In Defence of Apu
|Above: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.|
I recently heard about the controversy surrounding the Indian character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from the longrunning American cartoon show The Simpsons. A documentary by the Asian American comic Hari Kondabolu has triggered a wider discussion by the forces of political correctness on whether the character is a "racist caricature".
I would agree that Apu is a caricature, but not a racist one. I'm sure the makers of The Simpsons did not create him out of bigotry towards Indians; such an idea is preposterous and without supporting evidence, especially as Apu is so likeable. In the plot of one episode I remember he is portrayed as an underdog for being an illegal immigrant. What racist would write that? Apu is just an ethnic stereotype, and plenty of ethnic stereotypes have appeared on the show. My own nation was parodied relentlessly when the Simpsons came to Great Britain. The French have also been parodied (The Simpsons having come up with the now-popular phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"). The Japanese and Russians too. And just look at the uncivilised, violent, poor, alcoholic Scottish character Groundskeeper Willie! And the gluttonous Augustus Gloop-like German Üter. Italians are only ever portrayed in The Simpsons as flamboyant restauranters or violent mobsters. I do not know that I could name a nationality The Simpsons has not poked fun at. Is there anything wrong or strange about this? Not at all! So why all the fuss about Apu?
A year or so ago I watched an episode of It Was Alright In The 70s, one of those television shows that fiercely mocks video clips from a particular historical decade, in this case, the 1970's. While some of their mockery is undoubtedly justified, some of it is not, and I wonder what a similar show made forty years from now will have to say about the 2010's. Anyway, one of the things which was poked fun at about the 1970's was a clip from the era in which an Indian band were playing, and a comedian, in order to tell them to stop, and for a cheap laugh, shouted "poppadom!". It Was Alright In The 70s was outraged by this, but I wonder. Imagine a French band on stage today, and a comedian shouting "baguette!" in order to shut them up. I'm sure we wouldn't find that offensive at all. We may indeed find it funny. But what's the difference? Both are banterous jokes about particular nationalities. The reason some people today find the former offensive, but not the latter, is because Indians are, by and large, a different colour. If Indians were white, there wouldn't be any such fuss about Apu, just as there has never been any fuss about Groundskeeper Willie - because Scotsmen are white, just like the creators of The Simpsons.
It is the legacy of racism which makes folks so adverse to light-heartedly making fun of peoples of any other colour. Making fun of nationalities of one's own colour is fine, but as soon as one parodies an Indian or an Arab, people somehow suspect racism. It's quite sad, really, that our society should still be so paranoid. When racism is truly something of the distant past, and skin colour is treated little differently to eye or hair colour or any other unimportant pigmentation, then white Americans will be able to poke fun at light-skinned Scotsmen and dark-skinned Indians alike, without anyone batting an eyelid. Sadly, with a new wave of both left and right-wing identity politics sweeping in to replace the old racialism of the past, I am now in doubt as to whether this day will ever come.