...and you’re being told, do it just like Apu from "The Simpsons".
November 14, 2017 5:09 AM   Subscribe

How is a long-running comedy distorting the perceptions of South Asians? Comic Hari Kondabolu, a long-time Simpsons fan, confronts the problematic portrayal of his ethnicity on TV, with The Simpsons as the most conspicuous and influential aspect. His new documentary, The Problem with Apu explores the mass-media depiction of Indian-Americans, with help from Aziz Ansari, Vivek Murthy, Maulik Pancholy, Sakina Jaffrey, Kal Penn, and others.
posted by jackbishop (47 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting. I'm Pakistani, so not even from near South India, and I've definitely encountered Apu impressions even in Britain where there is a long history of association with North Indians and Pakistanis that one might have thought would moderate the Simpsons effect.

There is also something to be said about the profound desexualisation of South Asians, especially men, in western culture more broadly, that goes in parallel with their depiction (in Britain) as predators on vulnerable white women. It's really dispiriting.

By contrast, travelling pretty much anywhere in Asia one finds so much interest in and respect for the Indian film industry and Indian film heroes. My recent visit to Timor-Leste included an afternoon chatting to a group of men about their favourite Shahrukh Khan flick. Our shared language was otherwise minimal but we could all sing Kuch kuch hota hai and all their mothers and wives thought SRK the sexiest man alive.
posted by tavegyl at 5:31 AM on November 14 [19 favorites]


@harikondabolu: My documentary about Apu is in line with the spirit of The Simpsons. The Simpsons critiques pop culture with humor & thoughtfulness. What’s more of a Simpsons move than doing the same about The Simpsons?

I'm really looking forward to getting a new perspective on this.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:49 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]


Some earlier views. A number of mefites then took the view that Apu was not a stereotypical depiction but a fully rounded character.
posted by Segundus at 5:50 AM on November 14 [6 favorites]


Here's The A.V. Club's interview with Kondabolu. The part I found most interesting is this:

The thing that hurt me the most to cut, this one I will obsessively think about forever: We know that Peter Sellers is the inspiration for Hank Azaria’s voice. And we know Apu, that name comes from Matt Groening loving the Apu Trilogy. What we didn’t include in the film is that Satyajit Ray and Peter Sellers knew each other. And Ray was about to make a film, his first attempt at a Hollywood film, called The Alien—which itself has a very interesting history. He wanted to make this film, and he loved Peter Sellers’ work, and he asked Sellers to be in it, and they met, and they became friendly, maybe even friends. And Sellers agreed to be a supporting part of this film. Time passes by, and Ray sees The Party, and he sees Peter Sellers in brown face, and he hears the accent, and he’s horrified. “This is the same man I asked to be in my film? How could this happen? And why does he view us like this?” And then there’s a part in the film where the minstrel character that Sellers is playing, he talks about his pet monkey. And his pet monkey’s name is Apu. It’s not like Apu is a name everyone was given—there was one Apu reference that was notable, and it was from the trilogy.
posted by dannyboybell at 6:00 AM on November 14 [47 favorites]


The real question is:

Are there Indian / Indian-origin / South Asian writers on the Simpsons?

No? Then this is like countless "enlightened" rooms of male writers writing about women: problematic and never their experience to own.
posted by mysticreferee at 6:02 AM on November 14 [16 favorites]


hank azaria is so talented and funny but it kills me that so many of his voices draw from a deep well of negative sterotypes. (the ones that leap immediately to mind are Apu and Agador from The Birdcage)
posted by murphy slaw at 6:11 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


List of The Simpsons writers
posted by pracowity at 6:13 AM on November 14


Some earlier views. A number of mefites then took the view that Apu was not a stereotypical depiction but a fully rounded character.

hoo boy, Mefites in 2010 remind me of the defenders of racism/sexism/etc in the comic book industry in 2017

"but that white man was well meaning! but what about the nature of the work? in my expert, unrelated opinion, it's fine. look, just read/watch it all the way through first, forget all those times you were mocked for your accent, and just enjoy it!"

