In “Marge in Chains,” a disease called the Osaka Flu, featuring two stereotypically-portrayed and sick Japanese workers, creates a chaotic domino-effect scenario that impacts the Simpson household and Springfield at large. In “Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken,” Homer’s acts of vandalism cause Police Chief Wiggum to institute a nightly curfew for anyone under the age of 70.
In response to these claims, Bill Oakley, one of the writers of “Marge in Chains,” spoke out against the misappropriation of these episodes, citing that these episodes were meant to be innocuous and those utilizing the episodes for nefarious purposes are “gross.”
Perhaps the more important foretelling taking place in these episodes, however, is the ongoing normalization of racism that is targeted towards Asians and Asian Americans. This normalization, in turn, skews overarching public perceptions towards Asian immigrants and Asian Americans.
It’s hard to denigrate “Marge in Chains” when you compare the episode to other contemporary, more visible instances of racism against PoC communities. The people behind “All American Girl,” which aired in 1994, were guilty of demanding Korean-American actress Margaret Cho to “act more Asian,” while also hiring an “expert” to help her act in that caricature. As early as 1986, when “The Simpsons” was still a short on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” the show introduced Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a caricature based on another racist caricature portrayed by Peter Sellers in the ’60s and one of the only few South Asian character representations in its time period. As recently as 2016, Chris Rock hired East Asian children to portray prevalent East-Asian-American stereotypes for the Academy Awards. The gag of sick Japanese workers in “Marge in Chains” may seem innocent in comparison, though the comedic portrayal of East Asian workers as hardworking but unhygienic individuals provides a context of othering for those living in a Westernized society such as the United States. Through the span of multiple generations, comedic television portrays non-white characters and actors, and people of color by extension, as different from their white counterparts — they, including those of Asian descent, are considered the other and the foreign even if these portrayals and stereotypes may seem benign.
But suppose you take the intentions of these problematic portrayals, including those in “Marge in Chains,” as innocuous. “The Osaka Flu,” inspired by the Hong Kong Flu of 1968, was portrayed outlandishly by the writers as an attempt to simply create a comedic plot device. The fact remains that there are current coronavirus conspiracy theories that originated from a supposed innocent joke about sick East Asians and an East Asian disease. In other words, there are those within anglophone countries who are eager to propagate racist fear-mongering in the midst of a pandemic by appropriating seemingly innocent comedic content. This content goes viral and is widely shared on social media platforms. Xenophobic content is being consumed by many others as a result, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.
East and Southeast Asian Americans have long experienced verbal and physical assaults as a result of xenophobia, a trend that has only been exacerbated through the coronavirus pandemic. Such racist attacks and xenophobic actions by both the public and the government are not new either: The 2009 swine flu outbreak saw a spike in discrimination towards Latinx Americans, the 2003 SARS outbreak unleashed a wave of bigotry towards Asian Americans and the 1892 typhus outbreak and cholera epidemics saw a governmental quarantine and public prejudice directed towards Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Outbreaks of disease within the United States have historically seen the American public attempt to tie disease outbreaks and pandemics to often marginalized groups in society.
“The Simpsons,” more than it predicts the future, suggests the long history of racist narratives, both on and off the screen.