As a child, my brother and I ran home from school every day so we wouldn’t miss any of our favorite shows. We watched PBS and Nickelodeon for hours with our eyes glued to the TV until our mom forced us to do our homework — which we worked on while watching “Arthur.” Most of the shows we watched were educational, some downright nonsensical — I’m looking at you “Caillou”— but all of them were entertaining and influential for impressionable minds like ours.
Yet one show stood out to me as particularly captivating. “The Simpsons” always broadcasted around 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening when the children cable networks switched to regular programming. A lot of elements drew me to the show — the slapstick humor, Bart’s school antics, Homer’s sheer idiocy — but who most appealed to me was the character Apu, an Indian immigrant from West Bengal.
When you grow up Asian-American, you don’t see a lot of characters reflecting your identity. Many shows used animals or objects for characters, but if they were human, they were usually white. The Simpsons defied this standard with a more diverse set of characters. Much like how women are reassured to see a current House of Representatives that better represents them and their interests, audiences and especially children like to see television characters they can relate to.
And I certainly related to Apu. Apu owned a store, the Kwik-E-Mart, just like my dad. Apu was a family-oriented person with a wife, kids, and relatives in India, and I have a big family too. I was vegetarian, he was vegan. We both practiced Hinduism. Apu thus seemed like an extension of my family representing my culture on national TV.
My appreciation for Apu made it surprising to discover the character recently came under fire for being a racist stereotype of South Asians. Comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem With Apu” described how the character’s accent and occupation are a racist exaggeration of South Asian culture. Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani said he was often told to do “the Apu accent.” I was shocked to discover that a character who I had grown up appreciating caused a great deal of shame for other South Asians.
What’s more disappointing is how the show creators’ response to the controversy lacks a fundamental understanding of the problem itself. In regards to Apu and South Asians, former “Simpsons” producer Dana Gould told Kondabolu in his film that “Their accents by their nature to white Americans sound funny. Period.” He clearly isn’t aware that his audience isn’t and shouldn’t be just white Americans, nor does he get to mock a culture’s accent for the entertainment of another. The show attempted to address the criticisms in an episode about political correctness that provoked an even greater response. Hank Azaria, Apu’s voice actor and a white male, was respectful of the criticisms and said he is “happy to step aside” from the character. The character himself has had a reduced role for years, and reports indicated the show might just remove Apu to eliminate the controversy itself.
I was never offended by Apu’s character nor asked to do his accent, though I understand how the character is harmful to the South Asian community. Yet the proper response to the controversy is not to get rid of the character and avoid any possible issue. Following this logic, the creators would get rid of all attempts at humor involving minority characters out of a fear of going too far. “The Simpsons” would cease to be a diverse and representative show, thus failing to reflect a diverse American audience.
What the show should do instead is make Apu a more well-crafted character. If the creators recruited South Asian writers to produce scenes that moved beyond stereotypes for humor, Apu would have more thought put into him. Azaria has been very receptive to public concerns about Apu. Though he has always been the voice of Apu, it would be more respectful for a South Asian actor to play the character for the representation to be real and genuine. The shift in voice would be jarring at first, but animated characters have changed voices before on many other shows. Apu can remain on “The Simpsons” without being a caricature, and with the right thought put behind him, the show can transform the character into the family man I saw in him years ago.