The Simpsons is one of the most successful TV shows of all time; combining big laughs with often astute social commentary.
However, despite having an eight-year-old vegetarian feminist as a principle character, could it be some of the humour isn’t quite as good hearted as 90s viewers first thought?
It’s the year 2018, and a new generation are being shocked by some aspects of the show their parents accepted as being totally normal.
Grievances have included apparent instances of transphobia, with Episode 345/1610: There’s Something About Marrying featuring a lesbian golfer who is actually a heterosexual man.
However, what has drawn most ire is the character of Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu, who speaks with an exaggerated South Asian accent and is sometimes viewed to be an offensive caricature.
@bomani_jones Just came into a renaissance with the Simpsons with my kids watching it. I tried one from back in my day they were like wow these are old. Humor was so much more offensive back then! pic.twitter.com/3CMCjF81ir
— NavHazard88 (@navhazard88) March 7, 2018
Comedian Hari Kondabolu has been so affected by the character, he created a documentary called The Problem With Apu; exploring just why the cartoon character is so unacceptable.
Speaking with The Guardian, Kondabolu explained:
Apu reflected how America viewed us: servile, devious, goofy,
A white dude created a stereotypical Indian voice, and a bunch of white writers in the room laughed at said stereotypical Indian voice, and this led to the creation of my childhood bully and a walking insult to my parents.
There are a billion reasons to love The Simpsons and Apu was one of them,
But when you sit in high school, which is, I think for most of us, the lowest point in our lives, you realize [Apu] was a tool for kids to go after you. And this was perfect, right?
A caricature with this ridiculous accent that nobody has. And even though I grew up in Queens, I still had the same vulnerabilities, and my parents were accented. I thought: how are they going to view my parents, how are they going to view me?
Watch the trailer for The Problem With Apu below:
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Hank Azaria, the voice behind Apu, addressed some of the issues raised in the documentary while appearing at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Esquire reported:
The idea that anybody young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased—or worse—based on the character of Apu is distressing,
Especially in post-9/11 America, the idea anybody was marginalized based on it was very upsetting to me, personally and professionally.
It’s a character that I’ve done for 29 years now, and I’ve done it with a lot of love and joy and with pride. That certainly wasn’t the intent.
The intent was to make people laugh and to bring joy. The idea that it caused any kind of pain or suffering in any way is disturbing.
[The Simpsons have been] pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people. Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, school principals, Italians, you know it.
They take a lot of pride over there in not apologizing for any of that, and I think over the years they’ve done a really good job of being uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful.
Hey @harikondabolu I played The Problem with Apu for my 9th grade ethnic studies classes today. Your style and humor really helped get the important message across. Thank you so much for your work, the comedy and otherwise.
— Andrew Mertes (@andrewfmertes) March 22, 2018
This new, critical analysis of The Simpsons comes after millennials were horrified after being introduced to nostalgia-filled sitcom Friends.
Younger viewers took serious issue with the seemingly cosy lifestyle-porn series; and not just because Ross should have known not to cheat when he and Rachel were on a break.
Looking back, some of the language used in Friends to talk about those from the LGBT community – most notably Chandler’s much mocked dad – just wouldn’t hold up in this woke day and age.
Other millennials resented the show for its fat-shaming of Monica, and some of the sexist behaviour exhibited by promiscuous Joey.
Although many of us grew up loving the dysfunctional gang; for many younger millennials, Friends may as well be Love Thy Neighbour.
Writer Ruth Graham penned the following damning article in Slate:
In retrospect, the entire show’s treatment of LGBTQ issues is awful, a fault pointedly illustrated by the exhaustive clip-compilation ‘Homophobic Friends.’ But Chandler’s treatment of his gay father, a Vegas drag queen played by Kathleen Turner, is especially appalling, and it’s not clear the show knows it.
It’s one thing for Chandler to recall being embarrassed as a kid, but he is actively resentful and mocking of his loving, involved father right up until his own wedding (to which his father is initially not invited!).
Even a line like ‘Hi, Dad’ is delivered with vicious sarcasm. Monica eventually cajoles him into a grudging reconciliation, which the show treats as an acceptably warm conclusion. But his continuing discomfort now reads as jarringly out-of-place for a supposedly hip New York thirtysomething—let alone a supposedly good person, period.
Matt LeBlanc, who played Joey Tribbiani in the 90s sit-com, spoke out about the online criticism in a BBC interview:
I don’t want to make jokes that make people go, ‘Ooh, that’s not my bag.’ I don’t like that. I run from that kind of stuff.
Because that joke isn’t going to be relevant in six months. You talk about ‘Hey man, you lied to me,’ or ‘Wasn’t that fun?’ – that’ll always be relevant.
I can’t help but wonder which contemporary shows we know and love today will be perceived in a much darker light in the years to come…
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.