The Problem with The Simpsons

Last year, a documentary entitled The Problem with Apu explored the ramifications of the character Apu on the long-running animated comedy TV show The Simpsons. Apu is the embodiment of many shallow and negative stereotypes of Indian males, especially those who have migrated to America. And as the documentary showed, the character, which is really more of a caricature, has directly contributed to furthering those negative stereotypes.

In defense of the The Simpsons, the show does make fun of everyone. There is even a Scottish groundskeeper, Willie, who exhibits many of the negative stereotypes associated with Scots. And while I have no evidence, I am confident that many Scots in America get called Groundskeeper Willie, just as The Problem with Apu documented Indians being called Apu.

Some have argued that there is a difference, in that there are so few portrayals of Indians in American popular culture, let alone favorable portrayals. Of course, that has been countered with the claim that this is not the fault of The Simpsons, as they have no control over that.

The Response
Last Sunday night, in the show’s 633rd episode, The Simpsons finally responded to the criticism of its Apu character. During the episode, Marge Simpson read a bedtime story to her daughter Lisa, which they found problematic because the book contained a number of negative and downright offensive stereotypes. Marge confessed that she didn’t know what to make of it. And then she and Lisa turned to look at a framed portrait of Apu on the nightstand, beside the bed, before turning to look directly into the camera (keep in mind that this is a cartoon, an animated show), and Lisa said, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

First of all, I find that response more offensive than the negative caricature that is Apu. I am sure many said the same thing about slavery, noting that they didn’t create it, that it started long ago, and was long considered a useful institution (except, of course, by those who were enslaved) before being deemed “politically incorrect” in modern parlance. Such things are always considered to be “applauded and inoffensive” – even “useful” – by the perpetrators. Those who created the show simply chose to embrace the applause it received and ignore those who declared it offensive.

As for “politically incorrect,” that’s become a popular catchphrase used to dismiss the fact that you have been exposed for doing something wrong (lest we forget that the show airs on Fox, a television network that seems to be a big fan of this cop out). Promoting racial stereotypes is not bad in a political sense. It is simply bad – in all senses.

Only those seeking to dismiss the use of such stereotypes for their own gains or entertainment will pretend that this is somehow a political decision, as opposed to moral one. After all, as the Bible says, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” In other words, do to others what you want them to do to you, which is also known as the Golden Rule. And that is why it is morally incorrect, not politically incorrect. And I’m a fricken atheist.

The Solutions
As for the question of what can they do, whether that be Marge and Lisa or those who write and produce the show, the answer should be obvious. It’s an animated series, so they can do pretty much anything they want. Apu could be transformed into a less offensive character. He could move away, or be killed. After all, he is not even a core character. They could even introduce another Indian character, who is a more positive role model – and perhaps voiced by an Indian actor, as Apu is voiced by a white actor pretending to have an Indian accent.

After Lisa’s statement, Marge said, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” And Lisa followed that with, “If at all.”

Not only is this totally out of character, especially for Lisa, but it leaves you wondering if they do plan on taking action – real, legitimate, and constructive action – or if that brief and insensitive interlude was in fact the only action they plan on taking. And much has been made about the fact that the show used its arguably two most sympathetic characters, Marge and Lisa Simpson, to deliver this response. After all, Lisa would be the first to boycott the show for the Apu issue. Maybe it might have made more sense coming from Apu himself, but I am sure that would have gone horribly wrong.

The Dilemma
Unfortunately, the problem is also the excuse. The show is a collection of negative stereotypes. There’s the clueless father, a white male working-class imbecile. The doting mother who not only tolerates it all but enables so much of it through her spinelessness. The irrepressible brat of a son, who has done more to champion a low GPA than the election (albeit disputed) of George W. Bush. The naive, self-righteous, and anxiety-ridden liberal daughter. Not to mention the bumbling school principal, nerdy scientist, self-absorbed journalist, foolish evangelical neighbor, geeky comic bookstore owner, evil white male captain of industry, fat cop with a pig-like nose, etc.

The point is that if you tone down Apu, you would have to tone down all these other characters. Evangelicals could be just as upset with the portrayal of Ned Flanders, the overly zealous Jesus freak that lives next door. After all, it’s not like there are a lot of other portrayals of evangelicals on mainstream TV. And come to think of it, when was the last time you saw a white male father portrayed as anything but a buffoon on a sitcom? And yet there are a lot of white male fathers out there, including many who are intelligent, hardworking, thoughtful, and genuinely care about their family. But you rarely see one on TV.

The problem may be that the people who create this show – and most others on TV – live in places where they are exposed to a wide variety of people, so they may be deaf to such concerns. I grew up in a small town, like the fictional setting of this show. We did not have any Indian kids in my school. In fact, there were no Asians, let alone Indians, in the entire town. And had I been born in 1989, the year The Simpsons debuted, I would have grown up with Apu shaping my understanding of what Indians are like.

However, in fairness to those who created the show, this certainly was not their intention, nor could they have foreseen it. They were just trying to make people laugh. And not just laugh at others, but even the characters – the caricatures – who most closely resembled themselves. The people behind The Simpsons couldn’t have imagined that those caricatures would be on television for nearly 30 years. Nor that they would become so wildly popular, etching themselves not only into American culture but also being broadcast around the world.

The Responsibility
But with such success comes a degree of responsibility. And once you become woven into the fabric of our culture the way The Simpsons has, you need to recognize the impact that the show has – and can have – on that culture. I think the TV show MASH did a good job of growing up – and into a more responsible, culturally aware role – over the years. Although there were times when I felt it got a little too preachy as it evolved, MASH remained one of the funniest shows on TV.

Laughs are essential, but they do not always have to come at the expense of others. And if the writers of The Simpsons are really as good as I believe they are, I think they can do better. Rather than hide behind false pleas of what can we do and political correctness, I hope they step up and do something magnificent. Or at least funny.