Much Apu About Nothing


by Rohin
26th September, 2005 at 5:06 am    

In Pickled Politics’ short life, Sunny has carved out an erudite niche with intelligent posts on important topics. So I figured the best thing to do with my first post was to write a daft post about The Simpsons. I hope the reasons why will become clear.

Bloggers often begin by stating their credentials on their topic of choice – so let me assure you, you will not find a more devoted fan of The Simpsons. Yet I write this with some trepidation as I recently had my impression that the world loves all things Springfield shaken.

As an Asian, I’ve always felt some affinity towards Apu. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is the industrious convenience store-owner and one of the major cast characters, with several episodes revolving entirely around him. Growing up in my middle class corner of London, I have never felt that Apu’s character could carry any negative connotations; however several American South Asian chaps recently expressed their intense dislike of Apu. I wondered why.

For them, Apu personifies every stereotype they wish to shake off. He’s got a thick accent, he spent many years living in the US illegally, works in a cornershop, had an arranged marriage, rips off his customers, is continually the butt of Homer’s jokes about Hinduism and has an unpronounceable long surname. Brown-skinned Americans, especially those living outside the major cosmopolitan cities, have come to associate Apu with insults – Apu’s catchphrase “Thank you, come again!” is shouted as abuse by thick-headed bigots.

So let me explain why I think Apu is a positive character for Asians – particularly those living outside India. One could legitimately claim that Apu is a fascinating case study of Indians immigrants, their trials, tribulations and triumphs. Had The Simpsons been a live-action show, Apu would have represented the first regular South Asian character on a prime time show outside the subcontinent. I still find it quite remarkable that way back at the start of the 90s, the makers of The Simpsons decided to include him.

To argue that he is a stereotype is to miss the whole point of the cartoon. Everyone is a stereotype, that’s how The Simpsons works – it plays up to our stereotypes to create a realistic microcosm of America’s social structure. Springfield is populated with all walks of life – I’m sure we all know a Barney – propping up the bar, a Ned Flanders – goodie two-shoes bible-basher, a Wiggum – incompetent cop and like it or not, we all know Apu; just go to your cornershop. In comparison to Bumblebee Man and Krusty’s father (woefully stereoptypical Mexican and Jew), Apu is a very rounded character indeed.


Plenty of Indians work in convenience stores. Plenty of Indians are doctors. Hence these tend to be roles brown actors are frequently cast in – yet few criticise the character of an Indian doctor in a drama/soap/film. Matt Groening and The Simpsons’ creators are no fools (in fact they demonstrate their intellectual chops with Apu’s name – an homage to Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu Trilogy) and they chose Apu’s profession deliberately.

Scratch the surface and you find Apu is far more than just a token brown. He embodies the things that have made Asian immigrants some of the most successful communities in America, the UK and elsewhere. He works relentlessly, the famous Asian work ethic means he stays at his post about 23 hours a day and has been shot 8 times (“Ah! The searing kiss of hot lead; how I missed you! I mean, I think I’m dying.”).

With a computer science PhD, he is freakishly over-qualified for his job, due to the fact he was unable to land anything paying more as an immigrant. The topic of his arranged marriage was dealt with in a realistic, although somewhat twee, way – he was reluctant to acquiesce to his mum’s request, but met his bride-to-be and fell in love. At a time when many Westerners equate arranged marriage with forced marriage, this was a welcome plot.

In contrast to the generally buffoon-like idiots that inhabit Springfield, Apu is educated and far more knowledgeable about American history:

Homer: Are you sure you don’t want to come? In a civil war re-enactment we need lots of Indians to shoot.
Apu: I don’t know what part of that sentence to correct first.

Proctor: All right, here’s your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–
Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir.

Some argue that it’s far more useful for NRIs (non-resident Indians) to have characters who are of Indian heritage, but otherwise identical to other characters, to show the white man “look we’re just like you!”. However I think most white people are capable of accepting the fact we’re NOT like them in some respects, without feeling threatened. Apu could’ve been like countless characters in British soaps or TV shows, called Bobby or Kurt, distinguishable as Asian only by their colour. Apu’s Indian-ness is apparent for all to see and yet he is great friends with all the other Springfielders, especially Homer.

