The Uproar About Apu is Either Much Ado About Nothing… or Everything
By now you have probably heard about, if not watched, Hari Kondabolu’s “The Problem with Apu.” He goes about examining “The Simpsons” character and discussing how he, and others, feel about the rife-with-stereotype Kwik-E-Mart owner. While normally I would let somebody “being offended about a cartoon character” slide without much thought, the online uproar (EVERYONE ON TWITTER IS INTERNET ANGRY) has been deafening, and “The Simpsons” hilarious and joyful name is getting dragged through the mud, and standing aside is no longer an option. Add into the equation the controversy dances around one of my favorite themes (hypocrisy) and the recipe seemed too perfect to stay silent any longer.
The issue with Apu is two-fold: (1) he is undoubtedly a stereotype that on initial glace has some negative stereotypes connected to him and (2) the man that voices him is decidedly not Indian (Hank Azaria). However, the problem with “The Problem with Apu,” is also two-fold: (1) almost every character in the entire realm of “The Simpsons” is oozing with negative stereotypes and therefore singling out one character out of literally 100s is admitting you are totally fine with some stereotypes while “getting offended” about others (hi hypocrite) and (2) Apu is actually one of the most respected characters on the show, and getting offended about how “The Simpsons” portrays him is to show your ignorance of the show and its history.
Apu is Just One of MANY Characters with Negative Stereotypes
For all of the people (Indian and other) that get offended by Apu, let me ask a simple question; how many other characters from the show are you offended by? Because if you are offended by Apu, I assume you are offended by Groundskeeper Willie, yes?
How about Krusty, AKA Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky, that has to get your dander up too, right?
Both of those guys are voiced by Dan Castellenata. Decidedly not Scottish, clearly not Jewish. What about Bumblebee Man, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel AKA Cletus Delroy Spuckler, Cookie Kwon, Hans Moleman, “Old Jewish Guy,” Carl Carlson, Fat Tony, Luigi, Professor Frink, Waylon Smithers, or even Ned Flanders and Comic Book Guy AKA Jeffrey Albertson. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE CHARACTERS IS A WALKING STEREOTYPE. Either you find every single one of them offensive, or you are being honest.
Willie literally lives in a shack on the school premises and wears kilts and plays the bagpipes (and has a stock-pile of retirement grease). Krusty is the minstrel show Jewish clown who was raised to be a Rabbi and rejected that life-course to the horror of his father (a Rabbi). If you do not understand how a Jewish clown is a stereotype, go to your search bar and type in “vaudeville.” Cletus is representative of all Appalachian people, Bumblebee Man is what Americans think of Telemundo, Cookie Kwon is a hard-bargaining Asian Lady, Fat Tony is the Italian mobster while all other Italians on the show are also in the mob save for Luigi who runs an… Italian restaurant, Waylon Smithers is the closeted gay guy who yearns for his boss while Ned Flanders is a teetotaler who faints at any sign of something not expressly condoned in the New Testament.
All of these characters (save for Fat Tony who is voiced by Joe Montagna) are voiced by somebody from outside of their own ethnicity. Even Hank Azaria, a man of Sephardic descent, voices Luigi, not Castellenata, the resident Italian man. So are all of these characters offensive? Kinda yeah. Should you be offended by all of them instead of laughing? No. The whole point of a community, and by extension, “The Simpsons” universe, is that EVERYONE gets made fun of; when you single out one person and one character for special treatment, you are destroying what makes that community special. Moreover, by singling out Apu and saying somehow his stereotypes are over-the-line, but the others are not, you are covertly admitting your own feelings, and daresay, racism/bigotry.
Why are the stereotypes about the Jew funny, but not the Indian? Why the redneck yokel? The Mexican, the Asain woman, the Italian, the nerd, the gay guy, the devout Catholic, or the super geek? Why are all of those perfectly acceptable and yet the “problem” is with Apu? If you do find all of them offensive, that makes more sense than deciding one stereotype among literally 100s is somehow the worst of the worst and deserves scorn. However, where this whole thing really comes off the tracks is how Apu is treated as one of the most respected characters in the entire cannon.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is The Simpsons’ Stand-In for the American Dream
There have been several episodes in “The Simpsons” cannon centering around Apu. However, none is better representative of Apu’s esteem in “The Simpsons'” universe than, “Much Apu About Nothing” (7th Season, Episode 23). (Also check out “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilos” (9th Season, Episode 7) for “The Simpsons” respectful and nuanced take on Indian culture/arranged marriages).
