The Problem With Apu: when representation becomes problematic

In a time when Aziz Ansari, Riz Ahmed and Mindy Kaling are making huge strides for South Asian representation, we still have Apu. “The Problem With Apu”, American comedian Hari Kondabolu’s truTV documentary that details his decades-old frustration with “The Simpsons” character, provides the perfect opportunity to analyse racial representation in entertainment. Characters like Apu inspire bullying, which is why the problem of stereotypes needs to be addressed.

“The Simpsons” is one of the most popular American television exports, and for decades millions of viewers have accepted this as South Asian representation. Racial stereotypes are gross oversimplifications which undermine the struggles of first-generation migrants and refugees. Apu epitomises the stereotypical South Asian; he had an arranged marriage and has eight children. Asian characters are too often portrayed as awkward and desexualised, such as Kal Penn in “Van Wilder”, Kunal Nayyar in “The Big Bang Theory” and Matthew Moy in “2 Broke Girls”.

Surely the inspiring, and often heartbreaking, struggles of minorities make for much more compelling stories than simple and overused stereotypes. My own parents have told me the discrimination they experienced when they moved to Essex in 1995, including a brick thrown through their front window. The unfortunate fact is that an abundance of worse stories exist, so it is baffling that stereotypes still exist too.

In the documentary, Kondabolu discusses blackface with Whoopi Goldberg. ‘Blacking up’ rarely occurs today as casting agents are finally understanding that actors of ethnic minorities do in fact exist. But doesn’t Apu constitute as ‘brownface’? Apu has been played by white voice actor Hank Azaria since the character’s inception. Interestingly, the first script featuring the shop clerk did not identify the character’s race. The documentary reports that Azaria read the lines in a crass Indian accent, and so Apu was born. Despite a number of attempts by Kondabolu, Azaria refused to meet with him to discuss Apu. Even though blackface is less common today, whitewashing is still a major issue in Hollywood.

The 2017 Primetime Emmy Awards saw historic wins for representation as Sterling K. Brown, Riz Ahmed, Donald Glover and Lena Waithe won big. Some would agree that this shows that great progress has been made in representation in television. But Shonda Rhimes, director, writer, producer and creator of a number of shows recognised for their representation of race, sexual orientation and age, called the fanfare “embarrassing”. She was ashamed that “we are still in a place in which we still have to note these moments … I’m hoping people don’t feel satisfied.” Rhimes provides an excellent point: we are not done yet. The unaltered portrayal of Apu is testament to this.

Hari Kondabolu’s comical and insightful documentary ends with a telling point. A 2016 episode of “The Simpsons” was very self-aware of its mistakes with representation. It essentially said: we stereotype everyone, deal with it. This isn’t good enough, and hopefully aspiring entertainers can push against this degrading tide.


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