I like how Ito grounds it in a historical and cultural context. I like how the NYT published an article centering South Asian-American voices, their relationship to Apu, and how it's affected them throughout their careers

“I hate Apu,” the actor Kal Penn says [...] Mr. Kondabolu describes Mr. Azaria’s rendition as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”

and I like how in 2017 it's become more glaringly obvious that having a bunch of white people muse about the supposed racism of anything is and will always be white supremacy, no matter how supposedly progressive the demographic is. y'all can't be left alone to figure things out. the history of predominantly white affinity spaces says as much
posted by runt at 6:22 AM on November 14 [54 favorites]


"Harold and Kumar" is mentioned in the article but not the scene in which Kumar is taunted with "Thank you, come again."
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:24 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


Here's an interview with Hari Kondabolu on CBC radio from yesterday as well.

The CBC really just needs to retire their comments sections...
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:30 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


Onscreen, Dana Gould, a writer and executive producer on “The Simpsons,” tries to explain what makes Apu humorous. Barney, the town wino, is funny because he’s a drunkard, he explains; Smithers, Mr. Burns’s sycophantic assistant, is funny because he’s closeted. (Since that interview, Smithers has come out.) Apu? He’s funny because he sounds like an Indian, or at least Mr. Azaria’s version of one. “There are accents that by their nature, to white Americans, I can only speak from experience, sound funny,” Mr. Gould says in the film.

This has made me realize that all along I was misunderstanding the Simpsons. (Admittedly, I last watched it regularly in 1998.) I'd always thought that Barney wasn't "funny because he's a drunkard", he was a comic-melancholy figure who had greatness within him but was constantly held back by his own illness/weakness/trauma. Mr. Smithers is redeemed from being evil because he loves Mr. Burns, for whatever stupid reason - in a way, he's the reverse of Barney, because he has monstrousness within him which is occasionally redeemed by his better nature. Both of them are kind of sad actually. Laughing at them, I'd always thought, was mostly with melancholy laughter. But whoops, no, actually it's lol-alcoholics and lol-gays. (And lol-femme-men, really.)

It's revealing that he pairs Apu with them, because (at least in the episodes I've seen) Apu isn't a sad character - if he weren't played for racist laughs, he'd actually be maybe the most functional adult in Springfield. He has a graduate degree, a successful business, a happy marriage and artistic talent, and he's not a terrible person. Now that I think about it, maybe his characterization is about fear of successful immigrants - even all of Apu's actual success and talent is still swamped by the racist way he's voiced and the racist aspects on his storylines. (Sort of born out by the unlikely backstory about how he has a PhD from an Indian technology institute but can't get a tech job in the US, as if his PhD were worthless because it's not from the US.)

ETA: So basically, Mr. Smithers and Barney are melancholy figures because they have a mixture of personal failings and greatness; Apu gets grouped with them despite the fact that he's not depicted as a melancholy figure of failings and greatness. He must be "melancholy" because it's "melancholy" not to be white, I guess.
posted by Frowner at 6:33 AM on November 14 [82 favorites]


The responses to this fall into the same general "your fave is problematic" head-in-the-sand defensive reactions as the Louis CK thing. Yes, Apu is a racist caricature from whom genuinely comedy sometimes sprouts. That doesn't make him OK, and if south Asian people find him problematic, people who are not south Asian should, you know, shut up and listen, rather than defend Hank Azaria's carrying of Peter Sellers' racist torch.

I'm going to watch The Apu Trilogy now.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:38 AM on November 14 [27 favorites]


" if you want to have an Indian character on a parody show, how else would you do it?"

Hire an Indian actor?"

Does that mean that Bart being voiced by a woman is sexist? They should fire Nancy Cartwright and hire a ten year old boy?
posted by robotot at 4:37 AM on January 20, 2010 [8 favorites +] [!]


Metafilter 2010 was super friendly to people of color, huh
posted by runt at 6:42 AM on November 14 [37 favorites]


Professional writers can write about things provided they seek appropriate input first. You don’t have to “be an X” to write about X. That’s not a signal that the writing is good or somehow better representative, this is because monoliths don’t actually exist in humanity and stereotypes can be easily spotted and avoided by any writer who cares enough to do so.

Now I completely 💯 agree that diverse representation in writing helps a ton to avoid problematic and harmful media representation but that doesn’t scale. Also it seems to me affinity and diversity are oppositional to each other because it’s super problematic to state “we shall be diverse!” then say “specific affinity groups only.” What you end up with is the inevitable “what about the qualified white people?!?” apoplexy that inevitably erupts when people start talking about “diversity projects”.

