Matt Groening does not have the permission to rest. The creator of The Simpsons, Groening recently sat down for a chat with the New York Times, and predictably the interviewer spent a majority of time talking about the controversial Apu.
For the uninitiated, Apu is a character that appears on the popular sit-com with a exaggerated ‘Indian accent’. Based on characteristics that quickly became infamous stereotypes for immigrant South Asians, the character became the reference point for many white Americans. It also resulted in many South Asian kids being at the receiving end of bullies, something comedian Hari Kondabolu tried to investigate in his documentary The Problem With Apu.
While addressing the issue around the representation of Apu, Groening said the name was initially meant to be a tribute to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. Calling the conversation around Apu ‘tainted’ and lacking ‘nuance’, he declared that some members of the audience ‘pretended to take offence’ to a lot of things and that they were fighting the ‘wrong battles’. His logic behind the apparent naming of Apu was that some day a curious kid would then discover Satyajit Ray and his timeless trilogy. Wow. Someone ask Groening if he’d stretched before reaching.
The question at the heart of this debate is this: Is the depiction of Apu in The Simpsons, racist and insensitive? Does the whole ‘Indian accent’ and the lazy stereotypes even work in 2018? The Simpsons has been on air for nearly three decades now, and even though as the creator says the character was initially meant as a tribute, Apu’s impact on pop-culture has been far from what was (maybe) desired.
— Emily Gaudette (@emilygmonster) July 18, 2018
“There’s no nuance to the conversation now.”
Hari Kondabolu assembled nearly an hour’s worth of footage featuring performers of South Asian descent discussing a problem that predates Apu by decades.
But yes, a one-note cartoon character is brimming with nuance. pic.twitter.com/aSBMl3i4q7
— MC Shonda Rhymes (@nicholaisays) July 18, 2018
Some people are so sure they’re not doing anything wrong, they’d rather believe everyone else is just pretending they’re offended. https://t.co/XjHfNK7024
— Kevin O’Keeffe (@kevinpokeeffe) July 18, 2018
But what Groening’s defensive comments have done is make it amply clear that he still doesn’t really get the problem. There is a difference between stereotyping the all-white American middle class family, who are the majoritarians and also at the top of the food chain. Reinforcing the stereotypical accents and mannerisms of the minorities/marginalised, Groening seems to be disobeying the number one rule of comedy – punching up versus punching down.
Also, there’s context to the comedy. An Aziz Ansari doing it is much different than someone like Matt Groening, trying to manufacture peals of laughter at the expense of a stereotype. It gets perceived differently. And it seems like The Simpsons creator is still to come to terms with it.
Asked whether Apu will make another appearance on the show, Groening responded saying that he would like it if ‘there was a good story to tell’ – let’s hope they see the problem by then.