Comedian Hari Kondabolu titled his 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu. The film explored the damage The Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — a convenience store clerk with an exaggerated Indian accent and other racist stereotypical traits — has done to the public perception of South Asians. On Sunday night, April 8th, The Simpsons finally made reference on the show to the problem Kondabolu pointed out and the conversations it provoked, but instead of offering a solution, or even an apology, the issue was addressed in a way that left many fans disappointed.
In the Simpsons episode, called “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Marge is horrified when she realizes her favorite book from childhood is actually full of offensive stereotypes. To share it with Lisa, she rewrites the story to be “politically correct,” but Lisa ends up pointing out that the edits made the story boring.
In their discussion of why the new version isn’t as good as the original, the conversation quickly takes on added meaning with regard to the Apu controversy:
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge wonders.
“It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” Lisa says. “What can you do?”
A framed photo of Apu pops up just then, and Marge goes on to say “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” Lisa responds, “If at all,” and the two characters look straight into the camera to signal this as the creators’ snarky way to tackle the issue.
Wait, really? Yep, The Simpsons, a show known for its smart, incisive, and often subtle social commentary dealt with a very real problem they created and have been perpetuating for years by essentially saying Apu is now politically incorrect and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Needless to say, this didn’t go over great with some fans.
Kondabolu and others were quick to share their disappointment with The Simpsons online.
And the fact that it was Lisa, the show’s progressive champion and voice of reason, that basically said there’s nothing to be done made it particularly insulting.
Of course, as is always the case when someone critiques a beloved pop culture powerhouse, other people chimed in to say those who are offended are overreacting, being too sensitive, or “crying over a cartoon.”
But dismissing so many people’s lived experiences with a throwaway line about being PC not only insults those fans, it also seems like a lazy way for talented writers and creators to handle the situation. They could have used the show to address how to view beloved movies and TV shows through a critical lens that often reveals problematic, outdated themes, characters, or plotlines.
Molly Ringwald demonstrated just how thoughtfully this can be done just last week in her eye-opening New Yorker essay about how she’s struggled to balance her love of the ’80s John Hughes movies she starred in with their more troubling racial and sexual details. You’d think the Simpsons team could do the same.