The Simpsons began as a series of short appearing on The Tracy Ullman Show, a skit show in the style of Carol Burnett. The shorts followed a family that was a bit dysfunctional but in the end loved each other. Imagine if Married…With Children had less annoying people. The shorts did so well that the family got their own Christmas special, which began fleshing out their world. That did well enough that a full series was created, which meant more characters. One of those characters was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the owner of the local convenience store in the town of Springfield, the Kwik-E-Mart, a take on stores like 7-11 (more of a guide than a commentary), but easily the cheap and legally questionable version. 7-11 even ran a promotional campaign for the theatrical movie by becoming Kwik-E-Marts so I guess they didn’t have a problem with the gag.

However, somebody had a problem with Apu. They say the character is a horrible stereotype. This came to a head after Indian comic Hari Kondabolu put out the documentary The Problem With Apu, which showcased the exact problems. I haven’t seen this so I can’t comment. I do know that I really haven’t watched the show in years and even when I did, in the show’s early years, I only watched it occasionally. So to put this in perspective before I give my thoughts here’s a reason v-log by one of my fellow Reviewers Unknown contributors, Joey Tedesco of the Cartoon Palooza. He’s working to get into animation and sets up my thoughts on the whole debate.

The first thing I want to note is that you can see more reviews and commentaries from the Cartoon Palooza at Joey’s YouTube channel. Have to push one of my old colleagues.

The second thing is that most stereotypes have some basis in fact, although more often than not a warped fact based on ignorance and misunderstanding. For example the racist stereotype about black people eating watermelons came from slaves who had a source of both hydration and nourishment because they didn’t want to die. They also hoped that their master wouldn’t have their families separated, have them beaten, and could be escaped to the north when they abolished it, but that misses my point. Somehow being smart and surviving as best they could was somehow turned into a stereotype by greedy, lazy racists. Because if I have to tell you they’re stupid jackasses of questionable morals you didn’t read the last three words in that sentence. Even if it didn’t happen a lot it was somehow perceived that way. (I have no idea where the fried chicken one came from though.) Not every stereotype is as nasty and hateful as that one but stereotypes don’t come into existence without something to trigger it. Nowadays black people can never be shown eating watermelon at all when it’s a stereotype that should be as dead in this country as slavery.

So when did owning a convenience store become an Indian stereotype? When I was a kid it was usually an elderly couple, nice but the husband could be a bit ornery about “them darn kids” when the story needed it. Plus you rarely see a convenience store in fiction that isn’t being robbed, and often the owner being shot. Apu certainly lived up to that but it’s a convenience store stereotype, not exclusive to Indians specifically. However, maybe it’s my own ignorance as a small town Connecticut white man. Since I care so little about stereotypes I never really notice these things. I think one of the stores in my town had Muslim owners at one point and maybe still does, but they’ve all otherwise been white people, or at least had other workers who weren’t of Indian descent. Is bilking people out of money also an Indian stereotype, or just exclusive to Indian convenience store owners? I don’t see Apu as typical of anything, much like anyone else in Springfield. I also don’t hear complaints about the parody Spanish language channel. Or are those not racist stereotypes? Again, I don’t pay attention to those things. They’re just character traits to me until I see it as the rule of the production rather than the exception. Sadly I have seen it as a rule in some shows and movies.

Like Joey said, Apu is also a doctor (a Ph D in computer science), and was considered quite the catch to the local ladies because he could not only make furniture but could decorate a room with it. (Springfield is a…bit weird.) He’s a hard worker, and being a workaholic isn’t an Indian stereotype as far as I know, or at least not exclusive. In Living Color had a recurring segment about a workaholic Jamaican family who looked down on anyone that had less than five jobs, I’m not sure where that came from and it was before the show lost its direction. Yes, he has a hard accent, but he’s an immigrant and naturalized citizen. So was my surgeon, which it’s interesting I understood given certain hard accents are usually difficult for me to understand.

It is disappointing to see a character many like, including some of Indian descent (but as usual the louder voice is the angry one and I don’t have stats on what the ratio is between likers and haters), tossed out without even a proper good-bye. If they aren’t comfortable having the character any more that’s their decision and so be it. They can do what they want. To just have him mysteriously disappear though seems like an insult to the character, like he wasn’t an important part of the show or tie-in media. If the producers really feel the need to take him out of the show, that fine, but at least acknowledge it and give him a proper farewell. I don’t think Apu is supposed to represent all immigrants from India any more that Homer is supposed to represent all nuclear power plant workers, or Chief Wiggims all police officers. Springfield is just a place full of exaggerated characters with varying levels of intelligence, and Apu is one of the smarter. You know, for a guy who tells the robber who just shot him “thank you and come again”.

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About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

One response »

  1. Sean says:

    I live in a town that has a large number people of people from the Indian Subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). Yes, most of the gas stations and convenience stores in my town are operated by people from the Indian subcontinent. A large number of the pizza restaurants in my town are also operated by Indian subcontinental people. But there’s also a lot of people of Indian subcontinental descent in my community who work as engineers and in information technology for various companies such as local insurance corporations. Another interesting thing is that there are many people of Indian, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan descent who go to mass at the Catholic church I attend and we have had 3 Indian priests over the past 16 years I’ve attended this church (this is due to the past Portuguese influence in those places when the Portuguese ruled those areas in South Asia and brought the Catholic religion….India isn’t only Hindu and Muslim). Having Apu as a convenience store owner isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What I think is that many people (both those of Indian descent and not) would like to see characters of Indian descent (cartoon and real actors and actresses in movies and television) who represent a variety of occupations and experiences….not just as a convenience store/gas station owner, motel owner, scientist, and information technology professional. Television, movies, and cartoons often are famous for simplifying things through stereotypes (the Irish cop, the Indian convenience store owner, the Vietnamese nail salon owner, etc.). Most people in general want to see entertainment better reflect the variety of experiences and peoples of America and the world. So some people are finally beginning to say, “why can’t Apu be something else such as a teacher, auto mechanic, or house builder”? In closing, I think of two people I know very well who are of Indo-Trinidadian descent (their ancestors came as indentured laborers to the Caribbean island of Trinidad from India in the 19th century)…..one is a nurse (I met her years ago in a dance club and still have contact with her as a friend) and the other is a history professor and a writer of history books and historical fiction (I met him when I worked as a history teacher and had him as a guest speaker in my classes on many occasions). Writers in entertainment need to stop being lazy and start breaking out of stereotypes when creating new characters.

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