Ideas

Brainiac

Social conflict over ‘The Simpsons’

This image released by Fox shows the Apu from the animated series "The Simpsons." The character is the subject of a documentary called “The Problem With Apu,” airing on truTV on Nov. 19. (Fox via AP)
Fox via AP
Apu from “The Simpsons.”

Is Apu an ugly ethnic stereotype? If so, has he always been?

In the long-running Fox animated series “The Simpsons,” Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is the congenial owner of the local Kwik-E-Mart — and a rare depiction of an Indian-American immigrant on network TV. But the character, voiced with a heavy accent by non-Indian actor Hank Azaria, unsettles comedian Hari Kondabolu, who once described Apu as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” In Kondabalu’s documentary, “The Trouble With Apu,” prominent South Asians recall being taunted by bullies who invoke the character.

Last Sunday, the show’s creators responded with a shrug. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” muses Lisa Simpson, the brainy girl who represents the show’s voice of reason, as the focus shifts to a picture of Apu. “What can you do?”

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On social media, the show’s implicit argument went over badly with critics.

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Defenders argued that Apu is more than a stereotype.

Others questioned the premise that nobody objected to the decades-old character until now.