The Problem with Apu

Deputy Entertainment Editor Julie Crowley writes about the rumours of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon’s imminent departure from the Simpsons. Is this the end for the character? Are there any alternatives to fix the problematic elements?

The Simpsons TV show is long-running and influential. Though it no longer defines the zeitgeist, the show is still a significant aspect of American popular culture that has become beloved internationally. The show has often drawn on stereotypes as a source of humour. The Simpsons characters are often stuck in a status quo, where episodes are self-contained and nothing really changes. This lack of character development and reliance on stereotypes is especially apparent in characters who were widely accepted in the 90s but pose problems for a modern audience. In recent years there has been backlash against the character of Apu. Comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called “The Problem with Apu,” which criticised the racial stereotyping of the Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner.  Rumours have swirled concerning the character’s imminent departure. Castlevania showrunner Adi Shankar has stated that “multiple sources” working for the Simpsons have informed him that Apu will be written out of the show: “They aren’t going to make a big deal out of it, or anything like that, but they’ll drop him altogether just to avoid the controversy.”

Apu has been defended by some fans and critics, who point out that the show relies on stereotypes. It draws on stock characters, like nerdy and pedantic Comic Book Guy, ignorant redneck Cletus, angry Scotsman Groundskeeper Willie, gluttonous and foolish Police Chief Wiggum, and Italian-American mobster Fat Tony. Professor Chakravorty of Temple University, Pennsylvania, told the BBC, “As far as I am concerned: Apu is one of three likable characters in The Simpsons – Lisa and Marge are the others. Homer, a caricature of the ignorant, blue collar white male, is actually the most offensive.” Apu is successful and hardworking. Deleting him altogether is removing a popular minority character.

The show has been accused of perpetuating racist stereotypes through Apu, relating to convenience store jobs, arranged marriages, large families and stinginess. In the 90s, Apu was the only visible Indian immigrant in mainstream American television. Arguably, the stereotype of Apu was more harmful to those communities because of the lack of other Indian representation in the American media at the time. Some Indian-Americans were bullied and taunted with comparisons to him. The writers for the Simpsons were overwhelmingly white. Apu’s voice actor Hank Azaria has been accused of a type of “brownface,” with his role as Apu deriving comedy from his imitation of an Indian accent. “The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad,” said Azaria. “It certainly was not my intention.”

The Simpsons briefly attempted to address the controversy in a 2018 episode. Lisa says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Marge replies, “Some things will be addressed at a later date.” Lisa adds, “If at all.” This exchange, which reduced the problem to trivial “political correctness,” failed to satisfy critics.

More modern mainstream TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation have Indian characters. This increase in representation is a positive move for nuanced depictions of Indians in American culture. Apu is increasingly anachronistic. The erasure of Apu is a cowardly move that avoids the difficult conversation rather than engaging with it and making changes. There are potential solutions that could update the character. Many viewers and critics would have preferred for the character to be changed instead of removed. The voice actor could be recast, and more diverse writers could be hired. The character could be rethought and updated for modern times. This might resolve the problem with Apu.