Recently, The New Times announced that Apu may be removed as a character due to the continued controversy about his depiction as an Indian stereotype. The discussion was provoked by the 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu where comedian Hari Kondabolu addresses Apu’s stereotypical nature and portrayal as a South Asian character. Though a valid concern and criticism it fails to consider that Apu’s characterization is consistent with the bulk of Simpsons characters and he was one of the more evolved characters present in the show.
Apu Is A Noble Character
Apu comes to America as an illegal immigrant from India looking for a higher education in the field of technology. In episode twenty-three of season seven, he received full citizenship through the proper means. He’s also depicted as one of the smartest and most hardworking members of the cast. He has a doctorate, a majority of the women want to be with him, he has a lovely wife and children, he appreciates listening, he studies his faith, and he’s a vegan who recognizes others’ decision to eat meat. He does speak with an accent and own a convenience store but those are traits of many Indian immigrants. They aren’t inherently insidious traits for a character to have and Apu hasn’t been wholly depicted as being perceived as negative because of it. Being a multilingual business owner along with all of the other traits listed above was shown to make him one of the most coveted bachelor’s in Springfield in the seventh episode of season nine.
Apu Has Imperfections
In the documentary, Kondabolu makes the assertion that Apu is depicted as weak and servile to most of the other characters of the show. This is a show that has an elementary school groundskeeper who routinely threatens to murder children, an alcoholic dad who chokes his son for minor indiscretions, and a bartender with a hair trigger for rage induced by a child’s prank calls. Taking this into account Apu being level headed and good at his job in the service industry may come off as servile to a person with a cynical worldview. However, Apu has displayed the full spectrum of emotions but he’s genuinely a considerate man with a pleasant disposition. This is one of my favorite moments from the earlier seasons that shows Apu getting uncharacteristically annoyed and pissed while at work before catching himself to remain in character. This shows us that Apu, like many of us, very likely talks himself out of snapping on stupid people while he’s at work. In this five-minute compilation video, he is shown to display rage, regret, flippancy, sorrow, annoyance, sarcasm, jubilance, and deceit. Those clips are all from just a handful of episodes but they show the audience Apu is layered and packed with nuance as a character. Seriously, watch that video, it’s great, this article will be here when you get back. Here’s the link again.
The “problem” with Apu is that he’s a character on an outdated show that has seen a constant deterioration in quality and viewership for over a decade.
The Simpsons Has Become Stale
You may have noticed all of those clips and most of my points have come from earlier seasons. There’s a reason for that. I, like many Americans, have stopped watching The Simpsons. As of season twenty-nine, the show’s viewership is a ghost of its former glory, with a measly four million viewers in comparison to ranking in over 20 million views per episode in it’s earlier seasons. The show doesn’t have the cultural relevance or impact that it once had. Making a documentary about a show that is being pushed further and further into obscurity is reaching for the lowest hanging fruit. The Simpsons has been slammed for dull writing and inadequate character development for the better part of a decade. That’s the issue we’re witnessing. I’ll make the assumption that Kondabolu’s complaints are primarily rooted in the current depiction of Apu because I honestly have no knowledge of his current actions. That’s because all of the characters have slowly fallen victim to a popular troupe called Flanderization.
F L A N D E R I Z A T I O N
Flanderization is the act of progressively exaggerating a single trait (or set of traits) of a character until it overtakes all other characterization. This is troupe that is present in all forms of media and storytelling and the term originates from Ned Flanders. Ned Flanders is the neighbor of the main family in the series. Flanders was initially depicted as a considerate neighbor and attentive father, with his devout nature simply being that he willingly attended and paid attention in church. His involvement with the church was used to show his religion gave him a genuine calling to be a nice person in contrast to Homer who was loud, brash, and abusive to his children. Homer’s dislike of Flanders was Homer’s character flaw. Flanders had more wealth and a peaceful home life but he never looked down on Homer or anyone else because of it. Now, the religious aspect of his character is the primary, if not the only, aspect of his character to the point of being a hardcore bigot and telling others that they are going to Hell. From Flanders, we were given multiple characters that were devolved into one character trait.
The Simpsons No Longer Has Characters
Aside with Flanders, there are copious main and secondary characters that have become walking tropes and stereotypes.
- Homer a dim-witted but well-meaning father is now an impulsive man-child who throws tantrums on a regular basis.
- Bart a mischievous boy with little regard for authority but a definite conscience to ultimately do what’s right has become a comedic sociopath who will harm and risk the lives of others for his personal amusement.
- Marge was a thoughtful and level-headed mother but has been transmuted into a Stepford wife and an absolute pushover.
- Martin Prince was a student who was simply smarter than Lisa but his creative side was magnified to the point of being portrayed as a flamboyant character.
- Waylon Smithers went from a dependable assistant and yes-man to Mr. Burns to a closeted homosexual man who is obsessively infatuated with his boss.
- Moe the simple bartender with cheap watered down booze is now a legitimately atrocious man and suicidal registered sex offender.
- Principle Seymore Skinner was a tough no-nonsense Vietnam veteran that has transformed into a mama’s boy and later revealed to be a 40-year-old virgin.
Scrutinizing The Simpsons Is Petty
Prior I declared my belief that comedian Hari Kondabolu used his documentary The Problem With Apu to reach for the lowest hanging fruit. In the film, he asserted his desire for Apu to receive more screentime and for Hank Azaria to step down as the voice of Apu. Azaria being a Jewish man voicing a South Asian character has lead to valid accusations of brownface. Given these details along with Kondabolu’s comedic career possibly he hopes to become the voice of Apu. This entire situation puts the Simpsons’ showrunner Al Jean in a troublesome place, either remove Apu or give him added screentime to explore the dimensions and layers of his character. Both of these options leave the show open to acquiescence to the whims of future complaints leveraged against their other characters. If Kondabolu presented a character from Bojack Horseman, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Steven Universe, or any other currently loved series as problematic that would be provocative and groundbreaking. But he didn’t. He chose to tell us that the Simpsons, a show we all have moved on from, has a character who has a stereotypically one-dimensional personality. We know. We already stopped watching it.
The Problem With The Simpsons
The “problem” with Apu is that he’s a character on an outdated show that has seen a constant deterioration in quality and viewership for over a decade. The Simpsons has ceased to give us the satirical social commentary that we appreciated. It’s no longer a show with vibrant and interesting characters. The problem is that the Simpsons has ceased writing characters and has proceeded to write caricatures.