The Simpsons has been the latest TV show or movie to come under fire for being out of touch in this new ear of being "woke." The decades-old show has been criticized for its character Apu, an Indian-American convenience store worker who is the walking embodiment of every Indian-American stereotype there is. When The Simpsons started in the early '90s, Apu was a beloved pop-culture caricature; however, by today's standards, he's become something much more offensive.
As the controversy over Apu has reverberated through the cultural zeitgeist, both fans of The Simpsons and even the show itself have all joined in the discussion and debate about Apu, what the character says about cultural progression, and how that process (progression) should unfold.
Comedian Bill Maher did a segment about the issue on his HBO series Real Time With Bill Maher this past week (see the video above), and he was of the opinion that people need to have more perspective on what, exactly, progression means. As Maher put it (to paraphrase): In twenty-five years, if all goes well, we'll all look back on who we were and what we were doing now, with embarrassment and horror - such is the nature of progressing in life. Therefore, we should not yell at the past for existing.
That sentiment was carried by The Simpsons, as a recent episode featured an on-the-nose plotline about Marge trying to reconcile reading Lisa a bedtime story that is extremely racist by modern standards. That dilemma results in Lisa delivering the following monologue:
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
Marge then adds, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” to which Lisa responds, “If at all.”
Simpsons showrunner Al Jean personally added this on Twitter:
.@TheSimpsons I truly appreciate all responses pro and con. Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right— Al Jean (@AlJean) April 13, 2018
While there is a certain amount of support for this perspective, it does overlook that a past, now claimed to have been "inoffensive," may not have been so for everyone.
Adi Shankar is best known for being the producer behind cult-hit films like Dredd and Lone Survivor, or in geek culture for his acclaimed "Bootleg Universe" shorts, or his new Netflix Castlevania series. Shankar is Indian-American, and therefore had a unique perspective on The Simpsons and Apu while growing up in the '90s - thoughts he's now adding to this important moment of cultural debate.
Here's is the statement that Adi Shankar gave to Comicbook.com, specifically angled as a response to Bill Maher and The Simpsons showrunner Al Jean's "What can you do?" attitude towards the Apu controversy:
"Dear Mr. Maher and Mr. Jean,
Apu wasn’t ‘applauded’ or ‘inoffensive’ at any time. We are the most educated minority in America yet that fact was completely extricated from 80’s and 90’s pop culture and all that existed was a hurtful caricature, a cousin to the coon and Jewface caricatures, that reinforced our fears of how we were perceived by gatekeepers such as yourselves. By dismissing this issue as a joke, a fad amongst entitled millennials worthy of a light chuckle, neither of you are acknowledging that this creation has and was used to hurt countless kids who were already struggling to fit in.
We have a fabulous platform and with it the ability to affect change on an unprecedented level, and as such you both have the responsibility to do better.
As this response points out, the idea that Apu was at one time an "okay thing" is arguably insensitive and obtuse. As you can see above, that view ignores the very perspective of Indian-Americans like Shankar, and was probably shared by millions of others just like him. All Indian-Americans once lived in the shadow of this caricature, and that association likely came with a lot of aggravation and stereotyping.
So what can be done? Well, as Shankar points out: Indian-Americans are among some of the most educated and accomplished minorities in the US, so maybe it's time we got that side of Apu? In these changing times, Apu should probably get out of the convenience store game, anyway. Maybe he has a future as an online retailer or entrepreneur? With his wife and eight kids, he already has the personnel to make it happen...8comments
Do you think this Apu controversy is valid? And how do you feel about the perspective of Indian-Americans like Adi Shankar? What should the show do about the character - if anything? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
The Simpsons is still airing on Sunday nights on Fox.