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Techly Explains: How did Apu become the centre of a racism controversy?

People all over the internet are exploding in cyber-rage over a new episode of The Simpsons which recently aired in the United States.

First, let’s build some context: in a recent documentary distributed by TruTV, titled The Problem with Apu, Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu heavily criticises the show for spreading harmful stereotypes of South Asians on American television.

In particular, the documentary points the finger at producers for giving Apu an exaggerated, stereotypical Indian accent and picking up a white voice actor – Hank Azaria – to portray the character.

The Simpsons responded to the controversy in the episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”.

In one particular scene, Marge Simpson wants to read Lisa a book she used to love when she was a kid, but at further inspection realised it’s outdated and ridden with racist stereotypes.

Marge takes on the task of editing it to align with modern values, with character updates including a “cisgender girl named Clara” who fights for “horse rescue and net neutrality”.

When Lisa gets hold of Marge’s updated version, she believes the story is “inoffensive” because by making everything “perfect” Marge has stripped Clara of her emotional journey.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asks.

Lisa responds by breaking the fourth wall and turning her face the viewer.

“It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” she says.

She then gestures towards a picture of Apu by her bed, signed with Bart Simpson’s famous catchphrase, “Don’t have a cow” – which, as we all know, basically means “chill”.

Marge then promises, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” to which Lisa replies, deadpan, “If at all.”

Al Jean, the show’s executive producer, predicted the coming maelstrom by posting the following tweet just before the show aired:

Well, he wasn’t wrong.

Kondabolu was one of the first to tweet about the episode, blasting the scene as dismissive and labelling it as “sad”:

“Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.”

He then expanded on his thoughts in a second tweet:

It was open season on Twitter, with people dropping all kinds of digs on the show, calling it “toothless”, and “terrible”.

But just as there were people against the episode, there was a small band of users that dismissed the whole ordeal has overblown. After all, The Simpsons is a show completely based on making fun of almost everybody under the sun.

Speaking to reporters at the Television Critics Association in January, Hank Azaria, who’s been playing Apu since the show’s first season in 1990, weighted on the controversy.

“The Simpsons over the years has been pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people: Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, high school principals, school principals, Italians, you name it,” he said.

“And they take a lot of pride over there in not apologising for any of that. I think, over the years, they’ve done a really good job of being, shall we say, uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful.”

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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