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Apu Exposes Issues in Media Portrayal

Illustration by Mia Turner

As the longest running scripted TV show, The Simpsons is well loved by many. Even with its popularity, the show has still had its fair share of controversies. Most recently the show has come under fire for the character of Apu. In The Simpsons, Apu is the owner of the local corner store. The problem many have with his character is that he’s an overly stereotypical representation of Indian and South Asian people in general. The controversy was brought to the public in November when comedian Hari Kondabolu created a documentary called The Problem with Apu. The documentary detailed the way Kondabolu and other South Asian people have been affected by the character. Separately, co-creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, said that he is “proud of what we do on the show” and that “it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.”

Many, including Kondabolu, were disappointed by this response to the documentary. Real people were put down and bullied through the character of Apu, and Groening along with other writers on the show seemed to not care. Instead of acknowledging their mistake, they called out people for being too politically correct.

The one person on The Simpsons team who has publicly responded differently is voice actor Hank Azaria. Azaria was called out in The Problem with Apu for being a white actor doing a stereotypical and over the top Indian accent. Kondabolu even compared the portrayal to blackface shows from the twentieth century. In response, Azaria resigned from the role of Apu.

This response has been applauded as a victory even though there is a lot more that can be done. Some are calling for The Simpsons to hire more South Asian writers to work on the show and others are calling for a change in pop culture as a whole. One of the main problems with the character of Apu making fun of South Asian people is that they aren’t represented enough in the rest of the media. The Simpsons makes fun of all sorts of people, but there are other portrayals of those kinds of characters. Since Apu is often the only South Asian character people see, they don’t know that it’s just a stereotype.

Apu isn’t necessarily a bad character, he just needs to be edited to fit with contemporary standards. Other shows, such as South Park, also have characters like Apu. The jokes and characters can work if they are simply updated. If more South Asian writers worked in Hollywood, a greater influx of nuanced South Asian characters. That would be a victory.