Well, Matt Groening finally commented on the Apu scandal, problem is, he doesn’t really understand it.
“What are your thoughts on the Apu deal from The Simpsons?” a friend texted me at 8:15 in the morning as I was on my way to work. Not long beforehand, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, Matt Groening, had unleashed his thoughts on it all, as if the episode No Good Read Goes Unpunished didn’t say enough when they had Lisa, the most outspokenly political character, saying “What can you do?” in implicit regard to The Simpsons’ race controversy.
There are lots of thoughts flying around about this after comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu first addressed the issue of the long-running television show’s Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner. My thoughts on it were that if an entire group of people are offended about their portrayal in a series as beloved as The Simpsons, then yeah, it’s probably an offensive portrayal.
Indian-Americans were likely victimised with chants of “Thank you, come again” by bullies as they grew up, with Apu having firmly cemented, in the minds of Americans, that Indians are all likely to be convenience store clerks. Apu is, notably, one of the most consistently intelligent characters throughout the series, yet he never seems to achieve anything more than Kwik-E-Mart clerk.
The character’s accent is a punchline, delivered by talented voice actor Hank Azaria, a white man. He even says that the character and his attitude were inspired by Peter Sellers as Hrundi V Bakshi in The Party. FYI, Peter Sellers was a white man who put on brown face for the role.
My friend responded to my criticism with, “They would have been bullied either way – everyone is bullied growing up.”
And, as I said to him, that’s bullshit thinking. You don’t just hand a bully a weapon because you know they’re going to attack someone anyway. It was a comment spoken by someone who’s never been bullied for their race, creed, religion or country of origin.
“You’re right. I’m on my high horse of Middle Class Whitedom.”
At least my friend recognised that.
In “The Problem with Apu,” 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.
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018
But then Matt Groening. When asked if he had any thoughts on Apu being a (potentially harmful) stereotype, he responded with this:
“Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.”
Pretend they’re offended. He believes that people are pretending to be offended – a whole racial group – because they, what? Want to hurt him?
People aren’t pretending they’re offended, they’re offended. These minority groups are just able to be more vocal about it now because it’s (finally) acceptable to call people out on unacceptable behaviour.
Sure, I can understand sometimes thinking that our current culture’s outrage machine sometimes churns a little too fast and hard, sometimes portioning blame and criticism where it perhaps isn’t due. But this isn’t one of those times. Overall, these are issues that have needed confronting for some time, but there just wasn’t a space for it.
Now there is.
All his comments show are Groening’s insensitivity to serious racial issues that have – obviously – been boiling within the country for a long time. He, also, seems not to care that people use his work, that he is so proud of, to harm and judge other people.
Matt Groening unleashed his thoughts on it all, as if the episode No Good Read Goes Unpunished didn’t say enough when they had Lisa, the most outspokenly political character, saying “What can you do?” in implicit regard to The Simpsons’ race controversy.
Some people will argue that The Simpsons runs on stereotypes, and it does so well. And that’s true. Ned Flanders was just supposed to be your average neighbour, kind and sweet and a little religious, but he became his the stereotype of the religious zealot. Helen Lovejoy is the stereotypical WASP, gossipy and occasionally cruel, despite being married to the town Reverend.
But these are social stereotypes. Those are different from racial or ethnic stereotypes, and none of them seem quite as damaging as Apu. Or perhaps the less-prominent Akira, the Japanese waiter who, like Apu, is also voiced by Hank Azaria (though, he was voiced by George Takei in his first appearance, the episode where Homer eats blowfish and almost dies).
Krusty, some people say, might be a bad Jewish stereotype. I’m here to tell you he isn’t. In fact, he’s one of the more interesting and nuanced Jewish characters I’ve seen on television, especially in animation. The episode where he reunites with his father is touching. His Judaism is a part of his character, but it doesn’t define his character. His character is more stoutly defined by his career and its ups and downs.
Some will argue that The Simpsons runs on stereotypes. But these are social stereotypes – different from racial or ethnic stereotypes, and none of them seem quite as damaging as Apu.
If we’re talking about bad Jewish stereotypes, you have to look no further than Mort Goldman from Family Guy. He makes me cringe into discomfort. It’s one of those characters that looks like he’s right off a German propaganda poster. He can be, and was, used against me. Almost as much as the South Park movie’s Blame Canada song. But Krusty never was.
My point here is that Groening invalidates himself by saying that people are “pretending”. No one’s pretending. Even Hank Azaria sees that it’s likely time for him to step down from being Apu.
“We have to listen to South Asian people and Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character, and what their American experience of this has been,” he said in an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
“I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the room, genuinely informing whatever direction this character will take, including how it is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside and help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what The Simpsons does.”
Me too, Hank. Me too.