IMO this is requires two separate actions:

First is to set some writing principles in motion that identify when dominant groups of writers exist, and work with the “dominant voice” to test and recognize biases. Then seek input, critique and advice from non-dominant members of the groups that the dominant group is trying to portray.

Secondly is to state clearly that there is a dominant group and seek out members of the non dominant group by reaching out to specific affinity groups that EFFECTIVELY represent the non-dominant groups. I believe if one were to state outright that it’s an affinity project designed to increase representation, that diversity will be an outflow of that effort and white people dominant group feelings on the subject may (hopefully?) be short circuited, allowing the adults in the room to undertake the good work.

(Says the person who is watching an epic cluster of a diversity conversation happen in US business right now because white Christians have a persecution complex that just won’t fucking quit and I am about to pull my hair out over it)
posted by Annika Cicada at 6:45 AM on November 14 [5 favorites]


You don’t have to “be an X” to write about X.

the old canard repeated in every single creative writing class I was in in college was 'write what you know.' maybe writing works different in your world

set some writing principles in motion that identify when dominant groups of writers exist

lol, done, it's all old white men in the 'American canon' and teaching in MFA writing programs just like in Congress, next please

seek out members of the non dominant group by reaching out to specific affinity groups that EFFECTIVELY represent the non-dominant groups


or we could avoid tokenizing people by having this 'dominant voice' (ie old white male editors) set the criteria for effective representation and just continue to publish PoC voices left and right and let navel-gazey, middle-class fiction about white people divorcing or cheating on one another or feeling bad about not getting into their college of choice die on the vine because that meditation's been done to death
posted by runt at 6:51 AM on November 14 [24 favorites]


Ouch, that 2010 AskMe thread was painful for me to read.

My favouriting finger is tired already but I can't favourite grumpybear69's comment hard enough; I'm Bangladeshi, not Indian, and have always found the portrayal of Apu, with his exaggerated comedy accent, unequivocally racist, to the extent that I find conversations about whether his portrayal is racist and the things people will say in defence of his portrayal honestly baffling. Yes, he's a great and multifaceted character. Yes, he's a functional adult. But his accent is a stereotype that is played for laughs, and based on the racist portrayal of an Indian by a white man. Not only that, over the years his accent has been used as a way of racially harassing brown people in real life. How is this still okay? I really don't get it. For that matter, I don't know how The Big Bang Theory's portrayal of Raj can be considered okay either. He is my personal bugbear.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:55 AM on November 14 [47 favorites]


Apu? He’s funny because he sounds like an Indian, or at least Mr. Azaria’s version of one. “There are accents that by their nature, to white Americans, I can only speak from experience, sound funny,” Mr. Gould says in the film.

NOT. HELPING!

Sort of born out by the unlikely backstory about how he has a PhD from an Indian technology institute but can't get a tech job in the US, as if his PhD were worthless because it's not from the US.

While not true for graduates of IIT, there are a lot of immigrants in America, particularly those from Eastern European countries, who have advanced engineering degrees but weren't able to find tech jobs when they arrived in the US and instead have small retail businesses or other working class jobs to support themselves. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union made a lot of engineering PhDs useless for foreign professionals.
posted by deanc at 6:59 AM on November 14 [10 favorites]


I read you loud and clear runt, thanks for your response. I’m honestly at a loss after a year of dealing directly with this in a corporate setting (from marketing to branding to hiring, all of it involves writing).

I write, went to university for English and Graphic Design and was taught to “write what you know”. I understood that to mean “you learn how to write by starting with what you know and eventually you learn how to write about subjects bigger than yourself.

Also, I am a trans woman and I write about trans woman things but I don’t represent all trans women and I also don’t scale. And really, it’s not that hard for a cis person to write a not-shitty trans character, but this is about race not gender so we don’t have to derail into that, I’m just trying to shed light on my perspective on this.

With regards to tokenization I get it, it’s one of those things I personally have to deal with in my own particular way literally every day of my life. I guess I personally don’t have the privilege to NOT be tokenized so I just bake it in to my perspective on life as “thing that is, it sucks oh well”. Your comment is helping me recalibrate my cycnicism and resignation. Thank you.

Finally, I am mega problematic at life and I appreciate being told where I’m failing at all this. I can go read up and learn.
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:08 AM on November 14 [14 favorites]


I can't wait to see this documentary. Hari Kondabolu is the best.

Also, white folks going around saying that Apu isn't a racist caricature is rich as cream and makes me just as sick. That 2010 thread contained some epic whitesplaining. *pops Norvasc*
posted by orangutan at 7:09 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


(one of the most unsettling things about parenthood is discovering all the things that you laughed at as a child that you do not want your own child to laugh at)
posted by murphy slaw at 7:10 AM on November 14 [51 favorites]


Some earlier views. A number of mefites then took the view that Apu was not a stereotypical depiction but a fully rounded character.

I don't really give a shit what white MeFites thought on the subject, as, however well-intentioned, white people have collectively demonstrated they aren't capable of recognizing any offense that doesn't happen to them, personally.

What do people of Indian backgrounds think about it? They are the ones best able to identify problematic depictions, and are the most familiar with their experience to know how these depictions play out in the real world. They are the ones best able to decide how acceptable brownface is. My absolute rule of thumb is that as a white person I don't get to override the experience of people of color on the subject of racism, as I will never experience it, and, since I benefit from it in a system that was established on racism, I may even perpetrate it without realizing it.

So I go out and try to find other people's voices. And, if there is disagreement, I don't take sides. That's not my lane. That's an in-group discussion I have no part of.

Here is Manish Vij, writing all the way back in 2007:

To be sure, Apu has many redeeming qualities: a loving wife, passive-aggressive cunning, and a Ph.D. Culture-vulture Simpsons fans have felled entire forests in arguing that he's a parody of a stereotype, rather than the stereotype itself. But the plain fact is that most viewers are laughing at Apu, not with him. They're enjoying the simple pleasures of a funny, singsong brown man with a slippery grasp of English.

Here's Ankita Rao in 2012:

Consider the South Asian characters that have appeared on the small and big screen in the last couple decades. First, there was Apu on The Simpsons. Then the stereotypes expanded, slightly: taxi cab drivers and doctors joined the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor. These are very different jobs, of course, but each fits into a stereotype about the South Asian immigrant. Whether it’s the over-achieving Neela Rasgota (Parmindra Nagra) on E.R., or Barney’s driver Ranjit (Marshall Manesh) on How I Met Your Mother, these roles play into simple-minded ideas about the hard-working immigrant making good on the American Dream. Is that a hurtful image? Only insofar as it reduces individuals to an idea, rather than treating them as a complicated set of people who, in fact, don’t all drive cabs or become doctors.

Some people may say that there’s nothing wrong with such positive stereotypes. “If only people assumed that I was hard-working because of the color of my skin!” But the truth is that even these stereotypes are dehumanizing.


Here's Mallika Rao from 2013:

For those who grew up to become actors, he’s practically a living foe. “I hate that guy,” says the actor Utkarsh Ambudkar, a Baltimore native born to south Indian parents.

One fine day, Ambudkar says, everyone at school started calling him “slushie boy.” A friend explained: “He was like, ‘Dude, there’s this guy on this show. He runs a Kwik-E-Mart. Thank you, come again.’”


As for Indians defending Apu — well, I didn't find any, but I wouldn't doubt they are out there. But, for my tastes, enough of a case has been made that the character and the performance are enough of a problem that it should be taken seriously, and I look forward to the perspective in this film.
posted by maxsparber at 7:11 AM on November 14 [34 favorites]


When the Simpsons were teasing they were going to kill a character, I recall a lot of people wanted Apu gone because he is a throwback to lazy late 80s sitcom stereotypes (instead, they killed a minor character that was in like 10 episodes, because promising to reach the stars and not even having a starter is what they do these days). They had like 20+ years to ask Azaria to progressively tone down the accent, but unfortunately that's the opposite way of how tv characters work.

hank azaria is so talented and funny but it kills me that so many of his voices draw from a deep well of negative sterotypes. (the ones that leap immediately to mind are Apu and Agador from The Birdcage)
This is why my favourite character played by him is Brockmire, who's arguably one of the best characters in TV comedy right now. I wouldn't expect a guy with permanent baseball play-by-play voice would work for more than a few youtube videos, but he makes it work.
posted by lmfsilva at 7:14 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]


I'm looking forward to the documentary. Despite loving The Simpsons, there's a lot of stuff about it that hasn't aged well, and is only going to look worse and worse as time goes on.
posted by codacorolla at 7:25 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]


