Image copyright 20th Century Fox
The Simpsons have been on TV for so long, they have jokes about former-President Jimmy Carter, references to the Chernobyl disaster, and all manner of content that was topical in the late-80s to mid-90s.
However, it’s been a fair old while since anything that “America’s Favourite Family” did was considered controversial.
Until now, at least.
One of the show’s most endearing and long-standing characters, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, has recently become the target of much scrutiny and controversy.
And no, it’s not because he’s actually done anything wrong – this is a much deeper rooted problem, one that lies in the voice acting behind the Kwik-E-Mart owner’s very being.
In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu made a documentary titled The Problem With Apu, which brought the character’s problems to the forefront of conversation.
In The Problem With Apu, Kondabolu mentions how Apu is portrayed by certainly non-Indian actor Hank Azaria, which Kondabolu referenced Azaria doing an Indian accent is akin to a white person acting in blackface.
To go one further with this, Kondabolu notes how Azaria’s performance of Apu – which has been based off that of a 7-11 worker near Azaria’s home in Los Angeles during the late 1980s – sounds like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
Another point raised from the documentary was that Apu has been such a prominent negative stereotype towards Indian people that, by continuing to be on screen as much and for as long as he has, has made many Indian people vulnerable and susceptible to slurs and ridicule.
The controversy is clearly not beneath The Simpsons, however, as they took a stab at handling the issues in one of their most recent episodes, which many audience members deemed to be arrogant and dismissive behaviour.
Within the episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”, Marge reads an updated and edited version of the fictional book The Princess in the Garden, in an attempt to make it more appropriate with the times, with modern audiences, and to generally make it less controversial.
The mother and daughter both conclude that whilst the new version handles the issues, it is far less impressive than the original text. This prompts Marge to ask, “Well, what am I supposed to do?”
Lisa responds to this by saying; “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” all whilst looking into the camera.
She then says; “What can you do?” as she turns her head to look at a picture of Apu on her bedside table which reads ‘Don’t have a cow, man!’
Marge then chimes in, also looking to camera, saying; “Some things will be addressed at a later date.”
Lisa finishes the skit off by bluntly saying “if at all.”
The whole scene was received in very bad taste, with showrunner Al Jean having to step in to handle the ordeal.
Jean took to Twitter to thank everyone who responded either in a positive or negative fashion, and how the team will look to right these wrongs.
“I truly appreciate all responses pro and con. Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right.”
However, the damage may have already been done, as Kondabolu watched the episode and was less than happy with the way it was downplayed.
Responding on Twitter, Kondabolu said;
“Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.”
In a second Tweet, he followed it up with;
“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.”
Whilst The Simpsons is still one of the most important shows in TV history, it’s unquestionable that the show has passed its prime and a total mishandling like this could prove to be far more damaging than it was initially. You could argue that at least they took a try at handling the situation, but the tone and delivery of the sketch – which was clearly intended as a way to handle the whole Apu issue – was way off the mark. Hopefully, the team behind The Simpsons can work this out, before the damage is done.