“The Simpsons” has responded to criticism about the stereotypical portrayal of Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. On Sunday’s episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Marge and Lisa Simpson allude to the fact that “The Simpsons” has not quite figured out what to do with the character, or when to address it.
In the episode, the Simpsons visit a book store after Marge confiscates the family’s digital devices. At the store, Bart gravitates to “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, and uses what he learns to take on Homer. Marge, meanwhile, attempts to hook her daughter on her favorite book as a child, [the fictional] “The Princess in the Garden” by Heloise Hodgeson Burwell — yes, a riff on “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Once Marge begins reading “The Princess in the Garden” to Lisa, she quickly realizes the old book was a lot more offensive and racist than she remembered. She stops reading, and later has a dream in which Burwell and Rudyard Kipling (smoking a pipe that releases smoke shaped like Nazi symbols) suggest she edit the book. Marge tries — but changes the book so much that it no longer makes sense.
“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… what am I supposed to do?” Marge asks.
Lisa then looks at the audience, seemingly addressing “The Simpsons” fans: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
The scene pulls back to reveal of photo of Apu near Lisa’s bed, and it’s pretty obvious they’re no longer talking about “The Princess in the Garden,” but their own show. With Marge also looking straight at viewers, the two suggest that “some things will be dealt with at a later date… if at all.”
Apu and his children also appeared in the episode, but did not speak — and it should be noted that an imaginary Sun Tzu, speaking to Bart and Homer from his book, was voiced by “Silicon Valley’s” Jimmy O. Yang. (The show in recent years has been conscious of concerns about whitewashing, and Kevin Michael Richardson is now a cast regular, voicing both African-American characters and others.)
On Twitter, executive producer Al Jean hinted earlier in the day that “they’ll be talking about this one tomorrow.”
The issue of Apu was the centerpiece of the documentary “The Problem with Apu,” in which comedian Hari Kondabolu interviewed celebrities of South Asian descent about the negative impact that the character has had on them. Jean told IndieWire in January that he had watched the documentary and that it has been discussed in the writers’ room.
“Some people are offended by the character and I take that very seriously. Others really love the character. It’s a difficult choice. I don’t want to offend people but we also want to be funny. We don’t want to be totally politically correct. That has never been us. It’s given us a lot of thought.”
Hank Azaria, the voice of Apu, also told reporters in January that “The Simpsons” was mulling how to address the future of Apu and what the show might do differently with the character. “The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on ‘The Simpsons,’ the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing,” he said.
On Twitter, Kondabolu wrote that he wasn’t impressed with the response. “In ‘The Problem with Apu,’ I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”