The Problem with Apu is a recently released documentary made by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu (who is excellent, by the way. Check out some of his stuff, he’s a delight). As the title suggests, it deals with the portrayal of classic Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and the affect that it has had on many prominent South Asian Americans growing up.
Apu, Kondabolu says, “sounds like a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” And this is understandable, especially considering the character is voiced by white actor Hank Azaria, who also provides the voice of many other iconic Simpsons characters. I wasn’t aware that Azaria was Apu’s voice actor until a few years ago. For the longest time, I assumed he was voiced by an Indian.
When I found out, I was not only shocked but also a little uncomfortable, not only at the fact that a white guy was doing the voice of a non-white character, but also at my own ignorance on the subject. Even knowing from a very early age that Apu (along with many other characters in the show, as they address in the documentary) was a stereotype that wasn’t representative of an entire group of people, I somehow never had a problem with it until I realized that his actor was white. I’m sure, however, had the voice actor been Indian, it wouldn’t have been that much more acceptable.
One of the problems with Apu, according to the documentary, is that for a very long time he was people’s only reference for what a South Asian person was. Whereas now we have shows like Master of None and The Mindy Project, which were created by and feature South Asian Americans, back when The Simpsons was in its infancy, Apu was all anybody had. The stereotypical convenience store owner with the cliche accent was what people automatically thought of when they heard the word “Indian”. Unless they were Level 500 Racist and also thought of Native Americans. But I digress.
The documentary was well-crafted, with the interviews being conducted in a respectful, empathetic manner, even with that one asshole from The Simpsons (no, not Azaria. He declined the opportunity for some self-reflection and personal growth). I can’t remember his name, but he was arrogant and wanky, so we’ll just call him Arrogant Wanker. Essentially, his interview with Kondabolu boiled down to: “I don’t see what the problem is, therefore your experiences aren’t valid.”
I’ve been seeing this kind of response to the documentary all over the place, even by people who haven’t seen it. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these responses have come from white guys. There has definitely been a lot of knee-jerk reactions of, “But it’s satire! It’s supposed to be offensive!” and, “Why do you have to take everything so seriously?” White people are so defensive. I know because I am one.
I can kind of understand these kinds of reactions, at least on an intellectual level. As white people, we don’t want to be associated with the racists of old (unless of course, you’re actually an out-and-proud racist. In which case, go fuck yourself). We don’t want to be ignorant, and often can’t admit that we are. Admitting ignorance is one of the hardest things for people to do, and for people in a place of privilege who haven’t experienced prejudice (and therefore often don’t even see it), it’s even more difficult. So when we’re accused of things like prejudice and racial ignorance, we often bite back instead of reflecting on our own behaviour.* I just wish people wouldn’t be so dismissive of other people’s experiences just because they can’t personally relate.
I really enjoyed this documentary. It’s well made and well worth a watch. Even if you don’t initially agree with the premise, I guarantee it will make you think. It certainly opened my eyes to a lot of issues. I’m not sure what impact it will have on The Simpsons or the character of Apu, but I’m interested to find out. The Simpsons has never been a perfect show, but I think this would be a great time to reflect on society’s changing attitudes. Things are different to how they were back when the show first started, and it’s time to move into the modern age (please keep in mind I haven’t watched The Simpsons past season eleven. With good reason).
TL;DR: I spent an hour being angry at white dudes. What else is new?
*There, I’ve done my white-person duty of somehow making this about white struggles. Do I get a badge now?