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April 2018, Week 3

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 		 [ In “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the 633rd episode
of The Simpsons, the longest-running scripted series in TV history
finally acknowledged that there is something problematic about the way
it has portrayed Apu Nahasapeemapetilon for the past three decades. ]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 THE SIMPSONS’ APU RESPONSE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE ON THE AIR
FOR TOO LONG  
[https://portside.org/2018-04-15/simpsons-apu-response-what-happens-when-youre-air-too-long]


 

 Jen Chaney 
 April 9, 2018
Vulture
[http://www.vulture.com/2018/04/simpsons-apu-episode-is-what-happens-when-youre-on-air-too-long.html]


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 _ In “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the 633rd episode of The
Simpsons, the longest-running scripted series in TV history finally
acknowledged that there is something problematic about the way it has
portrayed Apu Nahasapeemapetilon for the past three decades. _ 

 A photo of Apu and Lisa Simpson, who would totally be in favor of
finding solutions to the Simpsons’ Apu problem, Fox 

 

In “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the 633rd episode of _The
Simpsons_, the longest-running scripted series in TV history finally
acknowledged that there is something problematic about the way it has
portrayed Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, owner of the Kwik-E-Mart, for the
past three decades. Yet at the same time, the show managed to continue
taking no responsibility for its tone-deafness on the matter. If the
episode didn’t quite do what Bart Simpson would have done in season
five, episode 12 — i.e. say “I didn’t do it
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtVteemLin4]” — it certainly
implied that nothing can be done to make Apu less of a stereotype now.

The scene that addressed Apu prompted a lot of blowback online today,
including some, not surprisingly, from Hari Kondabolu
[https://twitter.com/harikondabolu/status/983362459162390529], the
comedian and maker of the 2017 TruTV documentary _The Problem With
Apu_, which thoughtfully considers the ramifications of Apu’s often
one-dimensional depiction. But last night’s _Simpsons_ installment
doesn’t just underline the issues that still surround Apu. It
magnifies the struggles that _The Simpsons _faces as it nears its
fourth decade of existence on Fox.

For context, here’s what happened in the episode. While Marge
attempts to introduce Lisa to one of her favorite books from
childhood, _The Princess in the Garden_, she realizes that it is
filled with racist and horribly regressive language. Embarrassed and
guilt-ridden, she has a dream in which she speaks to the book’s
author, Heloise Hodgson Burwell, and gets the green light to revise
the text. Marge does a rewrite and turns the story into the tale of a
“cisgender girl” who is fighting for wild-horse rescue and net
neutrality. “It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character
out of a book, but now it’s as inoffensive as a Sunday in
Cincinnati!” she says, while Lisa notes disapprovingly that in the
new version, the protagonist can’t go on an emotional journey
because she’s already “evolved” from the very beginning.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asks. (Either don’t read
Lisa the book, or read her the book as is and discuss why the
problematic things in it are problematic? I don’t know, these are
just ideas.)

That’s when the conversation turns to Apu. “Something that started
decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically
incorrect. What _can_ you do?” Lisa asks. Then she looks at a
signed photo of Apu that’s sitting on her nightstand.

“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge responds
cryptically.

“If at all,” adds Lisa. Then mother and daughter stare into the
camera blankly as if they’re being held hostage by their own
cartoon.

 [https://twitter.com/soham_burger/status/983200703660351488]

Later in the episode, Marge visits Springfield University to speak to
two English literature professors and Heloise Hodgson Burwell stans
who argue that Burwell, who was a lesbian, used  racism in the book
as a “self-consciously ironic protest against her own oppression.”

“How much of that do you actually believe?” Marge asks
skeptically. The professors indicate they buy into most of it, but
when Marge asks them how they “deal with it all,” whatever that
means, they respond simply by guzzling hard liquor. And that’s the
end of that story line.

There are many disappointing things about the way this all plays out,
many of which have been noted by NPR’s Linda Holmes in this smart
piece
[https://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2018/04/09/600794630/the-simpsons-to-the-problem-with-apu-drop-dead],
including the fact that equating _The Simpsons_ with what is, in
this episode, an extremely old piece of children’s literature by a
dead British lady, is false on its face. As Holmes points out, the
show also missed an opportunity to acknowledge, as Kondabolu’s
documentary does, why the depiction of Apu and his portrayal by a
white man, Hank Azaria, have been offensive to many members of the
South Asian community, who had very little representation on
prime-time television until quite recently.

For people like myself who adore _The Simpsons_ — I still say
it’s my favorite show ever even though it now has amassed more so-so
seasons than ones that were consistently brilliant — this episode is
frustrating because at one time, I do think it would have tried to
wrestle with these issues in a far more astute, surprising, and funny
way. Many parents in America have found themselves in the position
Marge does in this episode: excited to share some once-beloved book,
film, or TV show, only to discover that it looks very dodgy in the
light of 2018. At first I was delighted to see _The Simpsons_ offer
a take on this, but as written by Jeff Westbrook, “No Good Read Goes
Unpunished” — a title that has a defensive air about it from the
get-go — just brings up a bunch of stuff and expects to win points
for doing so without actually truly reckoning with any of it.

