Friday 18 January 2019

Pat Stacey: The Simpsons is so out of touch it's actually sad

The character of Apu in The Simpsons
The character of Apu in The Simpsons

Pat Stacey

Plenty of different commentators have used plenty of different words to describe the latest episode of The Simpsons, which features a belated response to the controversy over its Indian character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

It’s been called disappointing, insulting, lame, lukewarm, flippant, toothless, cynical, frustrating and tone-deaf. Pick any of those you like, because they’re all bang on the money.

On the off-chance you’re not familiar with the full story — although if you’ve picked up a newspaper or been online since Sunday, when the episode went out in the US, it’s been virtually impossible to avoid — it goes like this:

Late last year, Indian-American stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu made a documentary film called The Problem with Apu, in which he explores the troublesome nature of the character.

He talks about how, when he was a kid, the owner of Springfield’s germ-infested Kwik-E-Mart was the only Indian immigrant character on American television. Apu, with his exaggerated accent and “funny” voice (courtesy of a white actor, Hank Azaria) was used by white kids as a tool to mock and bully him. Kondabolu interviews other Indian-Americans who had the same experience.

Read more: Here's how The Simpsons responded to the Apu controversy 

Kondabolu’s documentary, which I’ve seen, is not some dry, humourless polemic. It’s funny, insightful and thought-provoking. Nor is it an attack on The Simpsons.

Kondabolu has always loved the show (still does, in fact), yet he’s always been troubled by the Abu stereotype (“a white person’s perception of an Indian character”) and uses his misgivings as a doorway to a wider discussion of the representation of Asian-Americans on screen.

The documentary’s release last December sparked a welcome debate in America, but it’s taken The Simpsons five months to respond. The episode, called ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’, is on Sky 1 tomorrow night (but let’s not pretend plenty of people haven’t already seen it online).

Marge is delighted to find a second-hand copy of a beloved childhood book called The Princess in the Garden. But when she starts reading it to Lisa, she realises it’s full of ancient racial stereotypes.

Marge edits out or rewrites all the offensive parts so that the heroine becomes “a cisgender girl” who fights for “horse gender and net neutrality”. Lisa is unimpressed by the sanitised version. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” asks Marge.

Lisa then breaks the fourth wall and robotically intones: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

Cut to Lisa’s bedside locker, where sits a photograph of Apu, bearing Bart Simpson’s famous catchphrase: “Don’t have a cow!”

“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” says Marge flatly, and Lisa adds: “If at all.”

And that’s it. That’s all, folks. It’s a strangely sour, dismissive, even faintly contemptuous response. The message seems to be: look, the show has always been politically incorrect about everyone, so what’s your problem with Apu? Get over it!

The trouble with this is that a) political incorrectness is not what Kondabolu was criticising anyway, and b) Apu is the only recurring character (he’s appeared in roughly one-third of the episodes) who’s presented as a racial and cultural stereotype.

There are several recurring African-American characters in The Simpsons, including Dr Hibbert and Homer’s workmate Carl. Would the writers dare to create a black character who fits the appalling racist stereotype that once prevailed in large parts of America?

You can be damn sure they wouldn’t. The show would be off the air in a heartbeat. So why should it be okay to do it to the show’s sole Indian character?

If I had to pick a single word to describe the episode (which, by the way, is a woefully weak one anyway), it would be “sad”: sad that what used to be the smartest, sharpest, funniest show on television is so far behind the curve, so spectacularly out of touch, that its makers don’t even seem to realise there’s a problem, let alone how to tackle it.

Maybe this is what happens when you stay on TV for 30 years, long after inspiration has dried up.



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