How Do We Solve a Problem Like Apu?

So, I’m a big fan of the Simpsons. The classic era is one of my favourite shows. Recently, the Simpsons responded to the criticism it received over its caricatured portrayal of Apu. This response was prompted by Hari Kondabolu’s documentary about South East Asian American representation ‘The Problem with Apu’. In the documentary, Kondabolu interviews notable South East Asian American actors regarding their feelings about the character of Apu. This documentary included Kal Penn, who you may know as Kumar from Harold and Kumar or as Kutner from House, whose intense dislike of Apu extended to the Simpsons as a whole. Kondabolu himself enjoys the Simpsons but finds the character of Apu to be a racist stain on the show.

I highly recommend watching the fifty-minute documentary which is available on Vimeo. The documentary is naturally going to explain these grievances way better than I could. Now the Simpsons response to the concerns raised by Kondabolu and others in the documentary was pretty pathetic. It amounted to Marge and Lisa staring into the camera and complaining about political correctness. Brief sidebar: It makes no sense for Lisa to be the mouth-piece for this defensive diatribe. While they perhaps did so to have their smartest voice represent them, it comes off as hollow. Lisa is a smart and empathetic individual, she is an explorer of cultural diversity, she is a social justice warrior. Ted Cruz recently compared his Democratic opponents who opposed gun control to Lisa Simpson while comparing his own party to Homer, not realising the compliment that that comment stood as.
I don’t know about anyone else but whenever I encounter the term political correctness it always seems as if it’s being used to say ‘I can’t say the problematic things that I used to say because society has changed,’. Yes, things that were once acceptable are no longer acceptable. That’s how society works. Society is the negotiation of mutually agreed standards. You can’t run naked through the streets and you have to confront why cultural artefacts might be hurtful. In the documentary, there was a great highlighting of minstrel shows and how nobody thought deeply about them during their inception. Speaking of minstrel shows, we might think we’re past that. We as a society have surely left that cultural artefact in the past? Well, we should probably address why cartoon characters wear gloves before we shove that racist spectre into the closet of history.
I realise that I might not be the best person to be talking about this due to the fact that I have often referred to myself as a Whitey McWhiterson. As a white guy, I benefit most from privilege. That’s why I’ve tried to do two things in this piece. First, link to other voices. We should all listen to people who these issues affect the most. The second is that I want to examine what white creatives can do. I have had conversations with fellow writers, particularly fellow white screenwriters, that while we want to be diverse in our scripts, we are also taught to add too many extraneous details. John August and Craig Mazin explain it best in episode 292 of their podcast Scriptnotes. They note that if you telegraph race then that signals to the reader that race is a significant part of this character’s identity. That doesn’t feel great either. We default to white and thus we have to signal that characters are diverse but if we signal them out, then they somehow are their race more than all the default white characters.
So, what’s the solution? How do we as white creators face representation? The first step is obvious. If you’re writing a tv show, diversify the room a bit. Imagine the stories the deep and funny stories that someone of South East Asian descent could tell with the character of Apu. Allow others to frame the narrative about their experiences. If you’re the sole writer on a project, find diverse people you can talk to about these characters. People too, not just one person because then it can lean into ‘I can’t be racist, I have black friends,’ territory. All of this hinges on one central point really. A point that the Simpsons pushed under the rug. Listen, listen without speaking, think deeply about the creative choices you make, empathise with what is being said to you. Use your past mistakes with representation as a learning experience. Bolster those who are often denied a voice by society.
Lastly, I think the Simpsons could have handled this without retiring the character. I think they would need to devote an entire episode to the quandary. Have Apu go on a real soul-searching journey about his relationship to white America and to his own immigrant identity and then finally retire the voice and get a South East Asian American to be Apu without an exaggerated accent. Such a responsible and understanding response would make the Simpsons feel culturally relevant again as it examined how a once subversive show was now an establishment. While they attempted something like this in recent years, the episode was written by a white guy and thus still framed through the lens of white America.

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