The Simpsons addresses Apu racial stereotype criticism

A new episode of The Simpsons has addressed claims that its Indian character Apu is a racial stereotype. Convenience store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has been part of the animation series since 1990, and is voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria) who puts on an Indian accent.

During the episode, which aired on 9 April, Lisa and Marge address the accusations – but some viewers have found the response insufficient.  

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In 'No Good Read Goes Unpunished’, Marge and Lisa indirectly discuss the controversy around the characterisation. During the episode, Marge reads Lisa her "favourite book ever” but is aghast to find that it’s full of racial commentary and stereotypes. She changes the story to make it politically correct, but Lisa objects.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asks. Lisa turns and talks directly to the camera: "It's hard to say. Something that started a long time ago decades ago, that was applauded and was inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?"

The camera then pans to a photograph of Apu on Lias’s bedside table, which is signed: "Don't have a cow - Apu".

Marge response, saying: ”Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”

"If at all," adds Lisa, with the pair staring directly at the camera. 

The Problem with Apu

Last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu criticised the character for propagating stereotypes of South Asians stereotypes in a feature-length comedic cultural exposé, The Problem with Apu. 

In an interview with the BBC, Kondabolu explained that the character was problematic because he’s defined by his job and how many children he has in his arranged marriage.

Kondabolu was among the first to respond to Sunday’s episode, labelling the scene “sad”.

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He continued: “I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”

Other people have highlighted the irony of Lisa delivering the lines.

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However, others have pointed out that most of the characters in The Simpsons are parodies and based on stereotypes. 

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Questions for character designers

The debate raises questions about representation for character designers, and opens a larger conversation about the characterisation of marginalised groups.

For the Simpsons animators, as Marge herself says, the immediate question is what to do with a 30-year-old character that has become politically incorrect.

The makers have not commented publicly. 

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Julia Sagar
Editor-in-chief retail

Julia is editor-in-chief, retail at Future Ltd, where she works in e-commerce across a number of consumer lifestyle brands. A former editor of design website Creative Bloq, she’s also worked on a variety of print titles, and was part of the team that launched consumer tech website TechRadar. She's been writing about art, design and technology for over 15 years.