I have to give respect to Hank Azaria. Not just a marvellous actor, but a man of principle and compassion. Azaria took on board the wave of criticism aimed at him following Hari Kondabolu’s film The Problem With Apu and has announced that he will no longer be voicing Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the beloved Indian immigrant and hard-working Kwik-E-Mart owner from The Simpsons. It does Azaria credit that he was clearly distressed by the thought that his work could cause pain to others, and that he would rather give up the character than risk causing any more pain. Good for him.
Having said that, I think he’s wrong to believe that giving up Apu was necessary.
First things first: I believe there is nothing inherently wrong with an animated character being voiced by an actor of a different race to the character’s. Indeed, Azaria himself doesn’t believe that, as if he did, he wouldn’t have just given up voicing Apu: he’d also have given up Carl, Lou, Dr Nick Riviera, Bumblebee Man, and Julio, for starters. What’s more, racial mismatches between voice and character are extremely common throughout animation-land, from Family Guy to Big Mouth, and this practice draws very little fire from the same critics who took aim at Apu. So, I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say I don’t think it’s a problem in itself.
But maybe what Azaria did with the character was offensive. Maybe his vocal characterisation was done in mockery of Indians, like a subcontinental version of the crows from Dumbo. I’m certain that many people believe this, but I am not sure. To me, Azaria was doing a stereotypical Indian accent, but not a cruel exaggeration of one. There was one episode, in fact, where Apu switched into a cliched Indian voice to convince people he couldn’t speak English so they’d stop bothering him: the difference between Apu’s own impersonation of an Indian stereotype and his regular performance was clear.
Because the fact is, Apu isn’t an Indian stereotype – more often than not he subverts them. He works in a convenience store, but he’s a PhD in computer science. When he had to take a test to become an American citizen, he showed that he loved his country, and knew more about it than most of the white inhabitants of Springfield. He frequently sticks up for his culture, while never being restricted by it. His main purpose, when his Indian identity is centred in the show, is to shatter the misconceptions of the ignorant white Americans he’s surrounded by.
Are there elements of stereotype in Apu? Sure there are: he’s a character in a cartoon show; these shows thrive on stereotypes. Frequently shows like The Simpsons bring stereotypes to life in their animated worlds in order to demonstrate the silliness of them in the real world. If the acknowledgment that such stereotypes exist is offensive in itself, I guess Apu is offensive. But I don’t think it’s worth narrowing the potential scope of creation to bow to those who think that way.
Kondabolu did raise an important point in his critique, though: as a child of Indian ancestry growing up in America, Apu was frequently the reference point for racist bullies, who would use the character’s name as a slur, his “Thank you, come again” catchphrase as a weapon. Given this, is it not best to get rid of characters like Apu, so they can’t spark racist taunts?
I don’t believe erasing Apu would’ve erased those taunts. Racists are gonna racist, and they’ll use whatever comes to hand to spew their hate. Apu didn’t make those bullies abuse Indian kids: they wanted to abuse Indian kids and seized on the most convenient reference. Tracing the source of the issue to Springfield is a mixing-up of cause and effect.
Then there is the testimony of other people of Indian descent, who proclaimed Apu a source of pride in their heritage, a character that gave them strength and comfort in being what was, not long ago, a rare representation of South Asians on US TV. We shouldn’t ignore their voices: to assume all people of a certain background think the same way is kind of the problem in the first place, isn’t it?
So I don’t think Apu himself is a problem. And I don’t think Hank Azaria voicing him is a problem. In a nutshell, I don’t think there’s a problem. Azaria did, and with that in mind he hung up his Kwik-E-Mart ID badge, and that’s fair enough. But the campaign that led to him doing so was wrongheaded, and though it’s just a small thing in a big world, I reckon it’s a shame.