Stereotypes are nothing new, but that doesn’t make them OK. They essentially paint caricatures of an entire group of people that’s meant to be an accurate, if hyperbolic, representation of that group. At best, they’re a fun way to poke fun at your friends who are presumably in on the joke with you. At worst, they can be used to justify warped perceptions of people, minimizing a complex individual down to a few pointed characterizations.
How frustrating is it to have all of your individuality overlooked while the few commonalities you share with millions of other people are highlighted?
Stereotypes can often lend themselves to bullying fodder, too. While I’ve been fortunate enough to have not been picked on too much as a kid, there were still times when I was referred to as a “dot, not feather” Indian, or when people asked me if my dad was either a doctor or a convenience store owner – because those were the only two options he had, apparently. Not the worst stuff in the world, but I also wasn’t too sensitive about these things growing up. I had an attitude problem, so I’d usually just roll my eyes and dismiss that person as an idiot, or I’d laugh along and just not care. For someone who can get pretty fired up about things, I can be surprisingly indifferent at times.
Now, I like to think that my attitude problem has since evolved into something a bit more tolerant and empathetic. I try not to fault people for believing in certain stereotypes and I can’t deny that they’re not rooted in something real. I really do eat a lot of curry and I really do know a lot of Indian doctors. Indian people really do bobble their heads when they speak, and the accent is comically easy to mimic.
Alternatively, my parents have never tried to set me up with any guy, let alone arrange an entire marriage for me, and I was never pressured to go to medical school. I’m very grateful for both of these points.
That said, my plight is a bit unique. I get a lot of Indian stereotypes put on me when I’m not that Indian. My parents are from Guyana and I was born in Connecticut. Still, my ancestry and all my blood (as far as I know) is Indian, and it’s still a part of who I am.
And therein lies the problem.
Being Indian is a part of me – but certainly not all of me. I wouldn’t even say it’s the biggest part of me. There’s so much more to me than my bloodline or a few customs that have carried over from my great-great-grands.
Apu is a character on The Simpsons who is highly stereotypical. The show is almost as old as I am – it’s been around since 1989, and it’s been celebrated as a quintessential 90s classic. Sustaining an audience over the course of almost 30 years, The Simpsons has shown impressive tenacity and persistence.
But with any long-running show, it’s got to reflect the times. Things that were OK in 1989 are simply not tolerated in 2018, for better or for worse. The difference with stereotypes present in films is that films serve as time capsules. They’re a representation of the exact period in time that the film was created and released. They’re not expected to have the foresight to anticipate what may or may not be offensive to people 5, 10, 20, or 50 years later. Remember Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played by Mickey Rooney? Yikes, imagine if someone tried to pull that today.
Yet, Apu is voiced by non-Indian actor Hank Azaria. Azaria is one of the most talented, in my opinion, voice actors of our time. Throughout his career, he’s routinely transformed his voice into something completely unrecognizable. On The Simpsons, alone, he often voices several different characters per episode. He voiced a Russian bat in the animated film, Anastasia, and he played “the Spaniard,” Hector, in America’s Sweethearts, alongside some seriously A-list cast mates.
In effect, someone is pulling a Mickey Rooney/Yunioshi today. While Apu’s character originated in a time when nobody cared about political correctness or when people simply didn’t realize something could be offensive to an entire group of people, when a show perpetuates the way The Simpsons has, it has to grow and adapt.
My own passivity towards Apu is probably rooted in the fact that I think it’s unrealistic to expect Apu to have been portrayed by an Indian actor at the time of conception, which is what some people are asserting should have happened. Even now, there aren’t too many Indian actors in Hollywood, and the ones that are there don’t have an intense Indian accent. Additionally, voice acting and impersonations are nothing new. Americans impersonate Brits often enough, and vice versa. And remember that time Brad Pitt tried to do a Jamaican accent? Oh, it was real rough. Comedians do it in their stand-up acts all the time. Accents are a part of the curriculum in acting school.
The difference with Apu, though, is that he’s a minority, and that’s not a subtle difference. Especially back in the 1990s, the Indian-immigrant minority that was being parodied by The Simpsons didn’t have a voice of their own. There weren’t a whole lot of prominent public Indian figures in the news circuit, and there wasn’t a Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit for the average Indian Joe to speak up, airing grievances of misrepresentation. The only options were for immigrants to try to laugh along with the joke that they were never really invited to be a part of in the first place, or to get over it.
Growing up as an American and just as…me, I was usually able to find the humor in things. I could laugh at Apu because yes, my friend’s dad sounded like him. I could laugh at Kahn on King of the Hill (a Laotian character voiced by non-Laotian Toby Huss) because – you guessed it – I’ve met that guy before. Even the movie Superbad, one of my favorite movies of all time (and I’m sorry for whatever that says about me as a person), was so brilliant and relatable because it felt like I actually went to high school with Evan, Seth, and even McLovin. We all knew those guys, the awkward white dudes who were desperately trying to get drunk and/or laid while not getting their asses kicked. While the cast of that movie was mostly white, still – nobody wanted to be those kids. However, an argument could be made for self-deprecation in that case.
Self-deprecating humor is often the best kind. It becomes problematic when it’s just deprecating, without the “self-“ in front of it. But I wonder if this whole issue could be skirted, or at least minimized, if people were just realistic and self-reflective about certain things.
Is the stereotype of Indian guys either being doctors or running convenience stores completely inclusive and representative of all Indian guys? No, of course not. But is it a prominent enough stereotype that we can all agree that yes, this is a thing that we see often enough in real life that we can recognize it in pop culture? Absolutely.
What it comes down to is respect. If people aren’t terrible to each other, then we should all be able to get along. If intentions aren’t to embarrass, belittle, or chastise, then what’s the problem?
What to do with Apu?
So now, Apu is a regular character on a long-running, popular television show. What should happen with him?
A few options. We could completely get rid of the character. Maybe ICE deported him back to India or something. That could be a fun episode.
We could replace Hank Azaria as the voice actor with an Indian actor. But even Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn would need to put on a fake Indian accent, so really, what’s the point?
We can make him less of a stereotype. Perhaps he suddenly loses his accent after having lived in the US for 30 years. Or we can move him out of the convenience store. Maybe he retires and spends his days fishing with Homer.
Or maybe we just make him white (er, yellow) and completely strip him of his characterization.
Obviously, I’d be OK with leaving the character as he is, but I know a lot of people feel very differently. I don’t like saying, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions,” because…obviously, but honestly, there’s no right or wrong answer to this.
Maybe I don’t care about Apu because of my own personal life experience and because I think there are bigger things to worry about. Maybe I don’t care about Apu because identity politics, for me, get kind of exhausting. Maybe I don’t care about Apu because I’m insensitive.
Whatever the reason, maybe I should care more. Or maybe people can just chill.