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.

Thought of the Day: Cultural Appropriation

Basketball bores the shit out of me. But I have to tip my hat, assuming that is something distinct to my own culture and not some vile act of appropriation which will garner me condemnation from some other culture who has laid claim to hat tipping, to Jeremy Lin. Lin is a basketball player from California whose parents immigrated from Taiwan. And this season he took to the courts sporting some fairly ridiculous-looking dreadlocks.

Kenyon Martin, a retired basketball player who was born in Michigan and raised in Dallas, made headlines when he called out Lin for his new hairstyle, accusing him of “cultural appropriation.” Apparently, adopting styles that one group of people has claimed as its own is a bad thing. Which seems odd to me, because I’d think a group of people who have endured a history of abuse and oppression would actually take some comfort and perhaps even a little pride in what Martin claims is Lin’s desire to be a part of that group. I would think that Martin would celebrate the fact that Lin and others are openly embracing what they feel are traits distinct to his culture.

Lin certainly touched on this point in his initial response, noting that both players are members of racial minorities and suggesting that “…the more we appreciate each other’s cultures, the more we influence mainstream society.” He also astutely called out Martin’s hypocrisy, pointing out that Martin has Chinese tattoo’s. Clearly Martin had no problem appropriating Lin’s culture, yet was quite upset when Lin apparently appropriated his.

As the debate played out publicly, few have acknowledged the racist undertones in Martin’s remarks. For example, he referred to Lin as “this boy” and “these people.” Imagine the outcry if Lin had referred to Martin in such terms? It makes me wonder if David Duke should be angry with Martin for his cultural appropriation of terms deeply rooted in white Southern racist culture?

It’s also important to note that Lin is not a racist, and therefore his adoption of a hairstyle that’s widely considered to be a “black hairstyle” is not meant to mock or offend. This is not a case of a Klansman who is spending $50 a month in tanning salon so his skin can look less white. Lin plays in the National Basketball Association, where 74 percent of his colleagues are black. He has been surrounded by blacks and black culture for most of his life. And getting dreadlocks is evidence of how much he has positively embraced that culture.

For his part, Lin penned an insightful piece about his journey to dreads. Clearly his intent was to sport a hairstyle that was popular among his teammates and friends. Which reinforces my belief that anyone who supports black culture should celebrate Lin’s decision to get dreads as a positive affirmation of that culture (if indeed that’s what dreads represent, but more on that in a moment).

First, let’s acknowledge that hair is more than just hair in black culture. The afro has been seen as a black-positive hairstyle, much like dreadlocks, because it’s seen as more “natural.” Conversely, straight and smooth hair, often artificially created through a nasty-ass process known as “relaxing” it, has been seen as Uncle Tomish, trying to emulate white culture. And if you are unfamiliar with all of this, I highly recommend watching Chris Rock’s documentary on the subject.

But back to dreadlocks, their origins, and what they may or may not represent. This hairstyle was made popular by Jamaicans, specifically the Rastafarians, which leaves me wondering if Martin’s family comes from Jamaica. If not, then shouldn’t he be apologizing to Jamaicans – or at least the Rastafarians – for cultural appropriation? And to that end, why hasn’t Martin called-out other basketball players who are guilty of cultural appropriation, being non-Jamaicans who have appropriated the dreadlock hairstyle from Jamaican culture, such as Chris Bosh, Marquis Daniels, Kenneth Faried, Brain Grant, Latrell Sprewell, and Etan Thomas? Has he held his tongue because they are black? And, if so, does that make Martin a racist?

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not any of those aforementioned basketball players are third- or fourth-generation descendants from Jamaica, or perhaps Rastafarians, in which case the hairstyle would indeed be a part of their cultural heritage. Which raises the question of how much of a connection does one need to a particular culture to justify their alleged appropriation? And since science tells us we are all descendants from Africa, doesn’t that make this whole discussion kind of silly?

I don’t understand cultural appropriation. For starters, what specifically defines a culture? And what about distinctions within what’s presumed to be a distinct culture? Are there not cultural distinctions between black Americans, black Africans, and black Caribbeans? And, if so, are they allowed to borrow freely from one another simply because of the level a melanin in their skin?

Is there a white culture? And if so, are there things that non-whites are not allowed to appropriate from it? For example, should black women be allowed to straighten their hair, dye it blond, or wear wigs that achieve the same affect, given that those hairstyles are more traditionally associated with white culture? Should there be an outcry against blacks who wear Timberland boots and North Face jackets, both of which were initially popularized by whites?

Making these kinds of distinctions can get very confusing for those who complain about cultural appropriation. For example, is a white person not allowed to use a touch-tone phone, caller I.D. and call waiting because they were invented by a black woman? And is a black person then not allowed to use any phone because it was invented by a bunch of white guys, one of whom went on to create the lab in which the aforementioned black woman made her inventions? And would the latter fact negate her inventions because they were made in a lab created by white culture?

Given the world we live in, where cultures have been living together for ages, what makes something truly unique to a given culture? Koreans are believed to have invented pants, so does that mean the rest of us are appropriating Korean culture when we wear them? Should we apologize for our pants?

What makes such things distinct to one culture and not another? Is it because someone from that culture created them, or because someone from that culture borrowed it from another and then popularized it through their own culture? And who do you need to ask permission from before you “appropriate” something? Is it simply a question of acknowledging its origins and respecting them? If so, what exactly constitutes acknowledgement and respect?

Finally, is this really about culture, or is it about race? Are these claims of cultural appropriation nothing more than a backlash against years of deep-seated racism, or a way to reinforce racial stereotypes? Are they intended to be a form of cultural racism, or is that just an unpleasant byproduct of trying to hold onto cultural identity on an increasingly assimilating world?

As you can see, I have a lot of questions about cultural appropriation. And there don’t seem to be a lot of clear answers to any of them. But perhaps the most poignant question of all is whether or not we want to be drawing more lines between one another.

I, for one, have seen far too much racism, hatred, and bigotry in my lifetime – based on everything from race, religion, culture, and nationality. And it mystifies me why anyone, particularly someone who has likely endured a lifetime of overt and institutional oppression, would want to foster more of that in our society by trying to use something as simple as a hairstyle to build even more boundaries between us.