There is a sharp sting that you feel when you are betrayed. Every relationship goes through rough patches, but sometimes a betrayal can be the final nail in the coffin. I feel betrayed by The Simpsons. This may sound melodramatic, but it’s how I felt when I saw The Simpsons’ response to Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu.
I loved The Simpsons when I was growing up. It was funny, smart, and had a witty scepticism that influenced the comedy of my peers. The show became an integral part of my generation’s culture. Bart Simpsons t-shirts were everywhere in the early nineties. Quotes from the dialogue often appeared in everyday conversations with friends (my personal favourite is “Everything is coming up Milhouse!” I still use it today). I have friends who had The Simpsons figurines in their dorm rooms at university. Recently, I watched a video called “Top 10 Times The Simpsons Went Too Far.” I didn’t think that many of the examples were particularly offensive. The video featured a storyline in which Lisa Simpson becomes addicted to second-hand smoke and I laughed out loud.
I liked Apu when I was younger, he was good natured, well educated, and hard working. Reoccurring South Asian characters were rare in television when I was growing up, and it was neat to see a cartoon character that resembled my family, albeit a limited resemblance as my paternal great grandfathers left India as indentured servants and settled in Trinidad & Tobago.
Although, I haven’t been a regular viewer in the past few years, I still have a fondness for The Simpsons, which is why I felt so let down by its recent episode. For a show that, in my view, has always been self-aware it’s response to the criticisms in The Problem With Apu were tone deaf and frankly insulting. A betrayal of its own comedic spirit.
To recap the current controversy, Kondabolu made a documentary that explored Apu’s creation on The Simpsons and how the character was the only consistent representation of South Asians in mainstream American television for many years. The portrayal of Apu is a caricature (as are many other characters on the show), but as this was one of the only depictions of South Asians on television, it became the way a lot of mainstream American viewed the South Asian community. In an interview with Vox Kondabolu said, “After a while, you realize that you’re embarrassed about your parents’ accents. I don’t want people to hear them, because then they could use it against me or them. You feel less American. You realize that this wasn’t made for you. As a kid, you think you’re all part of it. Then all of a sudden, you get signals that racialize you, and you realize it’s not so clear-cut.”
These criticisms were acknowledged and dismissed in the episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” that aired on April 8, 2018. Dana Schwartz wrote a piece for Entertainment Weekly that gives a pretty good breakdown of the scene that addresses Kondabolu’s criticism:
“The scene began with Marge reading a bedtime story to Lisa that had been neutered with social justice buzzwords. “What am I supposed to do?” Marge asks when Lisa complains. “It’s hard to say,” says Lisa, breaking the fourth wall and looking directly at the camera. A photo of Apu on the nightstand helped make it very clear they were no longer talking about the fictional bedtime story. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” says Marge, also to the camera. “—If it all,” Lisa concludes.”
There are plenty of works of art that were socially acceptable when they were first created, but no longer represent our societal views. Even as values evolve they are still exhibited and performed. The art continues to be appreciated, but it also provides us with a snapshot into the values of the past, both good and bad. We still stage productions of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which is the antithesis of a feminist message. We also stage productions of Showboat, with problematic views on race relations in the narrative. Early seasons of The Simpsons can be viewed in the same light. However, and it’s a big ‘however,’ The Simpsons is still producing and airing new episodes.
The Simpsons premiered twenty-nine years ago in 1989. A society can change a lot in thirty years. If The Simpsons wants to stay relevant, then perhaps it has to evolve along with North American culture. In an interview with Vanity Fair Hari Kondabolu discussed ways in which Apu’s character could break the stereotype, “Give him some upward mobility. Perhaps create a character that can oppose Burns…The other things you could do is—he has kids, just let them talk. Let them be part of the show. Have them represent us. Have writers who can write to that voice.”
This isn’t an attack on The Simpsons, rather it’s a plea and the plea is this: I want to still like you, but you need to listen to your fans. I thought you were better than this, please don’t disappoint me.