion about people loving to get offended.
“Well, I love Apu. I love the character, and it makes me feel bad that it makes other people feel bad. But on the other hand, it’s tainted now — the conversation, there’s no nuance to the conversation now. It seems very, very clunky. I love the character. I love the show.”
He even addressed his previous comments about the outrage culture and expanded upon them:
“That wasn’t specifically about Apu. That was about our culture in general. And that’s something I’ve noticed for the last 25 years. There is the outrage of the week and it comes and goes. For a while, it was, believe it or not, kids were stealing quarters out of their mothers’ purses in order to go to the video arcade, and that was going to bring down civilization. No one even remembers that, because that lasted a week. I think particularly right now, people feel so aggrieved and crazed and powerless that they’re picking the wrong battles.”
He was then asked about the sincerity of Hari Kondabolu and their criticisms of Apu:
“Sure, and my guess is I agree, politically, with 99 percent of the things that Hari Kondabolu believes. We just disagree on Apu. I love the character and I would hate for him to go away. I am sorry that “The Simpsons” would be criticized for having an Indian character that, because of our extraordinary popularity — I expected other people to do it. I go, maybe he’s a problem, but who’s better? Who’s a better Indian animated character in the last 30 years? I’ve been to India twice and talked about “The Simpsons” in front of audiences. That’s why this took me by surprise. I know Indians are not the same as Indian-Americans.”
Finally, he discussed the business of cartooning and that having stereotypes is its nature.
“But there is a thoughtfulness at the core of the show. The fact that the Simpsons are yellow and not the color that passes for Caucasian in cartoons, that Mickey Mouse pink, that’s intentional. It’s taking that pink away, and making it yellow. And then taking yellow away from whatever racist connotation that that has had. And that was intentional. As many people have pointed out, it’s all stereotypes on our show. That’s the nature of cartooning. And you try not to do reprehensible stereotypes. Anyway. I probably said too much.”
Good on Groening for standing up for his creation and continuing to defend it. I also think he’s right on point when he describes there’s no nuance to the conversation about Apu anymore. In fact, Vanity Fair already ran an article headlined: Simpsons Creator Proves, Again, That He Doesn’t Get The Problem with Apu by Laura Bradley. The problem insinuated by Bradley is that the character is racist and it can be nothing but racist. This means that any discussion about Apu is now all about racism and doesn’t leave room for anything else. However, Groening isn’t alone his support of Apu.
Professor Sanjoy Chakravorty, who teaches at Temple University in Pennsylvania, believes the whole conversation has been created by a “media echo chamber.” He tells the BBC:
“As I see it, there are two primary products that second generation Indian American comedians sell – the ridiculousness of their parents’ ‘culture’ (arranged marriage and ‘my son, the doctor’ are the commonest tropes); and the racism of white Americans. It is not hard to see why these two lowest hanging fruits are plucked all the time. This is very standard fare. Apu is also very standard fare. What Kondabulu has done is nothing new. He picked almost the most identifiable Indian project possible in the US. And he plugged into the market for identity-based outrage. As far as I am concerned: Apu is one of three likable characters in The Simpsons – Lisa and Marge are the others. Homer, a caricature of the ignorant, blue collar white male, is actually the most offensive.”
And as to Groening’s comments on the reaction to The Simpsons in India, the BBC finds people love the character.
“I like Apu, in fact I love him. He has a PhD in computer science, but enjoys running his store, he is a valued citizen of Springfield, a ladies man and adores cricket and is funny,” says Sidharth Bhatia of The Wire. He continues, “It reflects true American diversity. The controversy about the stereotyping is classist snobbery – Indians in America don’t want to be reminded of a certain kind of immigrant from their country – the shop keepers, the taxi drivers, the burger flippers.”
“They would rather project only Silicon Valley successes, the Wall Street players and the Ivy League products, with the proper accents, people they meet for dinner – by itself a stereotype. The millions of Apus in America, the salt-of-the-earth types, with their less ‘posh’ accents, are an inconvenience to that self-image of this small group of Indian-Americans.”
Here’s to hoping The Simpsons will find a new storyline to include Apu in the future.