More On Apu: The Problem With Hank [Azaria]

This was first posted at Ricochet on April 27, 2018 and posted here only for sake of posterity. 


The Problem With Apu discussion continues.  Honestly, at this point, I can’t believe we are still talking about this…but here we are.

Following my piece in the National Review, much of the commentary was about where the Simpsons could take the character of Apu, and bring him into ‘modern times’. The controversy, originally started by comic Hari Kondabolu, was reignited this week when the voice of the famous cartoon character, Hank Azaria, was a guest on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and spoke up about the subject.

Azaria appeared on Kondabolu’s documentary, but did not provide answers that satisfied his critics. With the Simpsons response in an episode several weeks ago erupting anger once again, Azaria seems to have basically raised the white flag:

“The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad,” the actor went on. “It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring joy and laughter to people.”

“I’ve given this a lot of thought, and, as I say, my eyes have been opened,” he said. “I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers room…including how [Apu] is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do to me.”

“I really want to see Indian, South Asian writer, writers in the room, not in a token way but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced,” Azaria said. “I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what ‘The Simpsons’ does and it not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do to me.”

Just like Kondabolu and others, Azaria largely misses the point, in my humble opinion.

Whether Azaria voices the character or not fundamentally doesn’t matter. The problem with Hank’s take on this (and to be fair, the take of Kondabolu and others) that having a white actor voice the character was the inherent flaw is simply illogical. Are they arguing that if a Indian had voiced the character from day 1, with a harsh Indian accent…that Indians such of Kondabolu would not have been targeted for abuse?

No one honestly believes that. I am willing to bet Azaria doesn’t believe that either.

And this goes back to my criticism of the entire debate. Even Kodabolu is reticent to argue that Apu was ever intended as a racist or bigoted character. In his documentary, he basically admits that is not the case. He does suggest that the writers were insensitive, since they were mostly white and lacked input from South Asian writers. There may be some truth to that.

But ultimately, does the race of the voice actor make this character racist? It certainly does not. Now, if they want to argue that Apu, existing in any iteration, and voiced by an Indian, caucasion or otherwise is racist…fine.

At which point, the only solution is…to kill off Apu.

Ali Noorani, a commentator at CNN, had this to say about the subject this week:

Let’s be clear: We can, and should, continue making fun of one another. We live in a complicated and changing society. Humor remains a critically important communication tool.
But we can do humor with more respect. As actor Kumail Nanjiani put it, “Norms evolve. Societies grow. We learn. We acknowledge mistakes as a society. Something that was acceptable in the past may not be acceptable now.”
Good comedy challenges stereotypes by acknowledging stereotypes. Bad comedy perpetuates stereotypes by pretending they don’t exist.

This is a reasonable take as well, but that inevitably leads to the following question I keep asking: WHY STOP AT APU?

In response to my article, Jeet Heer at the New Republic responded to some of my criticisms. One is that he believes the very fact Azaria is white makes it inherently racially problematic. But that again presumes that the writer’s intent was that of one that had a racial element. If Apu had originally been voiced by an Indian, and portrayed the exact same way…and bigots had still used Apu to target people…would the character be any less problematic? If not…why not? Because…you can’t have it both ways, regardless of the ethnicity of the voice actor.

Heer goes on to argue that Indian Americans such as myself and Jeet don’t really understand what younger Indians are facing. I actually thought deeply about that question: was I possibly biased because of my age?

So, I looked for an answer: I did a unscientific survey of about a dozen Indian kids at my son’s school. I asked them: “Which Hollywood character is most used to make fun of your ethnicity?”

Not a single one mentioned Apu. NOT ONE. Actually, when I followed up querying about Apu…half the kids didn’t know who Apu was. The Simpsons simply are not the cultural phenomenon they were in the 1990s, when those having this argument were growing up.

Who did the kids mention?  Few named the cartoon character Baljeet, the Indian friend on the Disney animated show Phineas and Ferb. But the most common name was Raj, from the extremely popular CBS show The Big Bang Theory. Raj is a Indian immigrant, an engineer who is an academic at a California University. He has a harsh Indian accent, is sexually repressed (so far so that he can’t even talk when in the presence of American women!), and is still often subservient to his rich Indian physician parents back home in India.

You want to talk stereotypes? Well…here is one. Furthermore, it is ironic that Heer may be right that there is an age bias in this discussion…but the age bias may be with Heer and Kondabolu, who are arguing about an archaic character who has far less influence on Indian American kids today than it did two decades ago. And if that is the case…do they now have similar distaste for Raj on the Big Bang Theory, whose character is actively being used to bully kids today? And if not…why not?

The fact is none of that changes the fact that Apu was never originally nor ever has been a racist character. The problem these critics have is still the same problem they’ve always had: that their anger is pointed in the wrong direction. Until they face the fact that bigots will use ANY personification or stereotype of Indians to propagate their bigotry…they are largely missing the point.

But people such as Kondabolu remain willfully ignorant to the Hollywood personas that are effecting our Indian children today. He is still complaining about a character which, apparently, has little or no influence on kids like my boys.  Their ignorance, and silence, on that shows that this isn’t really about solving prejudice and bigotry. Its about something else.

Back to Hank Azaria. There are probably two real reasons Azaria wants to quit, and neither of them are because he believes Apu is truly insensitive. First…he has done this character for almost three decades.  Who would want to keep doing that? Second, at this point, with all the social justice warriors attacking him for this, what incentive does he have to continue? I fully sympathize with him wanting to leave it all behind.

We should instead be having a discussion about what racial prejudice South Asians are really feeling today, how we can improve those relations with education and understanding. We should be educating the broader public about the complexities of being of Indian heritage as an American today. That would do far more to advance our cause.

Instead, we waste our time over Apu.