By Anna Stollman and Wanyan Ma
In the America of today, especially among young people, representation of minorities in the media is something frequently discussed. Do the demographics of film and television reflect real-life demographics? If representation matters, then how does it matter? What is indicative of “good” representation? These questions are ones that comedian and filmmaker Hari Kondabolu seeks to unbox in his new documentary, The Problem With Apu. The titular “Apu” refers to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon of The Simpsons, a character who is of ambiguous Indian origins, runs the local convenience store (although he has a PhD), and is portrayed with an extremely stereotypical accent. That last feature is made even more egregious by the fact that Apu’s voice actor is white. “[Hank Azaria is] a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father” Kondabolu says. “I don’t find Apu offensive, I find him annoying and insulting... It’s insulting to my parents… [and] when that's the only depiction you have, that’s how the world sees you.”
The documentary focuses on the experiences of Kondabolu himself, and other notable figures such as Aziz Ansari, Aasif Mandvi, Kal Penn, and Whoopi Goldberg. It also features several interviews with various people involved in the creation of The Simpsons. Comedians, actors, and public figures of all races discuss Apu and the deeper problem in society that he represents: the otherization of non-white immigrants, as well as the harm that stereotypical and inauthentic representation can cause. Apu not only serves as a stereotypical representation of an “Indian immigrant”, he also is barely fleshed out as a character. His ethnicity is unclear and, at different times, has characteristics that are South Indian, Bengali, Tamil, and Kannadigas.
Is stereotypical representation better than no representation at all? Maybe it was several decades ago, when most minorities ere lucky to have a character similar to them at all. Today, though, lack of representation and lack of authentic, non-stereotypical representation continues to have harmful consequences. In the documentary, several South Asian American actors discuss incidents that have happened to them at auditions: for example, being asked to use the “Apu accent.” If they don’t, they are often not hired for the job. Many other Asian Americans who work in the entertainment industry have also talked about similar experiences, such as Anna Akana when she visited Pitt as a speaker.
Characters like Apu reinforce the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype and are part of the reason that Asian Americans are frequently told their English is surprisingly good or asked where they’re “really from.” Characters like Apu are the reason a foreign Asian actor is more likely to be accepted by American audiences and filmmakers than an Asian American one. Characters like Apu help prolong the existence token minority characters. Characters like Apu are background decorations that seek to add diversity and a sense of inclusion but are really nothing more than flat, animated cardboard. Of this, as well as the typical roles South Asians are typecast into, Kondabolu says, “You're either a cartoon that is weak -- that has no control of their lives -- or you're a terrorist or you're a cab driver... What's that cab driver's experience? What is that convenience store owner's experience? ... That's never relevant because they're props.”
Kondabolu doesn’t condemn The Simpsons as a whole; in fact, he called it one of the greatest shows of all time, saying that it was possible to “still take value from other aspects of it.” He also expresses admiration for figures in the South Asian American community such as Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari. Kaling and Ansari, among many other Asian Americans actors and creators, are trailblazers. They are normalizing the Asian American experience in the media and reclaiming a narrative that has long been told by a demographic it does not belong to.
The documentary, itself a mix of serious and lighthearted content, ends with a bit of black humor on Kondabolu’s part––he is, after all, a comedian first and foremost. He compares The Simpsons to a racist grandfather: “if he can’t change, maybe it’s time for him to die. And you can just remember the good stuff about him.” Let The Simpsons persist and be praised for the good things it did. Let Apu stand as the fossil he is: representative of an older time and ideas we shouldn’t regress to.