Comedian Hari Kondabolu made a documentary in 2017 called The Problem With Apu. It’s not very long — less than an hour. In it, he interrogates the legacy of Apu, the convenience store owner on The Simpsons voiced by Hank Azaria. Kondabolu talked to other actors and comics who longed for more South Asian representation, only to find that at the time, Apu was just about all there was. And Apu was not only voiced by a white actor, but he was doing what Azaria has acknowledged is a take on Peter Sellers doing an Indian accent in the movie The Party. In other words, he based his caricature of an accent on someone else’s caricature of an accent. Or, as Kondabolu said on W. Kamau Bell’s show Totally Biased, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
Sunday night, The Simpsons offered what is apparently its best effort at a response. In one of the plotlines, Marge tries to read Lisa a book she loved as a little girl and realizes it’s full of racist stereotypes. In an effort to share the book with Lisa without passing along the things she finds offensive, Marge revises the book and brings it back to Lisa.
“It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character out of a book, but now it’s as inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati,” Marge announces. Marge has changed everything in the book so that nothing in it can bother anyone, which involves making the central character so perfect that, as Lisa instantly announces, “there’s no point to the book.” Marge asks what she’s supposed to do.
This comparison is utterly dishonest, of course, for a multitude of reasons. Apu is not the central character of The Simpsons, and it’s absurd to suggest that the fabric of the show will be unwound if he doesn’t continue to be the same caricature he is. His existence at the periphery — his very flatness, and his definition as a bag of signifiers meant to scream “INDIAN!” is integral to what it means to write a racist stereotype. It’s galling that writers will force a character to exist as funny scenery and then complain that they cannot change him without upsetting the emotional arc of the series.