The Simpsons responds to Apu controversy with a shrug about political correctness

Lisa and her apparently beloved portrait of Apu.

The show just about rolled its eyes at Hari Kondabolu’s “The Problem with Apu.”

Comedian Hari Kondabolu loved The Simpsons until he thought harder about the character of Apu, an Indian convenience store owner whose thick accent came courtesy of Hank Azaria doing his best Peter Sellers. So while at first he was excited to have an Indian character on TV — as he told Vox, “even if it’s brown paint, you’re glad there’s something” — he reevaluated his affection for Apu and realized that the stereotypes the character embodied were maybe doing more harm than good.

The result was The Problem with Apu, a documentary featuring Kondabolu interviewing comedians, South Asian and otherwise, about their complicated relationships to Apu and how it might have changed over the three decades The Simpsons has been on the air.

The Simpsons team gave glancing reactions to the documentary as it picked up some steam, with Azaria calling the criticism of Apu “distressing” and promising that the show would address the controversy. Since the turnaround time of an episode of The Simpsons is generally several months, that response finally came via the April 8 episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” — and amounted to a deadpan shrug.

The moment comes out of a storyline about Marge struggling to share one of her favorite books from childhood with Lisa, only to discover that just about every page is heavily laced with racism. “Another childhood classic bites the dust,” says Lisa, to which Marge responds by trying to revise the entire book to fit what she sees as 2018 standards. (For example: The princess goes from being a petulant little slaveowner to a “cisgender girl” fighting for net neutrality.)

But rather than liking this “inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati” version better, Lisa furrows her brow and complains that if the character starts out perfect, she’s got no room to grow, so what’s the point?

“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” Lisa says, her eyes flicking over to a framed picture of Apu on her nightstand. “What can you do?”

“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge replies.

“If at all,” Lisa adds.

Here, both turn to look pointedly at the “camera,” blinking embodiments of that “what can you do” shrug — and that’s it.

As NPR’s Linda Holmes outlines, this is a confusing way to address the controversy, to say the very least. That book might have been a childhood favorite for Marge, but it was also, again, about a tyrannical slaveowner. Who cares if it was “applauded and inoffensive” once? Why would revising or even ditching it necessarily mean taking “the spirit and character out” of it, as Marge says she did? Why can’t decent people have fulfilling character arcs?

And why on earth is Lisa — the Simpsons character who’s always been the most passionate about sticking up for people and issues that get less attention and care than others — the one to deliver this tired, anti-PC culture blow?

Most importantly: This throwaway scene makes no effort to consider that the book — and by proxy, Apu — may not have been “applauded and inoffensive” to everyone. It’s very clear that this scene is written from and for the perspective of people who weren’t challenged on their assumptions before, and now find the idea of revisiting those assumptions annoying and unnecessary.

“There is no attempt to reckon with what the book Marge loved might have meant to girls who found themselves taunted with imagery from it,” as Holmes writes. “It’s as if the show can only process complaints about Apu as nicks on the finish of its legacy. The human beings at issue go largely ignored.”

The Simpsons has been on the air for nearly 30 years, through countless cultural shifts and reconsiderations of values past. It has the right to brush off whatever criticisms it wants, but to pretend like Apu was always inoffensive, just because the writing team never heard or considered otherwise, is as disingenuous as it is disappointing.

The Simpsons responds to Apu controversy with a shrug about political correctness
By Caroline Framke

April 9, 2018 at 11:40AM
via Vox – All