the simpsons apu

In the 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu, comedian Hari Kondabolu questions the legacy of Apu, the long-running The Simpsons character voiced by Hank Azaria. The stereotype of the thick-accented convenience store owner has haunted Indian-Americans for decades, and Kondabolu takes the caricature to task in the hour-long film, which interrogates the character’s impact on South Asian representation on television.

“[He’s] a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father,” Kondabolu jabbed about the character.

Now, The Simpsons has finally responded to The Problem with Apu’s criticisms. And the long-running Fox series addressed it with what was essentially a wave of the hand and a shrug.

On Sunday night’s episode of The Simpsons, Marge and Lisa Simpson debate the merits of an old children’s book that Marge has edited to be less offensive. But the finished product is less than satisfactory, and Lisa points out that the edited version makes no sense.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asks.

“It’s hard to say,” Lisa responds, turning to the camera. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect… What can you do?” To hammer in the point, the camera swivels to a framed photograph of Apu, signed, “Don’t have a cow.”

Understandably, the scene received immediate backlash, including some choice statements from Kondabolu.

“In The Problem with Apu, I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important,” he wrote on Twitter. “The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”

Worse was the fact that this line was uttered by Lisa Simpson, a character who is often the mouthpiece for progressive values and a voice of reason in The Simpsons. It’s a line that’s as disingenuous to her character as The Simpsons writers’ insistence that Apu was ever “applauded” or considered “inoffensive,” Kondabolu and several other critics point out.

Azaria, the voice of Apu, has previously admitted that the character is “not tremendously accurate.” He declined to be interviewed for Kondabolu’s documentary, but said that The Problem With Apu “made some really interesting points and gave us a lot to think about and we really are thinking about it.”

There is a way to process once-beloved art while acknowledging its flaws. It’s something that a lot of Wes Anderson fans are struggling with as they watch Isle of Dogs, and it’s something that The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candlesstar Molly Ringwald grapples with in her recent essay for The New Yorker. “Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art—change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go,” Ringwald writes.

The Problem With Apu opened up that discussion on Indian-American representation and caricatures on TV, but with this response, The Simpsons seems like it simply wants to shut down that discussion. “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge says in the scene. “If at all,” Lisa responds. Deal with it later. If at all. Essentially, we have heard you, and we don’t care.

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