Writers for Fox’s iconic cartoon The Simpsons are facing backlash after they shrugged off a growing controversy about Apu and South Asian stereotypes. So why are other stereotype-based characters not as controversial?
The left is upset this week after The Simpsons decided to brush off accusations of racial stereotyping with regards to the character Apu, the South Asian proprietor of the local convenience store in the Simpson’s hometown of Springfield.
"Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect… What can you do?" pic.twitter.com/Bj7qE2FXWN
— soham (@sohamberlamps) April 9, 2018
Comedian Hari Kondabolu led the charge on the issue last year, releasing a documentary in November called The Problem with Apu.
“Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked?” Kondabolu tweeted in response. “Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.”
“I was obsessed with The Simpsons growing up and it has greatly influenced my comedy,” Kondabolu said in a statement before the film was released. “However, as my mother proves, you can criticize something you love because you expect more from it. For the longest time, Apu was the most prominent representation of South Asian Americans, and despite how much our society has changed in the last three decades, the character persists today. I made this film to not only talk about the origin of Apu and highlight the impact of such images in media, but also to celebrate the diversity and complexity of my community.”
In Kondabolu’s documentary, Whoopi Goldberg says the Apu character is a form of “blackface” because the character is voiced by a white man.
Many remain confused by the charges against Apu and The Simpsons, because, after all, The Simpsons is a fictional comedy show. To add to the confusion, those leading the charge against the character are two comedians, Hari Kondabolu and the New York Times‘ Sopan Deb. Are Kondabolu and Deb really saying that The Simpsons, a show built around a not-so-flattering caricature of the white, working-class father, should consider minority caricatures off limits?
But let’s give Kondabolu the benefit of the doubt and assume that Apu perpetuates a harmful stereotype. What do we say, then, about other characters based on ethnic stereotypes?
There are a lot of parallels between Apu and Nintendo’s Mario. Apu isn’t voiced by a South Asian voice actor and Mario isn’t voiced by an Italian-American one. Apu was created by white Americans and Mario was developed by Japanese game developers. Both characters portray ethnic stereotypes in a humorous manner.
Nintendo was accused last year of cultural insensitivity prior to the release of the most recent Mario title because the character can opt to wear a sombrero in the game. But ironically, Mario, the face of the $60 billion Japanese video game company, is a character built on ethnic stereotypes.
This column certainly doesn’t make the case that Nintendo should face a similar kind of scrutiny over Mario. I make the opposite argument.
Nintendo revolutionized the video game industry when Mario, a character built around the stereotype of an Italian-American immigrant, was introduced. Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario, says that Nintendo originally described the character as an “Italian plumber from Brooklyn.” In 1985’s Super Mario Bros. Mario encounters dozens of walking shiitake mushrooms called Goombas. The name is derived from “Goombah,” a slang word meaning “Italian thug” that is derogatory when used by non-Italians.
Unlike Mario, who, for some reason, talks about putting spaghetti on pizza, Apu is a smart, developed character. Even Kondabolu has acknowledged Apu’s cleverness and depth. “He’s one of the smarter characters on the show. He’s extremely funny character. It’s a thoughtful, interesting character, but ultimately it’s a stereotype,” he said.
There isn’t much depth to Mario, perhaps because of the medium in which he appears. Regardless, he’s a short, chubby Italian-American plumber with a thick Italian accent. Nearly all of his characterization derives from Italian-American stereotypes. Comedian Pete Holmes humorously described Mario as “an immigrant struggling with the language,” during a bit in which he questioned why racial stereotyping is acceptable when directed at certain groups. “‘It’s a me, Mario.’ Holmes said. “That’s an impression of an immigrant struggling with the language. Don’t make fun of him, help him out he’s new!” Listen to Martinet go into the “Mario” voice during an interview.
It’s a me, Mario. Okey dokey, let’s make a pizza pie together. You go get some a (sic) sausage, I’m gonna get some spaghetti, we are gonna put the spaghetti and the sausage in the pizza, then I’m a (sic) gonna chase you with the pizza. If I catch you with the pizza, then you gotta chase me with the pizza.
Yup, Mario wants to chase you around the room with a pizza. Mario’s characterization is either deeply reductive or downright silly. I prefer the latter interpretation.
It’s important to note that Mario was introduced at a time in American history when Italian-American discrimination was still prevalent. More than 10 years after Mario’s first appearance, Bill Clinton, who was a presidential candidate, apologized after he made ethnically-insensitive remarks about Democratic New York Governor Mario Cuomo.
“This is part of an ugly syndrome that strikes Italian-Americans, Jewish people, blacks, women, all the ethnic groups,” Cuomo said when asked by reporters to address Clinton’s remarks.
Cuomo often recanted throughout his life that administrators at his law school encouraged him to erase his Italian last name if he wanted a chance to land a job at a large Manhattan law firm. Cuomo’s experiences weren’t unique. Italian-Americans throughout the 20th century fought to eschew the working-class immigrant stereotype that Mario reinforces.
In Kondabolu’s film, Utkarsh Ambudkar of The Mindy Project fame, argues that the problem with Apu was that he was one of the few South Asian characters in Hollywood. Likewise, in the 70s, Italian-Americans were concerned about their representation in Hollywood, which, at the time, was mostly limited to mafia films like The Godfather, which starred non-Italian actor Marlon Brando. Some thought these films reinforced negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans and organized crime but those voices ultimately faded away over time.
Despite all of this, the thin stereotype that Mario is based upon has been almost irrelevant to the character’s impact. Mario’s positive qualities, his optimism and energy, overshadow his goofy portrayal of his Italian-American heritage. When video game fans think of Italian-Americans, many think of Mario. And Mario makes them happy.
Of course, Mario does not represent the complex nuances of the Italian-American experience. But isn’t it foolish to expect that he should? After all, he’s an animated character that spends his time jumping on pixelated mushrooms.
“The part that I love the most to play is Mario because its a character full of life and joy and happiness and faces challenges with an ‘ah-hoo, Let’s a go,'” Martinet says.
Perhaps Mario does represent the Italian-American spirit.
Is it possible that Apu has had a net positive effect of American attitudes toward South Asians? It’s hard to say. But it’s certainly a lot harder to make the case that Apu has inspired legitimate hatred or bigotry.
The culture of over-politicization has led to superfluous conversations about non-issues. This is one of those non-issues.