Words || James Booth
From a plastic, dollar-shop “bindi” on the forehead of a girl three pingas deep at Defqon, to how much your friend LOVES “Indian food” (butter chicken), and did I mention the totally awesome henna tattoos that your girlfriends gave each other on their last sleepover?
The South-Asian experience is riddled with navigating a complex series of Western stereotypes about our food, culture and beliefs, which is further perpetuated by the characters who represent us.
So, strap yourselves in, align your chakras, and open your culturally-appropriated third eyes as we explore the biased representation of South-Asians within popular culture.
THE PROBLEM WITH APU
Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem With Apu, a documentary exploring the Indian-American experience with Apu Nahasapeemapetilon of The Simpsons, serves as the perfect launchpad to understand why Apu is perhaps the best example of the normalisation of South-Asian stereotypes within Western popular culture.
Take for example the Season 9 episode ‘The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons’, in this episode we see classic tropes for Indian characters represented; an arranged marriage to Manjula, the use of Ganesha as an opportunity for cheap laughs at the expense of a religion, and to top it all off, not a single South-Asian character in the episode (or in The Simpsons more broadly) is actually voiced by a South-Asian person.
Apu’s character also perpetuates the notion that all South-Asian cultures are the same and interchangeable; he’s noted to be a “jolly Bengali” in Episode 21 of Season 7, has a name of Tamil origin, and a wife who speaks Hindi.
However, what Apu has come to represent more recently is the unwillingness of The Simpsons and pop culture in general to work with South-Asian people on the representation of our culture and customs.
We see this represented in the response to the controversy by the show in the recent episode ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’, in which Lisa Simpson stares at the camera and recites “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect”.
She then glances at a framed photo of Apu on her bedside table, just to drive home that this line is meant to be addressing the mounting pressure against the racist and stereotypical characterisation of Apu.
This response was not received happily by viewers. Reducing the issue to simple political correctness and abusing Lisa’s position as the mouthpiece for rational thought and social justice is to ignore the issue at hand. Such a sentiment is only worsened through Matt Groening’s own statement that “people love to pretend they’re offended”.
ACTUALLY INVITE US TO THE PARTY
While Apu’s current voice actor, Hank Azaria, has offered the role to a South Asian actor, it goes without saying that Apu as a character draws upon a historical series of misrepresentation.
The inspiration for Apu’s voice comes from the 1968 film The Party, in which Peter Sellers portrays an unintelligent and incompetent Indian who is accidentally invited to a white party, and causes chaos. We see blackface and, what Professor Shilpa Davé identifies as brown voice, further portrayed by Fisher Stevens in 1988’s Short Circuit 2, and even as recent as Max Minghella’s portrayal of Divya Narendra in 2010’s The Social Network. In each of these instances we see no South-Asian representation, and instead rely on historically biased caricatures of what Western culture believes South-Asian people look and sound like.
On the other hand, perceived positive representation of South-Asian characters in media, while not overtly racist, can still perpetuate the same stereotypical notions of a singular set of careers, attitudes, and personalities of a diverse ethno-cultural group. Raj Koothrappali of The Big Bang Theory, while played by a South-Asian actor, is a character whose inability to speak to women, profession, and reliance on cultural gags about being deported to India further reinforce stereotypical beliefs about Indian men. This is a sentiment shared by Aziz Ansari, creator of Master Of None, who notes the way the media portrays South-Asian men as less masculine in what is likely a continuation of the same kind of unintelligent and comical stereotype encouraged in Western media throughout history.
THE ‘MYTHICAL’ EAST
Finally, we have the role of India as a setting within popular culture, which inadvertently reinforces a historical sense of mysticism and otherworldliness to India and its traditions. We can see this expressed in the role India plays as a getaway setting in 2010’s Eat Pray Love, In which Liz finds herself in India to reconnect with herself. This getaway mentality is continued within films such as 2011’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or, more recently, Victoria & Abdul, and both films have characters who reinforce the apparent subservience of South-Asian people in a continuation of colonial ideologies.
This experienced can be felt by any culture which finds its customs, cultures and beliefs seen as ‘other’ in a Western context. The controversy around Apu is a contextual means to discuss the portrayal of South-Asian culture within the media, but highlights a greater issue in which you can never truly represent or understand the complexities of a particular ethno-cultural group, without consultation and inclusion of members of those communities.
To bastardise the words of Apu himself, if you come across media which stereotypically or negatively depicts South-Asian people, simply say, “No thank you, don’t come again”.