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'The Simpsons' engenders a firestorm of criticism after dismissing complaints over stereotypes

From Robert Ito at The New York Times:

Working with the director Michael Melamedoff, the film crew began production in April 2016, greenlit by truTV as part of its shift to comedy programming. To tackle the project, he enlisted some high-powered help. In one sequence, the actor Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”) describes being in a car with his dad when a man drives up and asks them where the nearest Kwik-E-Mart is. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th surgeon general of the United States, talks about enduring the taunts of an Apu-imitating bully in the seventh grade. And Maulik Pancholy (“30 Rock”) recounts how much he hated going into 7-Eleven stores as a kid, lest his friends see an Indian store clerk and start doing “the Apu thing.”

In the film, Mr. Kondabolu places Apu within the broader history of Hollywood’s depiction of Indians, including Peter Sellers’s brownface rendition of an idiot in the 1968 Blake Edwards film “The Party” and the Indians feasting on chilled monkey brains in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” He also reached out to a who’s-who of South Asian actors to talk about their experiences in Hollywood, in the vein of Philip Kan Gotanda’s 1987 play “Yankee Dawg You Die” and Mr. Ansari’s 2015 “Master of None” episode “Indians on TV.”

Among the anecdotes: Sakina Jaffrey (“House of Cards”) cornering the market on “weeping, ethnic moms of potential rapists and murderers,” and Mr. Penn being asked to play a character named Taj Mahal, which he credits with his subsequent starring roles in the “Harold and Kumar” movies. “For the record,” Mr. Penn said in an interview, “I had a great time doing it.”

The episode, titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” and co-written by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, featured a scene with Marge Simpson sitting in bed with her daughter Lisa, reading a book called “The Princess in the Garden,” and attempting to make it inoffensive for 2018. Shortly before the episode aired, longtime Simpsons showrunner Al Jean even tweeted: “New Simpsons in five minutes. Twitter explosion in act three.”

In act three, Lisa turns to directly address the TV audience and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The shot then pans to a framed picture of Apu at the bedside with the line, “Don’t have a cow!” inscribed on it. Marge responds: “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”

Followed by Lisa saying, “If at all.”

This scene caused arguments over whether it was (according to Andrew Sullivan) a case where the “writers of The Simpsons stood their ground against the attempt to rid their show of funny stereotypes,” or it was (per Kamau Bell) an example of “a ridiculous and toothless response” to legitimate gripes.

The backlash after the episode’s airing was fast and furious, with some even arguing the use of Apu’s photo with (the usual Bart Simpson saying of) “Don’t have a cow” was a jab at Hinduism. Others were disappointed a show like The Simpsons was tone deaf in their estimation.




Al Jean initially responded to the backlash by retweeting messages which decried political correctness and calling the criticism of Apu in The Simpsons a non-issue. Others joined the fray, with National Review calling for people to deal with their “microcomplaints” and keep their hands off Apu, and Andrew Sullivan defending The Simpsons and Apu for free expression against zealotry from the original Puritans to the new PC Puritans.”

Bill Maher defended The Simpsons on Friday by arguing one shouldn’t be surprised when old stuff actually turns out to be … old, with old ideas. Without specifically using Kondabolu’s name, Maher stated that if someone combs through old TV shows to identify problematic material, “you’re not ‘woke’, you’re just a douchebag.”

From Todd VanDerWerff at Vox:

What if the Simpsons had aged in real time? What if the show had launched in 1989 and here, in 2018, all of the characters were 29 years older? Bart would be pushing 40 and Lisa in her late 30s. Maggie would be in her early 30s but smack-dab in the middle of the portion of the millennial generation hardest hit by the 2008 economic collapse. Homer and Marge would be somewhere in their 60s, probably still scrabbling to make ends meet … What if Bart and Lisa were teenagers? If Maggie were a kid? If Springfield, too, had changed to reflect all of the differences between the world of now and the world of then?

A couple of things prompt this musing from me. The first is the Roseanne revival, which catches up with the characters 20-plus years after the original show left the air (a necessity for a series that’s live-action — nobody would buy Sara Gilbert as a teenager, most likely), but which also left me wondering if the world would be clamoring for a Simpsons revival had the original ended in, say, 2001.

But the other, of course, is the horrible way the show has handled the closest thing it made to an official response to comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu. In its most recent episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the show seems to take pride in the way it hasn’t changed since 1989, even as change is a fact of life. And for a show that likes to satirize everything, its inability to talk about aging, about shifting political opinions, about how different America has become, ends up miring it in a past it could so easily escape.

By the end of last week, showrunner Al Jean seemed to open up to the possibility there might be more to the issue than the series was willing to admit initially.