So why is all this on a politics blog? Because Apu’s story is all about integration, a topic that crops up again and again.

Apu hasn’t sacrificed any of his cultural identity, he displays a statue of Ganesh proudly and is a strict vegan, yet he has become an integral cog in the small town somewhere in America’s heartland. The citizens are fond of him and he has made some real friends, and even sung in a hit barbershop quartet. He is a three-dimensional person, not a token Dr Patel who reads an X-ray and vanishes for a few episodes of whatever series you happen to be watching.

He has also faced racism and prejudice of his own – when Springfield renamed itself Libertyville in a nationalistic fervour, Apu was scared into acting American (“let’s take a relaxed attitude towards work and watch baseball”) and renaming his children (all of whom have very Indian names) Coke, Pepsi, Condoleezza, Lincoln, Freedom, Apple Pie, Manifest Destiny and Superman. When The Simpsons satirised the scapegoating of immigrants with Proposition 24, Apu was targeted by Mayor Quimby to distract voters from bear attacks!

Finally, Apu has done what we’ve all done as part of a defence mechanism – seen the funny side and occasionally taken the piss out of condescending white folk:

Snooty lady: Attendant, I’d like some gas.
Apu: Yes I’m sorry I do not speak English.
Snooty lady: But you were just talking to-
Apu: Yes, yes. Hot dog, hot dog. Yes sir, no sir. Maybe, okay

To conclude (I know I’ve rambled), I can easily see why Apu is loathed by some NRIs. Had I grown up in a racist neighbourhood, I may have received the same Apu-abuse they have. But I think I would have still loved Apu. He was a hero to me when very few Asian people were on TV. And The Simpsons has blazed a trail in portraying him as Indian through and through, not a ‘coconut’. Take Star Trek, another American institution. Since its inception it endeavoured to be politically correct, with a multinational cast. Yet none of the characters had any traits from their cultures other than perhaps a dodgy accent. Fast forward to the late 90s and Star Trek Voyager and you find characters talking about native American spirit guides and ‘my people’.

Apu: Today, I am no longer an Indian living in America. I am an Indian-American.
Lisa: You know, in a way, all Americans are immigrants. Except, of course Native Americans.
Homer: Yeah, Native Americans like us.
Lisa: No, I mean American Indians.
Apu: Like me.

British TV shows have featured Asians for many years (a good thing of course) but only recently have they become real people with back stories, families and the things that make Asians Asian.
Woohoo!
Apu (and Matt Groening) I salute you.

This is a cross post with my own blog.

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Filed in: Culture,Media,Simpsons,South Asia






40 Comments below   |  

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Clive Davis

    APU, SPRINGFIELD’S HERO

    If you’re a Simpsons fan, you must, must, must read this paean to Apu the shopkeeper. Rohin, of Pickled Politics (another new addition to the blogroll) digs deep beneath the stereotype:Apu hasn’t sacrificed any of his cultural identity, he displays


  2. DesiPundit

    [...] Rohin has an excellent analytical piece on Simpson’s much-loved Apu, the veritable Desi icon on American television. [...]


  3. Tim Worstall

    Britblog Roundup # 33

    Once again we step up to the plate (or as we’re rather this side of the Atlantic about it, step up to the crease?) to bring out the Britblog Roundup, your picks of the best pieces from the British and


  4. Robert Sharp

    Heisenblogged

    What if the very act of observing something, changes that thing you are observing? Will we see people write blog entries with the specific intention of getting into the 2006 anthology?


  5. 2005 Blogged: Dispatches From the Blogosphere

    Pickled Politics.

    Pickled Politics, a new group blog “reflecting the voice of young, progressive British Asians” provides this analysis of Apu from The Simpsons, a surprisingly upbeat one: Much Apu About Nothing In Pickled Politics’ short life, Sunny has carved out


  6. java81

    I've always had mixed feelings about Apu from the Simpsons. This was a good article on him: http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/52


  7. Liz K

    RT @TopsyRT: Pickled Politics » Much Apu About Nothing http://bit.ly/dxEXlH




  1. douglas — on 26th September, 2005 at 6:14 am  

    Superb. Someone who actually understands the Simpsons! Please keep posting on cultural issues, I, for one, have always thought the relationship between Bart and Lisa was a pretty accurate reflection of male and female culturalisation. Until now I was scared to make the point. You have liberated not only NRI but Simpsons fans everywhere!

    Excellent.

    douglas

  2. David T — on 26th September, 2005 at 9:17 am  

    Characters from ethnic/cultural communities go through three stages in popular culture:

    1. Stereotype: You are either a criminal, a clown, or a victim

    2. Hero: You an authority figure – a captain of a space station, a police officer, or a soldier

    3. You may be any or none of these: but your ethnicity isn’t the most noteworthy things about your character.

    You only reach stage 3 when racism has significantly weakened.

    Of course, the whole point of the Simpsons, as you say, is that it trades on stereotypes, so these rules don’t really apply … oh well.

  3. Steve M — on 26th September, 2005 at 9:32 am  

    Excellent analysis, although as a Jew I like Krusty’s father (“I have no son!”) and don’t mind the latent stereotyping – particularly as he’s brought in specifically to be an ‘old world Jew’. After all, his son, hardly a Jewish stereotype, is clearly Jewish too.

    But I too find that Apu is drawn tr̬s sympathique. I imagine that everyone loves him. Why Apu should be so fond of Homer though is another question. Homer steals from the store, has been responsible for getting Apu fired Рand worse. Perhaps Apu just sees someone with a good heart.

    In fact, Apu is so enlightened and intelligent, relative to most of the other characters, that it’s difficult to understand why some American South Asians should find him offensive and it’s sad that they do. I wonder whether the same would be true for many British Indians, although in the light of ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, I doubt it.

    Great post Rahin. Thank you and please come again.

  4. Eric — on 26th September, 2005 at 10:35 am  

    Superb!

  5. Sunny — on 26th September, 2005 at 1:31 pm  

    Believe me Steve, a lot of British Asian think the same of Gooness Gracious Me too, though I still love it and think of it as ground-breaking in the same way as Apu is.

    Anyway, a fantastic article to start with Rohin, I agree with every bit of your analysis. Some people don’t “get” Apu and that saddens me. To dismiss him as a silly sterotype is way too reductionist.

    The comparison with issues of integration is very apt and we can see all examples of that these days too. Asians are constantly asked to “prove” their loyalty to this country as many others are not.

  6. Siddhartha — on 26th September, 2005 at 1:35 pm  

    Great post. More facts about Apu :

    Main character from Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (pronounced ‘Opu’
    in Bengali).
    Hank Azarua, Simpson’s writer, based Apu from during his times when he did not have a car
    while in Los Angeles and the only place in walking distance was the local 7-11 shop.

    Apu was also based on Peter Sellers character Hrundi Bakshi in The Party
    (1968). At the end of  the movie, Sellers is flirting with the French
    girl, and mentions he has to go home and take care of his pet monkey ‘Apu’.

  7. Harps — on 26th September, 2005 at 2:41 pm  

    You forgot Rohin …

    Apu is also a stud, the kind of man all women want. I cant remeber the episode but it involved buying batchelors and Apu was bought by a whole host of women.

    I like Apu although i’m more of a typical homerphile myself. Apu’s portrayal in the simpsons is a fantastic example of what can be done wit homour and stereotypes.

    However I wonder how asians of the future would view him ?

    I remeber watching “mind you language” and thinking it was jillariously funny – a show now decried by a lot of people of being condescending and racist.

    Im sure lots of people found “love thy neighbour” and “curry and chips” very funny but looking at them now many are appalled at the things said and done in those shows.

    Only time will tell how favourably future generations remeber Apu – As a trailblazer or a “black minstrel”

  8. Rohin — on 26th September, 2005 at 2:57 pm  

    Hmm…it’s interesting you bring up the subject of Mind Your Language, it’s one that crops up now and again in discussions about minorities on TV. I think there’s quite a big difference.

    Secretly, we all find stereotypes amusing – that’s why they exist, they’re rooted in reality. But after a certain point a black guy talking jive, an Indian bud bud ding dinging and a German goosestepping cease to be funny. Mind Your Language went for the lowest common denominator and was just a collection of crass racial slurs. I’m not easily offended, so I don’t mind watching it but what the Simpsons has done is more complex. They’ve taken the stereotypes and built upon them. The magic of The Simpsons is that we feel like we know these people, they’re so real.

    Mind Your Language was appropriate for the time, but fell out of favour. The Simpsons has run for almost 15 years and Apu is more acceptable now than he ever was.

    About Apu being a stud – not only at the bachelor auction, but in I’m With Cupid, Apu made all the women jealous of Manjula with his romantic ways. Although…he also cheated on her!

    I too would be interested to see how Apu is thought of in the future.

    Thanks for the kind words everyone!

  9. Clive Davis — on 26th September, 2005 at 3:28 pm  

    Fantastic piece, Rohin!

    Re “Goodness Gracious Me”, my wife’s family get very annoyed because it’s “too Hindu Punjabi”. Not enough Patels…Proof, I suppose, that there’s no pleasing everybody. Have to disagree with Harps on Mind Your Language. It made me cringe. “Love Thy Neighbour” was the bane of my teen years, but I’d be interested to see it again, just to see how it stands up now.

  10. MD — on 26th September, 2005 at 3:54 pm  

    Rohin, I loved your piece! I get why some Indian-Americans don’t like Apu, but I think it has a lot to do with their own personal immigrant experiences (and, frankly, their level of ‘touchiness’ about such things). I grew up Asian in a small college town in Iowa and I tend to be more sympathetic to portrayals like Apu – a lot of the people I grew up with weren’t widely traveled and might have seemed silly in their interactions with Asians or other immigrants, but really, it was from a kind of innocence. They would ask you a ridiculous question, but they just didn’t know, you know?

    America has a way of folding in her immigrants: I’m not white-washing troubles or difficulties that are a part of the process, but it’s not always *such* a strain.

    Cheers (MD, regular Sepia Mutiny commenter. Were you tpartly thinking of SM when you wrote this :) )

  11. EiNY — on 26th September, 2005 at 4:10 pm  

    Great post! I look forward to more!

  12. Kulvinder — on 26th September, 2005 at 6:28 pm  

    Oi how come hes allowed a mondo post! :mad:

    can i write and post my non-asian-related ‘i hate will and grace’ bit ?

  13. Kulvinder — on 26th September, 2005 at 6:37 pm  

    thats the worst mad icon ever.

  14. Kulvinder — on 26th September, 2005 at 6:37 pm  

    oh and coolus article!

  15. Sunny — on 27th September, 2005 at 12:02 am  

    A friend pointed out “Panjid” from Bertha as another contender. Though obviously not as well known internationally.

  16. Rohin — on 27th September, 2005 at 12:18 am  

    Good grief Charlie Brown, Bertha! Now that’s taking me back. I still have a Bertha board game! Wow, I had clean forgotten about Panjid. Must look him up. I love pointless trivia from the 80s.

  17. Sunny — on 27th September, 2005 at 12:37 am  

    Kulvinder – only if there’s an Asian angle in there somewhere ;)

  18. Rohin — on 27th September, 2005 at 1:16 am  
  19. gawker — on 27th September, 2005 at 4:17 pm  

    Great post. I guess the only NRIs who hate Apu would be the ones threatened by their own Indianness and have a complex about not being white. And you made a great point about everyone in the Simpsons being stereotypes. I guess if Indians should hate Apu, then Americans should hate Homer as well, because he is the stereotype of a bumbling beer loving gluttonous American dad.

  20. krazie — on 27th September, 2005 at 5:00 pm  

    Great read!

  21. Pinky Princess — on 27th September, 2005 at 6:54 pm  

    What a great article, and Apu’s quotes still make me smile! I agree that the comedy that the Simpsons is based on is entirely down to stereotypes and characters doing the opposite of what convention would expect.
    Keep up the good work!

  22. Jyoti — on 28th September, 2005 at 9:51 am  

    rohin trust u to intellectualise apu and his role in representing indian-americans in US society – it sounds like a dissertation title! u make some v good points though and i’ve always thought that it was v cool that he was a regular in one of the biggest and most popular shows in the world. stereo-typed or not at least he’s in there.

    what about ajay in postman pat?