Let's say we do believe the writers of The Simpsons when they say they have developed true affection for the character of Apu and have tried at points to give him depth... it's still not enough. He was created as a stereotype and his central comedic underpinnings are stereotypes and there's no unringing that bell. You can't pile up after-the-fact good intentions onto a racist caricature and wash it clean. You can't give Tambo and Bones a cool new subplot and then tell people they have to be done being offended at minstrelsy.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:26 AM on November 14 [13 favorites]


I don't know how The Big Bang Theory's portrayal of Raj can be considered okay either

In a series that gets so much of the science grad school experience wrong, Raj's portrayal is just about the most offensive. It combines a lot of bad stereotypes all into one package, without even having an aspect of, "I know a guy like that!" which, at least, you could kind of say about Sheldon. It was as thiugh they took a South Asian character specifically for the purpose of desexualization and mockery.
posted by deanc at 7:44 AM on November 14 [12 favorites]


Alison Loader's "We're Asian, More Expected of Us" from 2011 is an interesting read about King of the Hill's Kahn Souphanousinphone, a character with a lot of parallels to Apu.
posted by pipeski at 7:45 AM on November 14 [6 favorites]


It's not only in the anglophone world; I frequently get Apu impressions made at me in Mexico/Colombia.
posted by dhruva at 7:56 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]


This has made me realize that all along I was misunderstanding the Simpsons

No, it's pretty clear that Dana Gould (writer, seasons 12–19) is the one who doesn't understand the Simpsons.

citation: Seasons 12–19

Just wondering: Has anyone weighed in on Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel and problematic stereotypes of hill people the white working class?
posted by entropicamericana at 7:56 AM on November 14 [11 favorites]


>> This has made me realize that all along I was misunderstanding the Simpsons. (Admittedly, I last watched it regularly in 1998.)

Given the period of the show over which Dana Gould presided (2001-2008), it's entirely possible that he misunderstood The Simpsons.
posted by AndrewInDC at 7:58 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


Frowner, there's a Youtube episode made by a big anime nerd who talks about how much of The Simpson's earlier episodes were grounded in breaking down the stereotypes that superficially defined every character a la Chekhov and that much of this was pushed by a single producer who left somewhere about a third of the way through the Simpson's (still ongoing) run. it's a pretty interesting watch backed up by specific episode citations
posted by runt at 8:08 AM on November 14 [9 favorites]


I've been looking forward to this for documentary since I first heard of it. Apu has kind of always been a thing. I grew up right around the time that The Simpsons were first introduced and I can vividly recall the first time someone at my middle school impersonated Hank Azaria's Apu voice. The imitation was explicitly directed at me in a mocking tone. And I thought to myself, “I don't sound this way. And even the aunties and uncles I know in the Indian community who have an accent, do not sound this way. Ugh.”

I'm sure I just smiled and shrugged it off. As an Indian who grew up living in America, and now lives in Canada, you get used to this sort of thing. The desexualized, effeminate, nerdy, goofy, not good at social skills or with women presentation of what your culture is supposed to be. It just adds another layer of frustration to your identity.

I'm glad that Hari is confronting people about this idea and what it means to our community. It's a conversation we should be having. And for any critics who might say, “The Simpsons make fun of everyone, every stereotype, so what's the big deal.” That's all well and good but I'd argue that there are more varied presentations of the white male figure in media than there are of the Indian. We're not as varied in our representations and portrayals.

Yes, there has been some progress. Aziz has done some interesting stuff with his standup and his Netflix series. And we have cartoons like Sanjay and Craig which represent a young Indian boy just as that, a young Indian boy with a snake friend, it's so very normal and I appreciate that.

But then we have Raj Koothrappali, which is one of the most reprehensible stereotypes I've ever encountered. I'd launch into why everything about this stereotype is hurtful and offensive but I'm kind of exhausted already with writing this comment. So what I'll say is that, there's still quite a bit of work that needs to be done. And we need to have these discussions and to confront how we represent other cultures on the screen. It matters to people in our community.
posted by Fizz at 8:14 AM on November 14 [42 favorites]


my unpopular opinion of the day

idk who's Indian (or generally Asian) or not unless you've self-identified but if you're not Asian it's ok to sit back and just read. There's no need to have an opinion on everything & honestly I feel that interjecting - even if you agree that Apu is racist - is part of the white notion that we have to be a part of every discussion.
posted by AFABulous at 8:17 AM on November 14 [30 favorites]


The other derogatory comment/imitation that I would also be on the receiving end for so much of my young adult life: “Kali-Ma! Kali-Ma!” and then people would grab at my chest and make horror faces. Fuck you very much Spielberg for making my culture out to be monkey-brain/snake-soup eating heathens.

