Oh boy. It’s been a time. A reeeaal time. It’s been a really, really weird one, folks, and I desperately need to tell you about the absolute, rip-roaring time I had, earlier this week.
Here’s the abbreviated backstory. Skip to the end for a slightly more in-depth breakdown.
- Apu, a character on a fading, once-great cartoon called The Simpsons, isn’t the worst, but he’s not great, and his kooky faux-Indian accent, performed by a white voice actor, led to lots of bullying of young Indian kids in the years the show was prominent.
- American comedian Hari Kondabolu explored how the character could be improved in ‘The problem with Apu”, a documentary, in 2017.
- Producer Adi Shankar ran a competition to crowd-source a script for the show that could give Apu the treatment he deserves .
- After finding a winning script, Shankar says he was told by producers they’re writing Apu out of the show, instead of updating the character (since denied by the showrunner Al Jean, on twitter).
Apu is beloved. So how did fans of the show react, when the news he was being written-out was widely reported?
They lost their bloody marbles!
A few days back, Hari Kondabolu posted about Apu’s reported demise:
Out of curiosity, I dug into the responses, to get a feel for what the reaction was like. It was intense and mostly in Spanish. People from Latin America were pissed.
Among the caterwauling and the outpouring of furious, seething, blood-red grief that was blasting through Hari’s mentions was a very high incidence of pictures of meat, usually accompanied by some cow-related taunt:
Oh boyyy. Getting a kinda racisty vibe from these! Cows are considered symbolically sacred in Hindu culture, and there are lots of vegetarians Hindus (like my parents).
I dug deeper into Hari’s mentions.
These tweets weren’t all of what was being said, nor were they even the majority. But holy hell they were prominent, frequent, and uniquely worse than the usual racism you get on Twitter. Kondabolu didn’t cop this when he tweeted fierce criticism of cruise ships. What is it about Apu that brings out the psychotic xenophobes?
Even the guy who organised the script competition to give Apu new life and improved character, Adi Shankar, was copping it.
Outrage and backlash aren’t rare on Twitter, but for tweets like those above to form a significant proportion of what’s being sent to someone is a meaningful signal. The non-zero incidence of ludicrously intense racism is a decent insight into the raw sentiment
So, I gathered a small a selection of the racist tweets, and pointed out how telling it was that a big chunk of the ‘we’re not racist’ crowd were very clearly racist.
Folks, as you might imagine, this was not particularly smart.
First, the meat pics:
And, the anger.
And, yeah, the racist stuff too. Oh man. So much racist stuff.
This is easily the worst I’ve ever received on Twitter in my five-ish years on the platform. I’ve tweeted about Trump, the alt-right, white supremacists, racist mythology and the rights of minorities, but holy shit, this went from ‘Apu’s nuanced!’ to cross-burning Klan rally in the space of approximately four freaking femtoseconds.
To cap it off, literally alongside the grief-stricken, histrionic racists were people scolding me for cherry-picking the worst tweets to tarnish the reasonable and level-headed arguments:
And yeah, of course Twitter responded to my reports of abuse with a flurry of ‘we couldn’t find any contravention of Twitter’s policies’. Thanks chaps, it’s a good week for it. They changed their mind later, for whatever reason.
Why are they like this
A few days ago, an old British guy (‘Racist Plane Man’, aka David Mesher) began hurling serious and cruel abuse at a nice quiet lady because she took too long to sit down (Ryan Air forced the lady to move and didn’t kick the old racist chap off).
“You’re an ugly black bastard”
“Don’t talk to me in a fucking foreign language you stupid ugly cow”
“I don’t want to sit next to your ugly face, your ugly fucking face”
“I will carry on as far as I can with this ugly, black bitch”
The morning TV shows warmed their studio lights to give him a platform to deliver a heartfelt apology.
“I probably lost my temper a bit and ordered her to get up. I’m not a racist person by any means and it’s just a fit of temper at the time, I think”
Look, it’s pretty clear that if, when you’re a little frazzled, you start pouring torrents of xenophobic bile at the nearest dark-skinned person, you’ve gone past a temporary lapse and you’re a person who can be classed, wholesale, as a racist.
Importantly though, inside the soft, confused, marshmallow brain of racist plane man, he isn’t racist. There is an internal logic underpinning this external contradiction. This is a common thing — trying to be less racist by simply re-defining racism such that it doesn’t overlap with your personal brand of xenophobia. Behind the racist plane man’s dull, uncomprehending eyes is a zone of crystalline peace.