First, a slight digression. What made “The Simpsons” so pivotal in the American culture was not just the humor during the prime seasons, but its fearlessness in taking on tricky subject matters. For every modern day episode that is mostly without a moral, prime “The Simpsons” taught values while making your side hurt. This is no more prevalent than in “Much Apu About Nothing.”
In this Apu-centric episode, Springfield’s Mayor Quimby creates “Proposal 24” (as a means to alleviate the mob’s shouting about a $5 tax on the town’s new “Bear Patrol…” again, this was “The Simpsons” at its best). Quimby (another stereotypical character, parodying the Kennedy’s worst traits–save for leaving a woman to die in air bubble in a sinking car), creates this proposal as a means to blame the high taxes on illegal immigrants. If the bill passes, Springfield will deport all of their illegal immigrants. Homer is all in favor the proposal… until he learns Apu, is in fact, an illegal immigrant… at which he tries to do everything in his power to help Apu become an American citizen.
In the episode, “The Simpsons” highlight the plight of immigrants who have come to America simply to work. We learn the backstory of Apu in the episode. Apu, a genius who graduated first in his class at “Cal Tech” (Calcutta Technical Institute) out of “seven million” (a favorable stereotype plus a low-hanging fruit joke) came to Springfield to get his doctorate at “Springfield Heights Institute of Technology” (Yes… S.H.I.T). During the course of his studies though he started working at the Kwik-E-Mart as a means to pay of his student loans and fell in love with his work, and all of the friends he made in the town. Springfield was a welcoming community and Apu loved it there. This is as American as baseball and apple pie. An immigrant comes to America, works his butt off, and decides to stay while becoming a welcomed part of the community. Apu provides a service and the townspeople love him for it.
But with Proposal 24, the covert xenophobia of Springfield rears its ugly head. Anybody watching the episode can easily discern what the showrunners think of this xenophobia. It is ugly, demeaning, and has no place in modern America. And they choose Apu as its foil because Apu is respected within the community. But because “The Simpsons” are trying to teach a lesson in the episode, they do not make things easy for Apu. First, he tries to buy forged American citizenship from Fat Tony. That brings us one of the best scenes of the episode, and in “The Simpsons” history.
This bit is instructive. This is not how you become an American citizen, and a part of the community. What makes America great is not shirking all of your customs and culture. Rather the opposite. America is about immigrants bringing the best part of their culture over and having it combine forces with American values to make the best and freest country the world has ever seen (also… do NOT root for the Mets).
Once Homer realizes that Apu “loves this country more than (he) enjoys a cold beer on a hot Christmas morning,”, he tries to help Apu and teach him American history in order to pass the American citizenship exam (with hilariously bad effect). However, Homer is the stereotypical dumb American who loves his country, but knows nothing about it nor of its founding. Enter Lisa, the heroine. Lisa teaches Apu everything she knows and everything he needs to know to pass the citizen’s exam. And, because Apu is a genius, and is the hardest working guy in Springfield (because not all stereotypes are bad) he passes the exam and becomes an American citizen. Note; if you think “The Simpsons” are on the wrong side of this Apu issue, just wait for the Chief Wiggum line when organizing deportations.
This episode does not work if “The Simpsons” do not use Apu. The reason the show did not go with Dr. Nick, Bumbleeman, Luigi (or Moe?!?!) is because you have to care about the character for the episode to work. You have to have a character that the show respects. A character that its viewers know is pivotal to the inner workings of the community. Apu is a part of “The Simpsons” universe, not because he is a stereotype for stereotype sake, but because of the show’s need to have a character that represents the other, and does so in a way that makes you feel and empathize for the plight of the other.
Apu is everything Americans want immigrants to be (remember the “welfare “line joke) and everything that has made America great for the last several centuries. Apu understands why America is so great… but with the recent uproar over the character, I am starting to fear Americans no longer know that answer; it is not our similarities that make this country (and everyone within it) so wonderful, but the differences. That is why every character in the show is an absolute stereotype. What better way to show our differences than to make them blatantly obvious? And how better to do that than to stereotype the ever-living-hell out of each character? Apu might be a walking, talking stereotype voiced by a guy of Sephardic descent, but far from producing a character that denigrates, Apu is a character that elevates… and for a cartoon show that started almost 30 years ago, that should be commended, not condemned.