The Simpsons has finally responded to the accusations that a well-known character, Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, is a fundamentally racist and outdated creation.
Lest we forget, Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu criticised the fact that the character, who speaks with a heavy Indian accent, is actually voiced by a white actor, and suggested that the Kwik-E-Mart owner was one of the many examples of the harmful stereotyping of South Asians in the American media.
The most recent episode of The Simpsons, which aired on Sunday night in the US, addressed the brewing controversy. In the episode, Marge reads Lisa a children’s book. Lisa comments that her mother is exhausted, and Marge replies: “It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character out of a book.” The “joke” (if we’re generous enough to call it a joke) is that in making something inoffensive, we make it boring, incomplete and shallow.
Lisa Simpson, usually the go-to girl for moral consideration and introspection, becomes the incongruous mouthpiece for the show’s agenda. She turns to camera after discussing the limited emotional journey available to a “perfect” character and laments: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
We then pan to a picture of Apu, inscribed with the show’s catchphrase: “Don’t have a cow”. Was this a limp joke about the fact that Hindus don’t eat cows? Perhaps.
Many people, including Kondabolu himself, took to Twitter to express their disappointment about the show’s response, and I can only agree with them. Not only did The Simpsons writers do their best to undermine a thoroughly legitimate accusation, they also showed their increasing cultural irrelevance by implying that “politically correct” narratives were fundamentally uninteresting.
In reality, quite the opposite is true. After decades of boring, stereotypical, one-dimensional portrayals of BAME characters, people are gagging for stories, written or performed by people of colour, that show people from minority ethnic backgrounds as interesting, multifaceted, strange, funny, unique and rounded individuals.
If we look at the Bafta nominations for scripted comedy, Chewing Gum and Timewasters should be enough to show us that “political correctness” does not equate to sterile, sanitised jokes and storytelling. It’s not that characters of colour need to be “perfect”; it’s that we’ve reached a time when we expect, and demand, more than a half-arsed stereotype created by a white person.
It would be bad enough that Apu was a limited, problematic, portrayal of a South Asian man, if the part was at the very least creating a job for a South Asian actor. But, as we know, the white man Hank Azaria has been hiding behind the brown animation for almost three decades now.
Azaria commented on the controversy, defending the show on the basis that: “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.”
But what Azaria and The Simpsons creators need to realise is that there is, quite obviously, a distinct difference between mocking figures of authority like presidents and principles and making jibes at marginalised ethnic groups.
Comedy has always been a great way to undermine hierarchy. As fools once lampooned kings, satire is an important weapon in a world full of power structures. Comedy at its best will challenge the notion that some people are innately superior to others. Comedy at its worst will try to entrench these ideas of superiority, intensifying and justifying oppression through ridicule.
But while The Simpsons can choose to obstinately ignore the fact that times are changing, the world is definitely developing an appetite for new jokes, new characters and new storylines. These will come with diversification, and will pave the way for a new generation of hilarity, born out of social awareness and fresh thinking, rather than cheap shots and racial stereotyping.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies