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The Simpsons responds to Apu controversy in new episode

People feel let down by how the cartoon series has handled criticism

Last year, Hari Kondabolu unpacked the racist stereotype of Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in the documentary The Problem with Apu

The Simpsons is like your racist grandfather. You love your grandfather. He's been there your whole life and has taught you some valuable things,” Kondabolu told Dazed at its time of release. “But he still does racist stuff regularly and if he can't change, well, maybe it's about time that he dies.” 

The decades-spanning cartoon series has now responded to the criticism in its latest episode, ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’. In the episode, Marge reads her favourite childhood book, The Princess in the Garden by Heloise Hodgeson Burwell, to Lisa. While reading, she realises the book is more offensive and outright racist than she recalls.

Shocked by the book’s depictions of Irish and South American people, Marge edits the book to read again but it no longer makes much sense, and Lisa objects: she says there’s “no point” as it lacks an “emotional journey”.

“It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character out of a book,” Marge says. “But now it’s as inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati… what am I supposed to do?” 

Looking directly at the audience, Lisa asserts: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

The scene then expands to show a photo of Apu (with the caption ‘don’t have a cow’) on Lisa’s bedside table, indicating they’re directly addressing the controversy.

“Some things will be dealt with at a later date… if at all,” they agree.

Kondabolu has responded to the episode on Twitter: “Wow. ‘Politically incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie and the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.”

He added: “In The Problem with Apu, I used Apu and The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalised groups and why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.” 

The Problem with Apu unpacks how problematic Apu, the owner of the Kwik-E-Mart, is, and the portrayal of South Asian characters on screen. The doc, directed by Michael Melamedoff, features interviews with South Asian celebrities like Hasan Minhaj and Kal Penn. Al Jean, executive producer of The Simpsons previously told Indiewire that the crew of the show had discussed the issue following the doc which had “given us a lot of thought”. 

The voice of Apu, Hank Azaria (who isn’t South Asian and also voices characters like Moe) also previously said they were thinking of what to do with the character. He added anyone negatively affected by Apu was a “distressing” thought for him.

Simpsons fans have also voiced concern over the “toothless” response by the show. Much of the criticism was about how the argument was delivered through Lisa – a character that’s usually the most liberal and progressive.