Choose Your Own Adventure

Write your own Simpsons episode—and make it less racist

May 2, 2018

When I was young and the Simpsons were in their prime (Seasons 3-6), they could do no wrong. That was part their fault and part our fault. I laughed at the outsized stereotypes of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel; Groundskeeper Willie, the angry, drunk Scot; Fat Tony, the Italian mobster; Dr. Hibbert, the token Bill Cosby black guy; and of course, Bumblebee Man, the Mexican soap opera buffoon.

And in spite of myself, I still find a lot of that stuff genuinely funny. The show sometimes, though not always, does a good job of making clear its intent is purely satirical. Some jokes, however, haven't aged well, and by "haven't aged well" I mean "have only recently been understood by white people as being super offensive." Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the workaholic Kwik-E-Mart shopkeeper, is a case in point.

A recent documentary called "The Problem with Apu" mainstreamed (i.e., raised white people's awareness) the problem with Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a reductive mockery of Indian-Americans. But the doc points out that the problem with Apu isn't simply with the character himself, which is most definitely racist. The Simpsons make fun of lots of stereotypes, sometimes successfully, sometimes abysmally. The real problem with Apu is a combination, and has as much if not more to do with how mainstream white America embraced him as a representation of Indians. The real problem is that even today the show isn't willing to recognize that, yes, people laughed at Apu, and perhaps at the time we did so innocently, but he's a racist representation and part of the systemic marginalization of South Asians in American pop culture generally.

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The show addressed the criticism head-on in a recent episode, but failed terribly. They presented the criticism as a matter of political correctness run amok, which not only misunderstands the documentary's point, but proves it: Apu wasn't fine when the show started, only becoming a racist stereotype in hindsight as white America slowly awakened to the world around it. No: South Asians felt Apu was racist from the beginning; mainstream America, and the show itself, wasn't aware.

The show's creator, Matt Groening, who looks disappointingly similar to Steven Bannon, blamed "people who love to pretend they're offended" for the criticism. But Hank Azaria, the guy who voices Apu, seems to get it. He told Stephen Colbert, "I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it.”

Simpsons creator Matt Groening

Now Adi Shankar, producer of the Bootleg Universe, is offering you the chance to right —or write—the show's wrongs. Shankar recently announced a crowdsourced solution to the Apu problem: A contest to write a spec script about Apu's character. Shankar says the winning script will become an episode, even if he has to produce it independently. Kanye West, in a rare point of light in his recent abysmal twitter game, tweeted out Shankar's video request.

Shankar explains, "Apu has an accent that no Indian person on this planet has. He has a last name that no Indian person on this planet has." (That's true: It's an anagram of "Pahasanee Mapetilon," the first and last names of a guy one of the Simpsons original writers went to school with.) "This is not a stereotype," he says. "It is a mockery."

But Shankar wants to move from arguments to answers. Here are the guideline's on the contest page, which opens with the phrase, "The Simpsons is sick and this contest is crowdsourcing the cure." The page says they're looking for "a clever way [that[ subverts [Apu], pivots him, intelligently writes him out, or evolves him in a way that takes a mean spirited mockery and transforms him into a kernel of truth wrapped in funny insight aka actual satire." That's pretty open-ended. Seems they're even open to killing him off, if it's done right. It's still the Simpsons, after all.

The contest is open to anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. But Shankar does warn that people without "experience with Indian culture in America may not have the perspective and experience to write well on this topic." It will be judged by South Asians and other minorities who work in entertainment.

The point, it seems to me, is that, sure, we white guys laughed at Apu. And sure, there's some redeeming dimensions to his character, who over time evolved into one of the more sympathetic and insightful Springfieldians, one of the rare voices of reason who can see through the cons and the selfishness and the epidemics of stupidity that define the town.

Still, there's that accent.

Still, there's that convenience store workaholic.

Still, there's the fact that the writers had so meager an understanding of Indian culture (and apparently didn't care to put in the research to disabuse themselves) that there's confusion about where in India Apu comes from, what ethnicity he actually is, what language he speaks, etc. That's straight-up ignorance.

But, as Azaria pointed out, to believe the recent criticism of Apu is the work of social justice warriors grandfathering political correctness into an American classic, you'd have to be consciously writing off the great many South Asian people who have been mocked with Apu's name and ridiculous accent since the character was introduced. The show isn't responsible for how people interpret it, but it is responsible for asserting morality when given a chance.

And now you can draw a new line for the cartoon. Watch "The Problem with Apu". And if you want a crack to write the wrong, or redeem your 14-year-old self, check out the contest here.

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