Not Politically Incorrect, Just Wrong: The Simpsons' Problematic Response to its Apu Problem
The Simpsons is my favorite television show of all time. I think it’s the single greatest and most important and most influential TV show ever created. So, out of respect for its incredible legacy, I stopped watching about fifteen years ago. I made an exception for the episode that featured The Onion and The A.V Club, organizations I used to be involved with, but other than that I haven’t watched a new episode in well over a decade.
Yet I was still mortified to discover that the show finally addressed the controversy regarding Apu being a wildly stereotypical depiction of an Indian-American in a way that was more or less universally and rightly condemned as clueless and tone-deaf.
Speaking obliquely of the Apu controversy, Lisa Simpson, the show’s token Progressive and a character who obviously would err on the side of cultural sensitivity, says in the infamous clip, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
The “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive” line reminds me of the many times in Louis CK’s apology where he says that his actions were particularly offensive considering how much the women he masturbated in front of admired and respected him.
Apologies are not a time for boasting. We want genuine contrition, not reminders of how much people looked up to you or praised you before your fall from grace. The other big problem with The Simpsons’ apology is that it’s not an apology. At all. It’s a clammy, defensive, unconvincing excuse that ends on an additionally hapless and pathetic note when Marge, once again speaking to the audience more than to another character says, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” to which Lisa adds “If at all.”
Instead of forthrightly addressing the criticisms, the show is throwing up its hands and saying, “Eh, what can you do? It was okay at the time, and we certainly can’t be asked to change or evolve because ideas about representation and cultural sensitivity have evolved tremendously over the three decades we’ve been on the air.”
When you are in a position of power and influence, as The Simpsons writers and producers are, and people who have historically been oppressed, stereotyped and ridiculed tell you that your words and actions cause them pain then you have a moral responsibility to listen to them—really listen, not just superficially—and then act on what you’ve learned.
Change and growth can be hard but they’re also essential. The Simpsons stubbornly refusing to change with the times feels like a cop-out that detracts immeasurably from the show’s incredible legacy. I don’t just love The Simpsons, or love what it was. I believed in The Simpsons. It spoke profound satirical truths. But its response to the Apu criticism is some straight-up myopic bullshit.
During one of his recent shows "Weird Al" Yankovic stopped his performance of “Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White” to apologize for the song using a term for little people that has come to be seen as a slur. Al wasn’t defensive. He didn’t invoke the hoary specter of “political correctness” or act like he was being unfairly persecuted. Nope, he acknowledged that a word that was considered okay to use at the time of the song’s writing had become very not okay for very good reasons and respected that. The Simpsons can learn from his example.
I’m not sure how The Simpsons can dig themselves out of the deep hole they find themselves in but acknowledging that they fucked up and really listening to its critics would be a fine place to start.
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