Growing up in California’s Bay Area as an awkward, shy son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants in the 1990s, I didn’t see my stories or family represented in the mainstream media. This was before ESPN started airing the spelling bee competition and CNN hired Sanjay Gupta.
My friends and I made do with movies such as “Short Circuit,” which featured the robot Johnny Number 5 engaging in hilarious shenanigans with his Indian friend Fisher Stevens, a white actor in brown paint doing a thick Indian accent. The bar was low in the real world, so we migrated to animation instead, hoping for fully realized characters in “The Simpsons.”
Most of us happily embraced Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the successful owner of the Springfield convenience store Kwik-E-Mart. Sure, he had dubious sanitary standards when it came to his hot dogs, but here was a highly educated, undocumented immigrant who achieved the American dream. He had a PhD. He sang in the barbershop quartet with Homer and, before settling down with the attractive and smart Manjula, he was a charismatic playboy. Most important, he was an integral character in the “Simpsons” universe who was able to be a co-protagonist of several episodes. Only in a cartoon, we thought, could people who look like us achieve such a feat. Brown people existed only as cabdrivers or incompetent, violent terrorists on the screens.
For those of us with low expectations, starving for any representation, Apu was a breath of fresh air. But that doesn’t mean he, or “The Simpsons,” get a lifetime pass to perpetuate lazy stereotypes. Any piece of art, no matter how well intentioned, harmless or silly, is not above reproach or critical examination. Especially when it’s “The Simpsons,” one of the most influential TV shows of all time. Homer Simpson and his yellow, four-fingered family and friends are a global phenomenon and enduring cultural juggernaut. I’ve traveled the world and everywhere — from Pakistan to the Maldives to the Philippines — aging millennials say “D’oh!” when talking about President Donald Trump.
As such, the creators and writers of “The Simpsons,” like the rest of us, have a responsibility to upgrade and evolve their characters to align with cultural norms of the day. Tokenized stereotypes won’t cut it for an emerging generation that is demanding full and equal representation.
That’s why it was so disappointing to see the show’s response to comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, “The Problem With Apu,” about how South Asians like himself wrestled with the popular, endearing character who was simultaneously reductionist and offensive. Like Fisher Stevens’s character in “Short Circuit,” Apu is voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria, who admitted the creators asked him to create a broad, offensive accent. For Hari and many others, Apu is a white guy mocking his brown, immigrant parents, who are either sidelined as tokens or romanticized as “model minorities,” celebrated for being inoffensive, meek and upwardly mobile.
Instead of engaging with the issue of representation, which would have made for a more satirical and topical show — you know, the type “The Simpsons” used to do years ago — the writers responded with the worst creative sin: laziness.
The scene featured Marge Simpson, the mother, sitting in bed with her daughter Lisa, the moral compass of the show, lamenting that the book “The Princess in the Garden” would be “politically incorrect” today.
Lisa then turned directly to the audience and says, condescendingly: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
Well, a lot. First, don’t hijack your show’s most intellectual and empathetic voice, Lisa, as a foil for the writers’ unwillingness to be self-critical and engage their blind spots when it comes to listening to people of color who feel silenced and misunderstood.
Thus, the show engages in another major sin: omission. After Lisa’s finger-wagging, the camera pans to a photo of Apu with the inscription “Don’t have a cow!” Apu, who is a supporting character, is robbed of lines, rendered mute and frozen in a suffocating frame, smiling as a token prop. That’s exactly how so many people of color feel in real life — all the time.
The Simpsons and its defenders, especially many conservative pundits, are arguing that they lampoon every group; they are equal-opportunity offenders. Groundskeeper Willie, for example, is an over-the-top caricature of Scottish bellicosity. But my friend Shahed Amanullah, an Indian American entrepreneur, said all those groups, such as Italians and Jews, are offset by multiple positive, nuanced portrayals in the general media landscape. According to him, Apu is the only one used to insult an entire subcontinent. Another friend reminded me that bullies in elementary school used to call him and his young brown friends “Apu” as a derogatory term. Last time I checked, lots of white kids weren’t taunted with “Groundskeeper Willie” chants.
What “The Simpsons” should have done was an episode centered on Apu, who, after becoming a citizen many years ago, is confronted with an “immigrant travel ban.” The show could introduce a new character, Hari, a South Asian born in America who’s in town for a comedy tour. He stumbles into the Kwik-E-Mart and chafes at Apu’s archaic stereotypes. Apu, feeling exposed, responds by introducing him to his Westernized nephew, Jay, who briefly took over the shop and turned it into a health food store. For Apu and the writers, Jay, who was introduced two years ago in an episode titled “Much Apu About Something,” is offered as proof that they have evolved. However, the introduction of Jay, despite being well intended, didn’t fully wrestle with the problematic politics and cultural dynamics of Apu’s role in the show.
This time around, however, all three of them — Hari, Jay and Apu — could team up to challenge the community’s prejudices that dehumanize all of them as a monolithic horde. By the end of the show, we wouldn’t necessarily have closure or easy answers, but at least Apu and the rest of the characters could evolve to a better understanding of the nuances and differences of South Asians.
Nobody would have a cow. But we would have an intelligent, critical, satirical show that at least confronts problematic issues instead of running away from them.
Wajahat Ali is a journalist, playwright and TV host.