Last week it was announced that long-standing ‘Simpsons’ actor, Hank Azaria, would step down from his role as Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, after 30 years voicing the Indian immigrant owner of the Kwik-E-Mart.
The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom, known for its satirical portrayal of American life. When it began, it was praised for finding a niche in primetime television, providing smart political humour. It was one of few programmes where every American was represented and stereotyped. Homer was the overweight alcoholic; Marge, the stay-at-home wife; Lisa, the overachieving daughter; and Bart, the mischievous son.
Some stereotypes, however, were for entire races. Apu characterised how Americans viewed South Asians; servile, deceitful and silly. The Simpsons negated entire cultures; South Asia is comprised of 8 countries, not just one.
The Problem with Apu (2017), a documentary by stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu, heavily scrutinised the controversial character. It surprised many to learn that Azaria was white, as Kondabolu raised the uncomfortable point that Apu’s voice was ‘a white guy doing an impression of my father’.
Kondabalu tells that he grew up in Apu’s shadow. His experience, like many South Asian’s, was one of mockery by white American children. They would assume that anyone from South Asia should sound like Apu, and repeat his infamous catchphrase, ‘Thank you, please come again’.
Any significant life event became a cultural trope: when Apu married, it was arranged; and when he had children, he had 8. When Azaria was asked to voice Apu, he understood that it was a gross misrepresentation of Indian men, being asked, ‘Can you do an Indian voice and how offensive can you make it?’
The name of the character himself was taken from a celebrated trilogy of 1950s films, in which a young man grew up in India. To move to a character by the same name, but with a diminished role, was an unfortunate turn. In response to the controversy, the Simpsons used Lisa: ‘Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect… what can you do?’
When Apu was first introduced, it was ground-breaking to have such diversity on American television; the public applauded Apu’s deeper character development and far-reaching storylines. Some looked to Apu and saw a hero representing their family story. Bhaskar Sunkara wrote that Apu echoed his father, and it being better to show a person ‘trying to get by’ rather than being ‘scorned [or] fetishized’.
Yet by using Lisa, a character of morality and a voice for social justice, was determined a futile attempt at justifying the inevitable racism of stereotyping an ethnic minority.
While the Simpsons is stuck in time, society is not. South-Asian representation in the media has dramatically increased. It is a shame that it remains that these actors’ careers are misled, being cast for roles in which they are required to use a broad Indian accent; the irony here lies in that this has been decided by a group of white screenwriters.
As Kondabolu finishes, we see that he reaches out to Azaria. A double standard is born: Azaria writes that he is glad Kondabolu is telling hard-truths, but that he would not want to risk being sacrificed to heavy editing and false-representation. Yet, in being voiced by a white male, it can be said that Apu never truly represented anyone at all.
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