With the term political correctness being thrown around liberally, it should come as no surprise and no duh that these issues are not new when it comes to discussions of media. Nor are they new to the genre of western animation, which includes such programs as South Park, Archer and Rick and Morty to name just a few. But this is not exactly the same situation. Those programs usually straddle the line or intentionally flout boundaries of taste for humor. The Simpsons is a case where a character has become more controversial over time because of the circumstances surrounding the depiction, and is more akin to how Chief Wahoo for the Cleveland Indians in Major League Baseball or the Washington Redskins’ name and logo in the National Football League have become more and more verboten as attitudes have changed. 

Below is a list of other characters and material which have become controversial because of their perceived offensiveness.

  • Dumbo is a classic Disney film made in 1941 and has one of their biggest cry moments of any movie in their animated canon. The film is also set to be remade by Disney in live-action form with Tim Burton directing. However, The Crows in Dumbo have long been controversial by people who argue they’re racist caricatures of African-Americans. The head crow, voiced by Cliff Edwards (a.k.a. Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio), is named Jim Crow. On the flip side, it is notable the other crows were voiced by African-American actors and singers, which was not exactly something standard for Hollywood voice-over work at the time. Also, while the crows are definitely stereotypes, they along with Timothy (the Mouse) are the only characters which show decency. And, in the end, they are the ones who teach Dumbo to fly. In fact, one non-racist reading of the Crows is recognizing Dumbo as the story of an outcast. As symbolic representations of African-Americans, the crows are outcasts in American society in 1941, who sympathize with Dumbo when they realize his plight. 
  • In recent years, the whitewashing of Asian characters in adapting stories from their source material has been a source of much controversy. Moreover, the depiction of Asian males in movies and television shows has been one where things have historically been very stereotypical and very few pickings — a 2017 Annenberg study found Asian males represent only 6 percent of speaking characters in film. Although, it was once thought “okay” for any Asian character to be represented by white people who squint their eyes while the oriental riff plays (e.g., Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). There are also very few instances of Asian males being the romantic lead for most material. Glen (Steven Yeun) in The Walking Dead is one of the few examples where an Asian male is given a love story, and a love story with a non-Asian partner. Some years back, there was a fascinating article about the effect Sixteen Candles had on Asian males who grew up during the 1980’s. In his review for the film back in 1984, Roger Ebert wrote actor Gedde Watanabe had elevated the character of Long Duk Dong from “a potentially offensive stereotype to high comedy.” However, not everyone sees it that way.

Long Duk Dong is the creation of writer-director John Hughes, whose films — The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — enshrined a Hollywood-heightened image of a suburban high school near you. Geeks, jocks, cheerleaders, kids desperate to find an in with the popular crowd — they were the standard character set.

In real American schools, Long Duk Dong gave the mean kids new material.

“Every single Asian dude who went to high school or junior high during the era of John Hughes movies was called ‘Donger,'” says Martin Wong … “If you’re being called Long Duk Dong,” Wong explains, “you’re comic relief amongst a sea of people unlike you.” Worse, says [Eric] Nakamura: “You’re being portrayed as a guy who just came off a boat and who’s out of control. It’s like every bad stereotype possible, loaded into one character.”

  • George Lucas was criticized after the release of Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace, not only for the quality of the movie, but also for what some saw as racist aliens, or more accurately racist caricatures applied to the alien characters. The Neimodians (Trade Federation) were criticized as Fu Nanchu, “Yellow Peril” villains, Watto (the flying, hook-nosed slave owner of Anakin Skywalker and his mother) has been decried as being a collection of negative Jewish stereotypes, and Jar-Jar Binks has been labeled a “Stepin Fetchit” in CGI form.
  • Around the turn of the millennium, the rights to air the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies library were given exclusively to Cartoon Network. At some point, apparently the decision was made by someone in the Cartoon Network brass that Speedy Gonzales (originally voiced by Mel Blanc) was not appropriate for young and impressionable viewers because the cartoon mouse was an offensive caricature of Mexicans. Shorts featuring Speedy, and his cousin Slowpoke Rodriguez (a slow-witted mouse who packs a gun), were censored from Cartoon Network’s airings of Looney Tunes. In a 2002 interview, a Cartoon Network spokesperson stated the character had not been on-air for “years” because it was an ethnic stereotype. After a backlash against what was perceived to be political correctness, Cartoon Network relented and returned the character’s animated shorts to the network’s rotation.
The Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD box sets come with the following disclaimer: “The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were false then and are still false today. While the following does not represent the WB view of society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as to claim these prejudices never existed.”

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