The Problem with “The Problem with Apu”
For many South Asians Hari Kondabalu’s documentary “The Problem with Apu” was an exciting opportunity to provide necessary commentary on the representation of South Asians in media.
The majority of media representations of South Asians vary from racist caricatures to ‘cultural’ cliches, which is why an examination of this phenomena was needed- starting with The Simpsons. The much-loved classic symbolizes Americana at its best and worst- it’s a depiction of ugly truths through crass humour, cultural commentary and more. However, it’s portrayal of South Asians has been both stereotypical from the content to deeply problematic as the longest running South Asian characters are voiced by white actors.
This is what Kondabalu set off to explore in the documentary but he managed to exclude the narrative of South Asian women which is unfortunately not surprising trend.
As I saw the documentary I found myself in a similar situation- where South Asian men completely or purposefully forget to include the experiences of South Asian women and how media representation holds different repercussions for them compared to their male counterparts.
Furthermore, there were 16 men who were given more speaking time and one-on-one interviews while there were only a total of 7 women. This essentially leads to more male-centric discussions and that is apparent as the documentary omits the analysis that intersectional feminist dialogue could have provided.
This feeds into the narrative that characters like Apu affect women the same way they affect men- which is inherently incorrect. Characters like both Apu and his wife Manjula, affect South Asian women differently when it comes to how they are both perceived and treated within the media and in their daily lives. The very fact that Manjula’s presence within The Simpson’s wasn’t touched upon within the entirety of the documentary is a testament to the lack of regard for delving deeper into the problems with stereotypical characters within the show.
While she wasn’t a primary character like Apu, she represented South Asian women with the same tired stereotypes that have plagued them in media for decades. South Asian women are often represented as subservient, domestic and with no real agency. Manjula is depicted as a one-dimensional character who is solely seen within the role of wife and mother which is a perpetuation of sexist and racist tropes of South Asian women.
Manjula herself was also voiced by two white women, Tress MacNeille and Jan Hooks. We see the same situation as Kondabalu examines in the documentary regarding the voice actor Hank Azaria, a white man who voices the character of Apu. Yet for some reason Kondabalu completely glosses over the fact that the only other long running South Asian character in the show is also voiced by non-South Asians. He wasn’t able to get Azaria to speak on the issue but had he realized that there was another South Asian character voiced by a white woman he may have been able to get the discussion he wanted all along.
The latter end of the documentary brings up the introduction of Apu’s nephew, Jamshed who dons an American accent- yet the documentary still doesn’t put any focus on Manjula who was on the show longer. Exploring Manjula as a character would have brought the documentary to a discussion that would have been more productive and substantially more inclusive. Examining issues of race and media representation without taking into to account how gender and race intersect left the documentary falling short of the discourse it could have facilitated.
Time and time again within media there is a trend of South Asian men either continuing the same harmful stereotypes that are presented in The Simpsons of South Asian women or erasing them all together. In this case, Kondabalu managed to do the latter rendering the much anticipated documentary to be not representative of the full South Asian experience. Having more women interviewed, including Manjula and recognizing that gender and race do intersect in different ways for women would have allowed the documentary to be fully representative of the community it was attempting to serve.
For now, the Problem remains not only with Apu but with Kondabalu’s lack of gender analysis and inclusion as well.