The Problem With Apu discussion continues. Honestly, at this point, I can’t believe we are still talking about this…but here we are.
Following my piece at National Review, much of the commentary was about where the Simpsons could take the character of Apu, and bring him into “modern times.” The controversy, originally started by comic Hari Kondabolu, was reignited this week when the voice of the famous cartoon character, Hank Azaria, was a guest on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and spoke up about the subject.
Azaria appeared on Kondabolu’s documentary but did not provide answers that satisfied his critics. With “The Simpsons” response in an episode several weeks ago erupting anger once again, Azaria seems to have raised the white flag:
“The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad,” the actor went on. “It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring joy and laughter to people.”
“I’ve given this a lot of thought, and, as I say, my eyes have been opened,” he said. “I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers room…including how [Apu] is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do to me.”
“I really want to see Indian, South Asian writer, writers in the room, not in a token way but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced,” Azaria said. “I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what ‘The Simpsons’ does and it not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do to me.”
Like Kondabolu and others, Azaria misses the point.
Whether Azaria voices the character or not fundamentally doesn’t matter. The problem with Hank’s take on this (and to be fair, the take of Kondabolu and others) that having a white actor voice the character was the inherent flaw is illogical. Are they arguing that if an Indian had voiced the character from day one, with a harsh Indian accent, that Indians such as Kondabolu would not have targeted him for abuse?
No one honestly believes that. I am willing to bet Azaria doesn’t believe that either.
And this goes back to my criticism of the entire debate. Even Kodabolu is reticent to argue that Apu was ever intended as a racist or bigoted character. In his documentary, he basically admits that is not the case. He does suggest that the writers were insensitive since they were mostly white and lacked input from South Asian writers. There may be some truth to that.
But ultimately, does the race of the voice actor make this character racist? It certainly does not. Now, if they want to argue that Apu, existing in any iteration, and voiced by an Indian, Caucasian or otherwise is racist — fine.
At which point, the only solution is to kill off Apu.
Ali Noorani, a commentator at CNN, had this to say about the subject this week:
Let’s be clear: We can, and should, continue making fun of one another. We live in a complicated and changing society. Humor remains a critically important communication tool.
But we can do humor with more respect. As actor Kumail Nanjiani put it, “Norms evolve. Societies grow. We learn. We acknowledge mistakes as a society. Something that was acceptable in the past may not be acceptable now.”
Good comedy challenges stereotypes by acknowledging stereotypes. Bad comedy perpetuates stereotypes by pretending they don’t exist.
This is a reasonable take as well but inevitably leads to the question I keep asking: Why stop at Apu?
Jeet Heer at the The New Republic responded to some of my criticisms. He believes the very fact Azaria is white makes it inherently racially problematic. But that again presumes that the writer’s intent was that of one that had a racial element. If Apu was originally voiced by an Indian and portrayed the same way — and bigots had still used Apu to target people — would the character be any less problematic? If not, why not? Because you can’t have it both ways, regardless of the ethnicity of the voice actor.
Heer goes on to argue that Indian Americans such as him and myself don’t understand what younger Indians are facing. I actually thought about that question: was I possibly biased because of my age?
So, I looked for an answer: I did an unscientific survey of about a dozen Indian kids at my son’s school. I asked them: “Which Hollywood character is most used to make fun of your ethnicity?”
Not a single one mentioned Apu. Not one. Half the kids didn’t know who Apu was. “The Simpsons” simply are not the cultural phenomenon they were in the 1990s when those having this argument were growing up.
Who did the kids mention? A few named the cartoon character Baljeet, the Indian friend on the Disney animated show “Phineas and Ferb.” But the most common response was Raj, from the extremely popular CBS show “The Big Bang Theory.” Raj is an Indian immigrant, an engineering academic at a California university. He has a harsh Indian accent, is sexually repressed (so badly that he can’t even talk in the presence of American women!), and is often subservient to his rich Indian physician parents back home in India.
You want to talk stereotypes? Well, that’s a big one. Furthermore, it’s ironic that Heer may be right that there is an age bias in this discussion. But the age bias may be with Heer and Kondabolu, who are arguing about an archaic character that has far less influence on Indian American kids today than it did two decades ago. And if that is the case, do they now have a similar distaste for Raj on “The Big Bang Theory,” whose character is actively used to bully kids today?
None of the above changes the fact that Apu was never a racist character. The problem these critics have is still the same problem they’ve always had: their anger is pointed in the wrong direction. Until they face the fact that bigots will use any personification or stereotype of Indians to propagate their bigotry, they are missing the point.
But people such as Kondabolu remain willfully ignorant to the Hollywood personas that are affecting our Indian children today. He is still complaining about a character that, apparently, has little or no influence on kids like my boys. Their ignorance, and silence, on that shows that this isn’t really about solving prejudice and bigotry. It’s about something else.
Back to Hank Azaria. There are probably two real reasons Azaria wants to quit and neither of them is because he believes Apu is truly insensitive. First, he has done this character for almost three decades. Who would want to keep doing that? Second, at this point, with all the social justice warriors attacking him, what incentive does he have to continue? I fully sympathize with him wanting to leave it all behind.
We should instead discuss what racial prejudice South Asians are really feeling today and how we can improve those relations with education and understanding. We should be educating the broader public about the complexities of being of Indian heritage as an American today. That would do far more to advance our cause.
Instead, we waste our time over Apu.