Apu’s existence is locked to the mean-spiritedness of his creation. The wobble-headed accent dreamt up in a writer’s room of white guys, the octuplets, the health-code-violating convenience store — they’re not kind. He’s not all bad, but the bad parts are big enough that his presence on the most significant cultural phenomenon of the 90s and early 2000s had an impact on those of us who were kids in that sliver of time.
The rabid fanbase is in absolute psychological shutdown over the possibility that there are people out there who were hurt by the fact that his presence made racist bullying easier.
They’re so broken that they’ve done a Racist Plane Man. They’re a hive-mind manifestation of that same dull-eyed lack of comprehension. Almost every response to my screenshot that wasn’t abusive still explicitly said he deserved it, or that he brought it on himself.
They try and explain it, too. Part of this is apparently related to the fact that The Simpsons is so intensely popular in Latin America. I had a Twitter DM from one guy who said (reproduced with permission):
“There is a problem. Not with you, probably not with Hari, But He started something, here in LATAM [Latin America], the Simpson is a Crazy thing. All the time, all the days of the year, Simpson are more than a cartoon for us. If there is a day without Simpson, the same thing happen with fox pages. I mean, In Argentina the people are SENTIMENTAL, like me I love Simpson, I’ve watched every single episode, But Argentina is a Country where people Are crazy for the things they love, Futbol, Simpson, Asado, We love that things.
Here the people Defends What they love in different ways. Not all the people are like these. BUT, I cannot say Hari is innocent, Like I said, He started something, Now Is bigger than him, you and me, Becasuse in LATAM, Every family Put Simpson in dinner time, on breakfast time.
I couldn’t read a bunch of the tweets in Spanish I received, or some sent to Hari — probably for the better. But they were of a similar tone. One fan page was fabricating tweets using Photoshop to encourage even more backlash against Kondabolu. I get it. They’re fans. Why the hell does that translate into immediate racism?
The other part of the panic lies in the fear that ‘political correctness’ is killing comedy and murdering beloved cultural properties. This seems like a major factor, and it comes up as a theme in the non-racist tweets pretty regularly. They don’t like the Aziz Ansaris and the Ayo Caesars and the Kumal Nanjianis. Representation must remain static — evolution is death; update is erasure.
If fandom can’t exist without this grade and intensity of abuse, it isn’t fandom. It’s collective hysteria with a human cost. No ageing, unfunny, past-its-use-by-date cartoon, limping along on past glory, is worth this level of group psychosis.
I didn’t even dig deep into Hari Kondabolu’s Facebook page comments. You can, if you like. I can’t handle it. The meat pics have already started.
But the post below outlines how so many of these racist campaigns play out. Calm, level headed nuance is met with intense abuse. Fury with tears and spittle, from a demented mob of hyper-emotional rage monsters, who sincerely believe that it’s their cultural enemies who are the ‘snowflakes’.
What you’re looking at here is the engine room of racism. People of colour are expected to be unfailingly polite. Kondabolu and Shankar haven’t lost their cool. They’re being nice about the whole thing. There are polite, well-argued defences of Apu as well, like this, and this. But polite, well-argued critiques of Apu draw a very different reaction.
This must be performed in the centre of an anxious, angry horde, packed dense with racists, abusers, fans and maniacs. Half of them are screaming ‘STREET SHITTER!’, and the other half ask ‘why aren’t you engaging with the substance of my argument?’
We must be unflappable, and if we flap, it’s proof we’re the histrionic, outraged minority lefties they always knew we were.
People of colour carry the anxiety of these people on our backs. We’re never recognised for doing the emotional heavy lifting for ten thousand hysterical banshees and their jpg folder of beef pictures. We stay chill so Apu’s racist fandom can continue to nervously coax itself about how it isn’t racist, all the while literally surrounded and infected by a blatant strain of virulent and toxic xenohphobia.
This isn’t really about whether Apu should stay, go or improve. It’s about no one holding the anxious to account for their xenophobic hysteria. Their panic, their fear and their over-reaction is our burden to bear.
Here’s that backstory I promised
In 2017, Hari Kondabolu made a great, funny documentary about Apu, the beloved Indian immigrant portrayed on The Simpsons. Kondabolu’s thesis was that, maybe it was time to update the character, on the long-running and widely-watched show.
Apu’s depiction isn’t entirely racist, but his origins and his impact absolutely are. Cackling together in a writer’s room, a collection of male, extremely white Harvard guys lost it when Hank Azaria, the voice actor responsible for Apu, did the voice of the store clerk in a wobble-headed fake Indian accent, during early reads of the show. Azaria also admits that he based that off voice of an Indian convenience store employee he really hated.
This is pretty grim stuff, and it’s reiterated by the show’s writer, Dana Gould, who simply says “There are accents, that by their nature, to white Americans, sound funny”.
Apu’s defence centres largely around his nuanced depiction on this show. “He’s complex, has a PhD, and is an immigrant success story!” Okay, but the bullies didn’t give a shit, when they used the collective cultural signifiance of it to abuse me in school.
There were and still are plenty of other stereotypes on the show, including Scots, Italians and Mexicans, but none of them are as prominent as Apu, and none are marked so clearly with a distinctive non-yellow skin colour. The show’s other brown characters, like Doctor Hibbert and Lou, are blessed with real American accents, instead of kooky caricatures.
Apu is the most prominent, among the show’s various stereotypes. This analysis of words spoken on the show put Apu pretty clearly at the top of the list of supporting characters, in terms of words spoken. Apu’s up around 10k words; the next blatantly race-focused stereotype, probably Groundskeeper Willie, is around half of that.
Apu was prominent, popular and, at times, important — his genesis was ugly, but his growth has elements of goodness. The core message of of Kondabolu’s documentary was a plea for Apu’s improvement, not his death or his removal. Last December, nearly a yearback, Kondabolu wrote:
In an embarrassing and sad attempt to address Kondabolu’s doco, The Simpsons features an episode in which Lisa becomes a vessel for the white writers and turns to the ‘camera’, and says,
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
The response from the creator of the show, Matt Groening, was equally fragile. “I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended”. It’s in stark contrast to Hank Azaria, who voices Apu. He said back in May,
“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.
The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad. It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring joy and laughter to people”
In parallel, filmmaker Adi Shankar launched a constructive and creative contest to come up with a script for Apu that gives him the depth he deserves. The winning entry, by Vishaal Buch from Maryland, shows Apu’s business empire expanding — going from servility to success. Shankar said,
“One of the problems with Apu was that he was really a faulty blueprint that had a domino effect that was pretty wide-reaching,”
“The way to fix the problem isn’t just to take the blueprint and shred it and start it again… you can’t do it because the blueprint exists in people’s minds. Vishaal was effectively able to modify the [Apu] blueprint and enhance it by adding authenticity”
He describes this winning script, centralising, enhancing and empowering a character that started out so horribly, as an ‘olive branch’ to the show’s creators.
Buch, the author, says,
“ I grew up a huge fan of ‘The Simpsons,’ so to be able to help tell this story is a testimony to not only my hard work, but the hard work of others like me. It’s been a pleasure to work with Adi and his team, and I am incredibly excited for the journey”
Shankar received some feedback after taking his script to the show’s producers:
“I got some disheartening news back, that I’ve verified from multiple sources now: They’re going to drop the Apu character altogether. They aren’t going to make a big deal out of it, or anything like that, but they’ll drop him altogether just to avoid the controversy”
The ‘avoiding controversy’ part didn’t exactly go to plan, and, importantly, it’s been pretty firmly rebuffed by the current show-runner, Al Jean, who repeatedly says it’s false, on Twitter.
So that’s it. Apu’s fate remains a mystery, but what we can say with confidence is that the hard-earned and conciliatory efforts of a range of South-Asian Americans who are also massive fans of the show won’t be involved, whatever happens.
After childhoods filled with racist taunts, after the modern social media abuse repeating those exact same taunts, I suspect these efforts will be just as calm as they were before.
Kondabolu’s documentary is warm-hearted and funny, full of real love for the show. Shankar’s make-Apu-better script competition drew on the labour of a community wanting to make it right. It doesn’t kill off Apu; it makes him bigger and better. Azaria’s comments have been consistently thoughtful, sympathetic and kind.
The response from fans was, in its entirety, cruel, emotional, abusive and intense. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is, and it won’t change without a big change in attitude from those who have the power to tamp down this anxiety — the show’s producers.