It's exhausting to always have to work against these types of stereotypes.
posted by Fizz at 8:30 AM on November 14 [27 favorites]


fwiw, I'm Indian-American, and here's what I wrote in the 2010 thread:

More anecdata, I'm Indian-American and am not aware of anyone I know being offended by Apu. Like other characters on the show, the stereotypical portrayal is what's immediately seen, but the more you know about the character, the more he becomes a complex, quirky, sympathetic individual. One of the major themes of the show is the way so many disparate characters - hell, even Mr. Burns - come together to form a unique, satisfying, (barely) functional community.

One way in which Harold and Kumar rings true to real life: for whatever reason, much of the outright racism I encountered in childhood took the form of mocking Apu impersonations. The way racists seem to have latched onto the character isn't a fault of the Simpsons creators in any way, though.


That was me 7 years ago. I'm not inclined to mount a defense for Apu or his creators, in 2017 at least. In general I'm much less willing to give white writers the benefit of the doubt in attempting a deep exploration of an identity they (mostly) only have a surface reading of. Hire Indian writers. Hire Indian actors. Give us the time of day to tell our stories.
posted by naju at 9:56 AM on November 14 [19 favorites]


the old canard repeated in every single creative writing class I was in in college was 'write what you know.' maybe writing works different in your world

I would probably have defended Apu in 2010 but certainly will not now; that said, "write what you know" is indeed a canard. I'd much rather writers aspire to cosmopolitanism and the unfamiliar than stick to their narrow furrows. (I do not think that the character of Apu is an instance of cosmopolitanism.)
posted by kenko at 10:37 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]


Re: the discussions about Raj from Big Bang Theory, this video by Pop Culture Detective is a good watch, touching on Raj being the most coded-as-femme main character on the show, and how they constantly use him as a laughingstock for performing masculinity "wrong."
posted by coolname at 10:38 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


Regarding the discussion of the Peter Sellers and Satjayit Ray relationship in the above comment, Ray is on record, well after the friendship with Sellers had broken down (over Sellers' abrupt withdrawal from Ray's Indian sci-fi movie project The Alien - an idea which some accuse (unrelated to Sellers) Hollywood of later stealing for the movie E.T. ) , as saying that the monkey being called Apu in The Party is the one thing in the film that "tickled" him (he otherwise thought it was a shoddy script).
posted by Bwithh at 11:30 AM on November 14


The only thing I would do with a time machine is have one of the three of us, when we were doing Gandhi, go, ‘Hey, no one here really knows who Gandhi is, he’s such an iconic and almost deity-level person to a certain part of the world, maybe that should be a different guy if we’re going to have him obsessed with dry-humping and getting loaded.’
from The Complicated Racial Legacy Of MTV's Cult Classic Clone High
posted by juv3nal at 11:33 AM on November 14 [5 favorites]


Metafilter 2010 was super friendly to people of color, huh

MetaFilter 2017 is a smidge better. Like the difference between a McDonald's Double Cheeseburger and McDonald's McDouble, but you know how it goes. Something about arc of history, changing hearts and minds...
posted by anem0ne at 11:40 AM on November 14


A number of mefites then took the view that Apu was not a stereotypical depiction but a fully rounded character.

Not putting words in anyone's mouth, but I think whether that analysis holds water depends a lot on where you start and stop watching the show.

I challenge anyone to go back to the first few seasons of The Simpsons and not find a shitload of stuff to cringe at. I mean, there's ... christ, Apu is the tip of the iceberg. (I mean, Homer's schtick was calling Bart nothing but "boy" and occasionally wringing his neck until his eyeballs popped out. I'm not sure that "well, 1989 was a different time!" really covers it completely.)

It's to the point where I've started to have a lot of sideeye for people who weep big hipster nostalgia tears for how the show has "gone downhill" or "the old seasons were better." Maybe you can argue with a straight face that there was a point where it peaked, or lost cultural relevance in the last decade or so, but the show has, in general, done a much better job of being self-aware over time.

