Simpsons creator Matt Groening speaks out on Apu controversy, says debate is 'tainted'
In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary The Problem With Apu, creating a cultural firestorm. In the film, Hari discusses representations of Indian-Americans in entertainment. Today we're hearing more voices from that community, but that was not always the case. In the past, Indian characters often fell victim to crude stereotypes or were portrayed by white people in brownface.
Hari says that he likes The Simpsons and thinks Apu is a funny character. However, he believes the portrayal is wrong, because Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is voiced by Hank Azaria, a white actor. (D'oh!) It's true that many Simpsons characters are stereotypes - for example, Homer is a stereotypical blue collar white guy - but Apu is the only major Indian character, shining a spotlight on all those clichés. Many Indian-Americans say that while growing up, they were mocked by being compared to Apu. ("Thank you, come again!")
Of course, not everyone agrees with Hari. Some people love Apu. (Woo-hoo!). They believe he's a well-rounded, flattering character. Yes, he works behind the counter at the Kwik-E-Mart, but he's also a college graduate, a hardworking business owner, the most sought-after bachelor in Springfield, and, later in the series, a loving family man.
It's unfortunate an Indian-American actor isn't voicing Apu, true. But the show was created in 1989. It's a symptom of its time. If Apu is recast with an Indian-American actor, should Groundskeeper Willie be recast with a Scottsman, and Bumblebee Man be recast with a Mexican-American? But maybe those comparisons aren't fair. Maybe they should recast Apu. The show has evolved over the years, with characters dying, having kids and coming out of the closet. On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Hank Azaria said he would willingly step down from the role, if asked.
Last season The Simpsons responded to the Apu controversy in an episode, and it did not go well. ("Worst. Reponse to a controversy. Ever.") Viewers slammed the scene for being dismissive, tone-deaf, and toothless. Now, in an interview with The New York Times, series creator Matt Groening is speaking out. He says the Apu debate has become 'tainted.'
"I love Apu. I love the character, and it makes me feel bad that it makes other people feel bad. But on the other hand, it’s tainted now — the conversation, there’s no nuance to the conversation now. It seems very, very clunky. I love the character. I love the show. ... There is the outrage of the week and it comes and goes. ... I think particularly right now, people feel so aggrieved and crazed and powerless that they’re picking the wrong battles."
"My guess is I agree, politically, with 99 percent of the things that Hari Kondabolu believes. We just disagree on Apu. I love the character and I would hate for him to go away. ... maybe he’s a problem, but who’s better? Who’s a better Indian animated character in the last 30 years? I’ve been to India twice and talked about 'The Simpsons' in front of audiences. That’s why this took me by surprise. I know Indians are not the same as Indian-Americans."
Groening also mentions that the Simpsons' signature yellow skin color has a significant meaning:
"The fact that the Simpsons are yellow and not the color that passes for Caucasian in cartoons, that Mickey Mouse pink, that’s intentional. It’s taking that pink away, and making it yellow. And then taking yellow away from whatever racist connotation that that has had. And that was intentional. As many people have pointed out, it’s all stereotypes on our show. That’s the nature of cartooning. And you try not to do reprehensible stereotypes."
I guess this is what happens when you're on the air for three decades. As they say in The Dark Knight, you can die a hero, or live long enough to become a villain. Season 30 of The Simpsons airs next fall. (And the best seasons are 3-8, don't @ me.)