It also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of its characters, at
least as they were originally envisioned. When Marge reads a line
in _The Princess in the Garden_ that refers to South Americans as
“naturally servile,” Lisa asks, “Mom, why’d you stop
reading?” instead of doing what, in my mind, she would more likely
do: balk at that choice of words and force her mother to question why
she liked this book in the first place. This episode would have made a
lot more sense as a _Simpsons_ episode if Lisa had been the one
trying to understand who Heloise Hodgson Burwell was and making her
mother see why the book was problematic, the same way she once tried,
to no avail, to open the eyes of her fellow Springfieldians to the
troublesome overlooked history of Jebediah Springfield.

Perhaps part of the problem is that _The Simpsons_ has been on for
such a long damn time, well past long enough to lose its own sense of
identity. When it first dominated the pop-culture landscape in the
early 1990s, a lot of the show’s appeal stemmed from its skillful
and fearless tendency to jam its thumb in the eye of the American
Establishment, by highlighting white male laziness via Homer, the
crass privileged class via Mr. Burns, and a whole host of other marks
of ignorance — from sexism to intolerance of vegetarians — via the
crusading Lisa Simpson, the show’s perpetual 8-year-old voice of
reason. For all of the stereotypes he has embodied, even some of the
jokes generated by Apu actually pointed a finger at the abhorrent
attitudes that Indian-Americans have to tolerate from their Caucasian
counterparts. (“Please feel free to paw through my Playdudes and
tell me to go back to some country I’m not actually from,” Apu
tells Homer in season 16.)

Even though _The Simpsons_ still makes a sport of mocking our
culture, when you’ve been on the air for nearly 30 years, it’s
hard to come across as the rebellious outsider sticking it to the man,
especially on a show that has been largely written by white men, many
of whom graduated from Harvard University. (Ironically, last night’s
episode of _The Simpsons_ was broadcast minutes after a _60
Minutes_ segment about the_ Harvard Lampoon_, which featured
longtime _Simpsons_showrunner Al Jean explaining that he tries not to
specifically recruit _Lampoon_ alumni because he wants more
diversity in the writers room.) One could argue that _The
Simpsons_ is now the Establishment, and has been for a while. Once
you become the Establishment, there is a tendency to become lazy and
complacent, while also feeling fiercely defensive of one’s legacy.
In my view, that combination of factors plays a key role in the
show’s inability to fully own up to the Apu problem.

In _The Problem With Apu_, former Simpsons writer and producer Dana
Gould admits to Kondabolu that, “I think if _The Simpsons_ were
being done today, I’m not sure that you could have Apu voiced by
Hank.” But here’s the thing: _The Simpsons_ is still being done
today. Because other TV shows have not lasted this long, they have
never been forced to course correct and deal with their own
insensitivities in the same way that_ The Simpsons_ must. If,
say, _Seinfeld_ were still on TV, it would be struggling with the
same issues. (Writes on chalkboard à la Bart Simpson: _I will not go
off on a tangent about Babu Bhatt. I will not go off on a tangent
about Babu Bhatt.)_

What can _The Simpsons_ do about its Apu problem? Actually, a lot of
things. For starters, it could hire more South Asian writers, or at
the very least consistently consult with some on matters related to
Apu if its staffers haven’t started doing that already. While Azaria
is a great talent, if it’s true that _The Simpsons _wouldn’t
enlist him as the voice of Apu today, then make a switch and hire an
Indian-American actor to voice him. That sort of switch might breathe
some fresh, unexpected air into a character that has been publicly
shamed for not changing with the times.

In his interview with Kondabolu, Gould rejected the idea of getting
rid of Apu entirely, but also of nixing his job at the Kwik-E-Mart.
I’m not sure why the latter is such an unreasonable idea. Over the
course of _The Simpsons_’ run, Homer has been a nuclear power plant
employee, the Springfield Isotopes mascot, an astronaut, an
adult-education instructor, a food critic, a blogger, the owner of his
own snowplow business, and about 30 other jobs. Is it so crazy that
Apu might decide to retire from the Kwik-E-Mart to pursue some other
line of work and just stick with it for the rest of the show’s run?

The idea that anything should be perceived as out-of-bounds on an
animated show that is known for its silliness and boundary-pushing
seems like stubbornness more than anything else. I say that, too,
because _The Simpsons _almost shut down the Kwik-E-Mart two seasons
ago, in the episode “Much Apu About Something,” in which the
convenience store was destroyed, rebuilt as a much healthier Quick &
Fresh and co-run by Apu’s nephew Jay, voiced by Utkarsh Ambudkar,
who discusses the episode in _The Problem With Apu_.

Not surprisingly, the Kwik-E-Mart goes back to being the Kwik-E-Mart
by the end of that half-hour. Before that happens, and just after Apu
is exposed to the sight of the Quick & Fresh, the Azaria-voiced clerk
hugs a large printed replica of the Kwik-E-Mart as it used to be. “I
will just live in the happy past one moment longer,” he says,
clinging to the image, which has been re-created to scale, as it
wheels him off a cliff. “Disco Stu is in denial with you,” shouts
Disco Stu, who is also flailing in the air of nostalgia, getting ready
to crash.

That scene is the perfect metaphor for _The Simpsons_ today. It’s
a show that, reputation wise, is still living in the happy past and
clinging to its Kwik-E-Mart, not listening while others shout about
being in denial.

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