Nothing I love more than white men telling me what’s racist.
Back in November, I wrote about The Problem with Apu, a documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu about Simpsons character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. On Sunday, April 8th, The Simpsons aired “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” and with it, attempted a response to the criticisms laid out by Kondabolu and his documentary.
After sharing a childhood book, The Princess in the Garden with her daughter Lisa, Marge realizes that the book that she grew up loving has not aged well. The story is lined with undertones of colonialism, slavery, and colorism. To the point where there are jokes about whipping (whipping!) darker toned characters. When Marge asks what she’s supposed to do about the book’s disturbing themes, Lisa, the shows intellectual voice and moral conscience for nearly thirty years says, “it’s hard to say, something that started”– rolling her eyes– “decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Marge replies, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” followed up with Lisa saying, “if at all.” All the while, a black and white photo of Apu sits on Lisa’s bedside, reading “Don’t have a cow.”
The Simpsons have had great writing for a long time. They’ve been creative, and fun, and at times, smart. Sure, the last decade has tapered off, but overall it’s an impressive body of work – to stay timely and relevant as media, and television, has gone through a number of changes in response to viewership. But this response was lazy and patronizing, if it was a response at all. Writer Jeff Westbrook did a pretty great job invalidating the criticisms with a simple shrug and a quick slap in the face for good measure.
There’s a couple things about the response that The Simpsons chose to go with. First, using Lisa. Like I mentioned, she has been the show’s intellectual voice for nearly thirty years. Lisa has been spitting knowledge since before my parents were married. To use Lisa, the voice of reason and truth, to put down what is a valid criticism was a “damn.” moment for me. The pseudo-breaking of the fourth wall of both Lisa and Marge was a way for the writers room to speak directly to the viewers – or, more specially, the critics of Apu. And with that, using two of the more intelligent characters as a way to legitimize their own opinions. So I’m just going to go ahead and work with that fact – that the dialogue between Lisa and Marge, is the message that the writers room is directly sending to the viewer. No metaphors, no games. That’s how they’re feeling: attacked, defensive, and smug.
Lisa describes Apu as a character who used to be “applauded and inoffensive,” and is only now “politically incorrect.” Two things here. One, the argument that Kondabolu put out was not about political correctness. It was about racism and representation. It was a call for discussion, not an indictment on the entire show. It seems like the argument being made here is that racism only got bad because of political correctness, when the reality of it is that racism has only been bad, and “political correctness” has made it inconvenient. Second, who was applauding this? Who found this inoffensive? White guys? Yeah, that makes sense.
A number of high-profile brown members of the media spoke about how Apu was used to taunt them for years. Hari Kondabolu himself has professed how his love for The Simpsons feels uncomfortable because of Apu. I can speak from personal experience, I have never found Apu to be someone I applauded or considered inoffensive. I’m sure there are also plenty of brown folk who didn’t care, or weren’t affected by it. But the fact that it warranted a discussion among South Asians in media, a discussion based around the negative impact that Apu had on them, that in and of itself is really the only rebuttal you need. Think about what we applaud white men for. Think about what white men find inoffensive. That bar is super low.
At one point in the episode, Marge jumps ahead to a different part of her childhood book, one where there is a stereotypical Irish character who speaks to Marge (but really, the viewers), saying, “This is the part you deem acceptable?” This argument right here – the argument of “we make fun of everyone” – is something that Kondabolu directly addresses in his documentary. In fact, he spends a chunk of his time addressing and breaking it down. The latter works with presupposition that there is equal representation in media among communities. It works with the presupposition that there are other narratives and characters that can define a community. The character of Apu was the single representation of a South Asian character (important to note that South Asia covers an astonishingly large geographic area, as well as a plethora of identities not restricted to race, ethnicity, culture, language, and religion) that was present on television. Apu had a power to him that few characters, across all shows, have ever had.
When I wrote about Kondabolu’s documentary, I described it as half mockumentary. I said “Don’t take it too seriously. It’s a funny documentary. It’s very self-aware. At no point is it pretending that it isn’t half tongue-in-cheek/half perfectly in-tune to the path of South Asian representation.” The response by The Simpsons is even more tone-deaf if we’re working with the reasonable assumption that this was a response to Hari. There is something particularly unsavory knowing a white writer’s response to outcries on minstrel-ism is to tell people of color that, essentially,“Hey, it is what it is. We make fun of everyone. Maybe don’t take it so personally. Maybe we’ll deal with it, maybe we won’t.”
At the end of the day, the discussion about Apu wasn’t only ever about Apu. It was about representation, and the underlying racism that is encouraged and validated, often without malice or with the outright intention to offend people. The writers on the show had an opportunity to acknowledge this. An opportunity to take accountability for this, and set an example for the industry moving forward. That’s all anyone was really asking for. We know how history works. What’s done can’t be undone. But that doesn’t leave a single alternative of, “it is what it is.” But instead, they just wanted to tell us:
Don’t have a cow. (Read: fuck you).