Last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary on truTV about the beloved and problematic Simpsons’ character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon called The Problem with Apu. The film explored the racism that informed both the character and white actor Hank Azaria’s portrayal of Apu, and used Apu as a jumping off point to explore the way South Asians have been depicted in American entertainment (hint: not very well until recently!).
It’s impossible to deny that Apu, a crude Indian caricature, is rooted in racism—whether or not his creators realized this—and has informed America’s racist treatment of South Asians. Unless, of course, you’re someone like National Review’s Kyle Smith, who, in his latest piece, has implored that we keep our “Hands Off Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.”
In the piece, Smith appears annoyed that the show chose to address the controversy surrounding Apu in its latest episode by essentially giving a deflated-non answer. In the now-infamous bit, Lisa, alluding to Apu, says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Marge responds, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” to which Lisa adds, “if at all.” For a show so well-known for hitting many issues right on the head with relentless wit, the Apu response amounted to a weak and gutless jab at the show’s critics.
But even that was too much for Smith, who sees absolutely no racism in Apu’s character and also sees no issue with a white man doing an off-color impression of an Indian person. Why? Well, Groundkeeper Willie—who, let us not forget, is a white person being voiced by a white person—gets the same treatment!
Take Groundskeeper Willie, as cruelly funny a sendup of a hot-tempered, hard-drinking Scot as I’ve ever seen. The producers of The Simpsons didn’t hire a Scot to play him (he is voiced by Dan Castellaneta), and it would hardly make the stereotype less barbed if they did.
Smith goes on to claim that Apu isn’t racist because he isn’t lazy or evil.
Hank Azaria provides the voice of Apu, using a comedy facsimile of a South Asian accent. But Apu is a smart, hard-working, and lovable character. The portrayal may be racial, but it isn’t racist. There’s no hatred in it, just good humor.
First of all, a character of color does not have to be villainous to be racist. Lovable characters can be racist. Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong was supposed to lovable. Little Black Sambo was supposed to be lovable. It doesn’t change the facts.
Smith goes on to compare Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Brutus in Julius Caesar to blackface for some reason. And then, to prove that acting and representation is fluid, he goes on to mention women who have played male roles. (One example is Brie Larson’s upcoming portrayal of Captain Marvel, who has frequently been portrayed as a woman going back decades.)
This decision to conflate race and gender and completely ignore the actual, demonstrable dynamics of race in media might be a concerning line of logic to go down if it wasn’t so bluntly dumb. But if that wasn’t enough, Smith then goes on to dismiss the abuse South Asian people have suffered due to Apu’s most iconic line:
Kondabolu complains that Apu’s harmless catchphrase — “Thank you! Come again!” — gets lobbed at South Asians by drunks in the street. Let’s call this what it is: a microcomplaint. Who hasn’t been shouted at by drunks in the street?
I’m assuming “microcomplaint” is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek retort to microagression.
It’s almost astounding to see someone attempt to laugh off the venom of racism that people have experienced in service of protecting a cultural behemoth that truly needs no protection. This man is actually expecting people to put up with racist abuse (while attempting to argue that there is no racism in someone yelling “thank you come again” at brown people) all so that, what, he can happily watch The Simpsons? It hasn’t even been good for a decade.