“The Simpsons” shows its ugly side with their “response” to “The Problem with Apu”

Lisa and Marge talk address the Apu controversy while Lisa is trying to hear a story from Marge. An inexplicable picture of Apu is on Lisa's nightstand, with the signature, "Don't have a cow."

Photo credit: FOX

The Simpsons has shot itself in the foot by making a needless jab at comedian Hari Kondabolu for his rightful critique of Simpsons character Apu in his documentary The Problem with Apu. 

Instead of learning from the documentary, which includes questioning voice actor Hank Azaria’s decision to base his portrayal on Peter Sellers’ own stereotypical Indian character from the film The Party as well as how Apu has negatively affected Americans of South Asian descent, The Simpsons decided to spit in the face of Kondabolu and his legitimate critiques during their latest episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” by having Lisa and Marge break the fourth wall and give Lisa, generally the smartest and most level-headed of all the Simpsons characters, the unfortunate task of refuting Kondabolu’s complaints.

The genesis of the scene, which pokes fun at all types of calls for better representation in the media, comes from Marge trying to retell one of her favorite stories to Lisa in a way that’s simpatico with today’s calls for sensitivity (the original story being rife with statements that would be problematic today). The thesis of the scene is that if you take out everything someone considers “PC,” then you have nothing left to make a story resonate with audiences. The scene posits that if you hear everyone’s complaints about the story you’re trying to tell, then your hands are tied and your storytelling ability is lessened.

This argument would be something to consider if it wasn’t in response to Kondabolu’s sincere concerns about Apu and his aggravation with The Simpsons‘ continued usage of the character. What Kondabolu is calling for isn’t a way to tie creators’ hands when telling a story; what he’s asking for is acknowledgment about the pain a character like Apu causes for Indian Americans and how for them, Apu isn’t just a throwaway joke; he’s a collection of stereotypes that define how others see them in their everyday lives. All Kondabolu wants is for The Simpsons to realize that a character they view as a harmless joke actually has real-world ramifications, and hopefully, upon their realization, to do something that could rectify Apu as a character.

Unfortunately, the folks behind The Simpsons chose to overlook any possible area for their own personal growth and instead decided to couch their inability to change in a clunky scene rife with ugliness. I mean, even without talking about the social issues, why does Lisa have a picture of Apu on her nightstand? Why does that same picture have a signature by Apu that reads, “Don’t have a cow”?

The fact that the writers even thought “Don’t have a cow” would be great for that scene shows that they knew exactly what they were doing with this episode. The intent is clear–they’re not only going to refuse to analyze the lessons in Kondabolu’s documentary, but they are going to double-down on being offensive; in case you don’t know, cows are sacred in Hindu mythology, and Apu is a practicing Hindu.

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The Simpsons showrunner Al Jean isn’t making things any better; instead of engaging Kondabolu person to person via Twitter or otherwise, he instead chose to retweet someone’s response to the episode, which reads, “Loved how you guys handled this non-issue. People just want to cry about everything nowadays b/c it makes them feel like they’re doing something. … Oh and I’m Indian and according to Twitter my opinion matters more on this topic.”

After the episode aired, Kondabolu wrote his frustrations out on Twitter.

Maybe Jean and the folks behind The Simpsons only assumed it’s the “PC Police” or “Social Justice Warriors” they were attacking with this scene. The fact that “PC Police” and “SJWs” are seen as some kind of nebulous, nefarious force is something worth investigating in itself, since these terms are only used to negate the legitimate concerns people have. But what they might not have expected is for so many celebrities and media critics (people The Simpsons might consider friends since the show has won so many awards) to go in on their decision to blast Kondabolu in such an ugly, cruel, and bullying manner. As Vanity Fair‘s Yohana Desta wrote, “Was that really the best retort that Team Simpson could muster: meeting a frank dialogue about South-Asian representation in media with a shrug of the shoulders and a flippant jab at Apu’s religion?”

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NPR’s Linda Holmes gave the day’s best takedown of the episode, writing that the supposed “jokes” miss the entire point Kondabolu made with his documentary.

“What is entirely missing from this response is any recognition of the effects on the people who find themselves not represented, or represented poorly — and they were at the center of Kondabolu’s documentary. He went out specifically to speak to South Asian performers about how they felt about representation in American television, and specifically about Apu. Kal Penn tells Kondabolu that he hates Apu, and for that reason, doesn’t like The Simpsons. A room full of comics says that Apu was referenced as part of their school bullying. Aziz Ansari says he was taunted about Apu while driving with his father. Actor Maulik Pancholy feared encountering an Indian person in a convenience store for fear his friends would launch into their Apu impressions. Even the former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, talks about his experiences with stereotypes.”

Holmes also cites Molly Ringwald’s recent New Yorker article about coming to terms with the sexual harassment inherent in John Hughes’ films. In the article, Ringwald writes honestly about her conflicting feelings of both joy and anguish over how Hughes’ films both sought to honestly tell the serious lives of teenagers and also upheld a toxic patriarchy that promoted and rewarded harassment against women. It’s a thought-provoking piece, and it’s one that I’m sure wasn’t easy for Ringwald to write or emotionally cycle through. But she still did it. The crew behind The Simpsons could have easily had their own come to Jesus moment if they wanted to open themselves up to that kind of conversation. At the very least, they could do something like this:

But instead, they sought refuge in their collective racial privilege and chose to deflect, deny, and hurt. Kondabolu is not the one with the problem, it’s The Simpsons‘ inability to invoke one of the classic traits the writers themselves imbued in Lisa Simpson; the ability to grow, reflect, and change for the better. ♦

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