Last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu released The Problem With Apu, a short documentary exploring The Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Specifically, the doc focused on how the character’s thick accent — provided by white voice actor Hank Azaria — and stereotypical qualities resonate in a culture that’s has grown since the show’s inception to recognize and call out racial caricatures. “Everything with Apu is like this running joke. And the running joke is that he’s Indian,” Kondabolu told The New York Times last year.
Last night, the long-running animated series addressed Kondabolu’s critiques directly. In the episode, titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”, Marge reads Lisa a book called The Princess in the Garden, which has been edited by the family matriarch to be as unobjectionable as possible. “It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character out of a book, but now it’s as inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati,” Marge says.
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Later, as she and Lisa debate the book, Lisa addresses the TV audience directly, saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” We’re then treated to a framed picture of Apu with the line, “Don’t have a cow!”, inscribed on it.
Marge responds, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”
“If at all,” Lisa replies.
Watch the scene below.
In addition to not being funny at all, the response completely misses the point of Kondabolu’s critique. “Since she’s already evolved she doesn’t really have an emotional journey to complete,” Lisa says of the princess in the story, which might be a valid point in terms of writing characters to have no flaws, but says nothing to the concerns of having a white actor voice a character that’s built on racial stereotypes. The writers seem to be taking a complex issue regarding race and representation and throwing it under the umbrella of “political correctness,” which has become the laziest of catch-alls.
Kondabolu responded on Twitter:
Many critics of color also bristled at the writers having Lisa, the show’s voice of progressive thought, deliver the line:
The cast and crew of The Simpsons seem rather split on the whole issue. Azaria told TMZ last year, “I think the documentary made some really interesting points and gave us a lot of things to think about and we really are thinking about it.” Meanwhile, Al Jean, one of the show’s original writers and its showrunner since 1998, retweeted messages calling the criticism of Apu a “non-issue.”
Whatever the case, Kondabolu sums it up thusly: