Actor and comedian Hari Kondabolu produced a film in 2017 titled ‘The Problem with Apu’ that explored the offensive nature of the character.
Interestingly, the documentary has a 90% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes but sits on a 31% rating from audiences, suggesting a split in opinion over the severity of Apu’s racial offensiveness. Bill Maher defended the character and challenged the era of ‘wokeness’ back in 2018, arguing that re-watching old content to find things problematic is pointless and unhelpful in itself.
It is important to remember, however, who this character has affected within American society over the last three decades of the show’s existence.
For one, Hank said he spoke to Indian pupils at his son’s school that knew what the term ‘Apu’ meant but had never watched The Simpsons. He described the character’s name as ‘practically a slur at this point’.
Others over the years have said that Apu has encouraged bullying of Indian children, and has perpetuated an exaggerated accent that is inauthentic. As Kondabolu puts it, Apu is ‘a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father’.
Apu’s retirement from television and Hank’s public regret over the voice shows that standards for racial representation have changed, largely for the better. There is an argument to be had that The Simpsons is deeply satirical in nature and pokes fun at all walks of life – but sitcoms and mainstream shows must evolve and grow with the times.
Even if there was never any legitimate intention to offend, the real world consequences for Asian Americans can’t be forever ignored and allowed to continue without the show taking accountability.
The issue extends beyond just The Simpsons, too. Indian characters such as Raj from the Big Bang Theory continued to perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes that are written in dismissive ways well into last decade.
It’s not that characters from different backgrounds can’t be satirized, but there is a line between reductive writing that is harmful to a community and making self-aware, poignant social commentary through humor.
Hank’s apology is simply a sign of things changing – and we should be hopeful for a more diverse and inclusive future of television and scriptwriting moving forward.