“Don’t have a cow, man!” is the usual catchphrase of well known character Bart Simpson from “The Simpsons,” and based on a recent episode entitled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” that’s sort of how the show reacted to long simmering criticism towards the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Apu has recently ignited controversy because critics say he is a perpetuation of a negative stereotype of Indian-Americans.
The episode is a response to the recent documentary starring and written by Hari Kondabolu, “The Problem with Apu,” where Kondabolu addressed the stereotypical representation of Apu. In season 29, episode 15, Marge discovers an old storybook from her childhood that she grew up loving, but when she tries to read it later to Lisa, the book turns out to be full of offensive remarks. Like Lisa says in the episode, “I bet my book light is shining on something offensive.” This prompts Marge to dream later that night that she is talking to the author of the novel, who asks Marge: “Why did you stop reading my book? Your daughter is just the kind of girl I wrote it for: obedient, well-fed, and white.” Marge then modifies the story to rid it of its clichés and stereotypes of its main character, but they both later come to a consensus that the story no longer has meaning.
Since the late 2000’s, the show has received backlash about Apu’s representation on screen, considering the character is voiced by Hank Azaria, who is a white actor and the show’s creator, receiving three Emmys for his portrayal.
Apu has been one of the most prominent South Asian characters on television since the show’s start in 1989. Critics contend Apu presents a bad representation of the Indian culture, given the character’s catchphrase, “Thank you, come again.”
Pooja Bhakta, a sophomore in media arts, watched the “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” episode, offering a few suggestions for the show afterwards.
“I honestly don’t like the way South Indians are portrayed to be like an ‘other’ as far as characters go, and we’re viewed as the stereotypical ‘wait until marriage to have sex’, arranged marriages, and other things,” Bhakta said. “When that’s not the case, not all Indians are creepy and weird. Besides, I know a lot of Indians who eat beef. The stereotypical cow jokes aren’t as funny as they seem to most of us.”
At the conclusion for “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Lisa and Marge continue to have the conversation about stereotypes.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” Lisa said. “What can you do?”
As she says this, she looks over at a framed picture of Apu on her bedside table, which has the line, “Don’t have a cow!” written on it.
Marge responds saying, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” to which Lisa replies, “If at all.”
After they both awkwardly stare into the camera, the creators seemingly shrug off the issue since the episode focuses on Homer and Bart’s sub plot for most of the remainder of the episode.
Bhakta said representation absolutely matters to diverse audiences, especially for a show that has been on the air for 29 seasons.
“I would suggest that although stereotypes can be comedic, we are part of a period past the fact that people used to be okay with the fact of even having an Indian or African American character,” Bhakta said. “I like how Priyanka Chopra plays Alex in Quantico because they show here her roots come from, but they don’t make every aspect of her stereotypically Indian. She is seen as any other American citizen and is equal to her peers. They should take more realistic approaches to Indian-Americans. Also, they should use actual Indian actors’ voices to play these roles rather than a person not of that ethnicity.”
In an interview with “Variety” in January of this year, Azaria said the show would respond to the issue with Apu, as well as the documentary that was created. However, Arazia defended the show.
“‘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,” Araiza said. “And they take a lot of pride over there in not apologizing 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.”