‘The Simpsons’ criticised for ‘toothless’ response to Apu row

‘Don’t have a cow’: Cartoon addresses allegations of harmful racial stereotyping

In Sunday night’s episode, No Good Read Goes Unpunished, The Simpsons creators acknowledged the racial stereotype controversy over Indian character Apu, but their response has not gone down well. Video: The Simpsons/FOX

 

The Simpsons has responded to controversy over Indian character Apu in an episode aired in the US on Sunday night with a short message to its audience: “Don’t have a cow”.

The scene, however, was immediately criticised as “toothless” and “sad”.

The character of the Kwik-E-Mart owner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, has been voiced by white actor Hank Azaria since he debuted in 1990 during the show’s first season.

But a recent documentary by Indian-American standup comic Hari Kondabolu , The Problem with Apu, criticised the character as an example of harmful and widespread stereotyping of south Asians on American television, which “reflected how America viewed us: servile, devious, goofy”, and which has fuelled bullying of and racism towards people of colour.

Sunday night’s episode, No Good Read Goes Unpunished, was the first time The Simpsons creators acknowledged the controversy, but their response has not gone down well.

In the scene, Marge Simpson wants to read Lisa a book she loved when she was a girl, but realises it is filled with racist stereotypes. She then edits it to feature a “cisgender girl named Clara” who fights for “horse rescue and net neutrality”. But Lisa complains that by making the story “inoffensive” and its lead character “perfect”, Marge has stripped Clara of her emotional journey.

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

Lisa turns to face the viewer: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

‘Don’t have a cow’

She then gestures to a photograph of Apu by her bed, inscribed with Bart Simpson’s catchphrase – “Don’t have a cow” – a directive to relax.

“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge promises.

“If at all,” Lisa deadpans.

The Simpsons executive producer, Al Jean, pre-empted a social media maelstrom, tweeting just before the show aired: “Twitter explosion in act three.” He wasn’t wrong.

Kondabolu himself was among the first to respond, criticising the scene as dismissive and “sad”: “Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.”

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

Others have called it “ completely toothless ” and “ a callous and resentful shrug ”, and have pointed out the irony of having the lines delivered by Lisa, one of the show’s more progressive characters.

But some fans have defended the scene as satirical, and the show as one which revels in “equal opportunity” stereotyping.

Azaria himself weighed in earlier this year, telling reporters that the show would “definitely address” the controversy after “a lot of thought”.

The Simpsons over the years has been pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people: Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, high school principals, school principals, Italians, you name it,” he said.

“And they take a lot of pride over there in not apologising for any of that. I think, over the years, they’ve done a really good job of being, shall we say, uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful.”

Azaria also said the fact that it had caused any kind of harm and suffering was “disturbing” and “distressing” to him, adding: “The idea that anybody was marginalised based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally.” –Guardian