The show's writers have clearly made an attempt to round Apu out and give him (and his family) some more screen time in less-stereotypical ways. But it's a hard row to hoe, when the character was clearly introduced as little more than a race-joke punchline. Still, they've tried admirably, I suppose.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:51 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


The show's writers have clearly made an attempt to round Apu out and give him (and his family) some more screen time in less-stereotypical ways.

Yes, they gave him a family. And when they did so, they made a plot point out of him having an arranged marriage, his wife having octuplets (because DEM INDIANS DERE SURE ARE A LOT OF DEM AMIRITE), and his cousin working in a call centre in Bangalore.

Oh, I forgot the bit where he was an illegal immigrant. And he has a phd - in computer science.

It's all numerous instances bullshit stereotyping, crammed into one character. If that's their attempt at rounding him out in a non-sterotypical way, they fucking failed.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:15 PM on November 14 [8 favorites]


That was me 7 years ago. I'm not inclined to mount a defense for Apu or his creators, in 2017 at least. In general I'm much less willing to give white writers the benefit of the doubt in attempting a deep exploration of an identity they (mostly) only have a surface reading of. Hire Indian writers. Hire Indian actors. Give us the time of day to tell our stories.

I'm Indian-American and was born in the early 90s and Apu may have been the only major media representation of an Indian-American person I had ever been exposed to up to Harold and Kumar coming out when I was around 13. I think, in 2010, I would have written a similar defense of Apu because he was honestly weirdly emotionally important to me. He was the only Indian person I ever saw on TV throughout my childhood and the only sign that I actually was visible and existed that I ever saw in the media and I felt grateful that I had that much. Of course he was a racist caricature and I think practically every Indian person in the West has a story about someone using an Apu accent to mock them or a member of their family.

But I mean, yeah, he is a super fucking racist character. There's no question of that. I don't think I've ever thought otherwise, even in childhood. It's just, when you have practically no representations to choose from, it feels like a terrible loss to give up the only one you have and I think some Indian people feel defensive of the character for that reason.
posted by armadillo1224 at 7:17 AM on November 15 [11 favorites]


Time for a probably misremembered anecdote from a time in my life when I was subjected to watching the DVD commentary on every single episode of The Simpsons!

Someone who was not Hank Azaria explained the origin of Apu. "We had this convenience store character and we needed a voice for him. We gave that task to Hank, along with explicit instructions not to do a stereotypical Indian convenience store worker because we thought that would be lazy and hacky. Well, he ignored that note, did the Apu voice, everyone laughed, and the rest is history."

Thanks, Hank!
posted by zeusianfog at 4:27 PM on November 15 [4 favorites]


I'm Indian-American and was born in the early 90s and Apu may have been the only major media representation of an Indian-American person I had ever been exposed to up to Harold and Kumar coming out when I was around 13.

For me it was Apu, and one other...

Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit 2.

That's how fucking starved we were for representation. Two white dudes wearing brownface and doing impressions.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:22 PM on November 15 [2 favorites]


[see also: The desperation that young gay folks had to have any representation at all in film & TV back in the 70s-90s that had us shrugging off the insane stereotyping and very-special-episodes because it was all we could get.]
posted by sonascope at 12:39 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]


When I watch movies I watch them all the way through, all the way to the end of the credits. At some point I started realizing that this was where I would see, sometimes, names that looked like mine -- at the credits at the end. It always gave me such a thrill.

The representation I remember from 80s/90s TV is Jawaharlal from Head of the Class who at least kind of reminded me of me, although I literally never met a single Indian-American named Jawaharlal ever.

In the mid 90s I went to see the movie Twister. I remember nearly nothing about it. But at some point in that movie, we see some characters talking in an improvised tornado-chasing staging area, and a woman who looks like me comes in and says a single line, like, "The F5 is 5 miles east!" or something. She is South Asian-American and she doesn't look particularly conventionally pretty and she has glasses. I still remember this. I don't even know if she's in the cast listing on IMDb.

And now we have, like, The Big Sick, which I wish I could go back in time and show to myself from 20 or 30 years ago.

I've been watching Hari Kondabolu for years. I am so happy for him that he got a Mayoral proclamation and a Day at Diwali this year and I am super looking forward to seeing The Problem with Apu.
posted by brainwane at 7:42 AM on November 16 [4 favorites]


Hari on The Daily Show - "I wanted to call the movie, 'I Have To Explain This To You?'"
posted by Errant at 1:34 PM on November 16 [3 favorites]


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