  23. rizwand — on 29th September, 2005 at 3:05 pm  

    If Apu gets shot a few more times, he’ll have more street cred than 50 cent … (though, in my books, he already has!)

    very good post on my favourite programme of all time..nice one

  24. AJE — on 3rd October, 2005 at 5:16 pm  

    A very well written, thoughtful article: i’ve commented on it here:

    http://thefilter.blogs.com/thefilter/2005/10/stereotype.html

  25. Brett Lock — on 3rd October, 2005 at 11:36 pm  

    Wow! One of the best articles I’ve read in ages. An effortless yet thought-provoking and engaging read and a model first-post. Transcends the blogsphere.

  26. Anchoress — on 2nd February, 2006 at 7:50 pm  

    I first read this article a few months ago and loved it enough to forward it to friends. I recently linked it to the Apu page on Wikipedia. Good work!

  27. Avik — on 8th February, 2006 at 11:55 pm  

    A lot of us don’t necessary hate Apu as much as we dislike the way the character has been misused in a lot of racist comments we have had to deal with. I dealt with so many stupid Apu comments before I ever watched the Simpsons that I fear I found it hard to enjoy the character when I did.

  28. Paul Thottakath — on 9th February, 2006 at 8:16 pm  

    Your post is hilarious! I found some desi comic strips in the same vein of humor at geek-2-me.com. Check it out!

  29. jakewashere — on 15th February, 2006 at 9:02 pm  

    The film THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN features three blatantly South Asian supporting characters, none of whom draws attention specifically to their ethnicity more than once. A character named Amy who appears in one scene is clearly Indian, but this passes without comment; the other two Asian characters are portrayed as intelligent, if a little foulmouthed – in other words, pretty much equal to the main characters of the film.

    It’s sort of the QUEER AS FOLK approach to race – yeah, they’re Indian, and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, because that’s not what makes them funny or interesting.

  30. kiiik — on 10th March, 2006 at 3:39 pm  

    i am in india and absolutely love simpsons and never even thought much about the character apu. let alone taking offence for him being stereotype i am kinnda proud that there is such a prominent indian charac in the show. (infact i was quiet surprised when i came across these blogs which tell me that some people don’t like him portrayed in this manner) well i dont understand the idea.. afterall, what would had been the sense in just painting the charac brown till the time he is not given some traits that manifest the fact that he is indian??.
    anyways i never thought of apu very differently from the other charac in the show and prob will not do so in the future and keep enjoying wathcing simpsons as i have in the past on star world. (my fav channel)
    –i remember a particular episode of ‘friends’ in which rachel told ross that she went out with a guy called ‘vikram’ and the way in which ross was surprised annd repeated v-i-k-r-a-m …. i did not like it.

    The article and the comments made very intresting read. the comments give me an idea ’bout what u guyz (in us & uk) think about yr ‘indianness’.

  31. kiiik — on 10th March, 2006 at 4:02 pm  

    and one more thing for all those who say apu is stereotype .. if he really is, although i think its just that…..( oh hell …i can’t explain it ….but…) i invite u all to a self paid trip to inda and i’ll take u to the local baniya.. and that should settele yr doubts and will convince you to one of the following:
    1- the writer of simpsons made a similar trip and put my beloved baniya on his show
    2- there is not much difference in an indian-american & indian-indian shopkeepr
    3- the sterotype of apu is quiet universall in nature
    4- apu is not a stereotype and only repersents one of the kind of indians that migrated to usa
    5- whatever .. think of somethin’ and ad to the list..

  32. Michael — on 16th March, 2006 at 4:09 pm  

    I thought it was a well written synopsis. I agree with most of the response that this blog has gotten, and would like to add also that the stereotypes are what make this show so wonderful and entertaining. We must remember that this is show is a satire and by it’s very definition would be to make fun of weakness in society. Indeed I would say that the “yellow” skinned characters in this show i.e., Homer are just as stereotyped as any other. The Simpsons does not allude to be anything else either, even poking fun at this, for instance when they are bowling and they have several of their characters on the team named stereotypes. I believe that once we can laugh at these ridiculous stereotypes and laugh at ourselves and turn them into humor instead of taking them offensively, those things lose their power over us.

  33. Harish — on 28th March, 2006 at 11:44 am  

    Rohin,
    I’m a student correspondent with the Times of India, New Delhi. I would like to ask you if you would not mind if I were to publish this article in the TOI Student edition. Sorry, you won’t get any royalties!

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