Harmful Stereotypes of American Minorities in the The Simpsons Essay Example



The Simpsons is an American adult animated sitcom that first premiered in nineteen-eighty-seven as Thirty-second shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show. These shorts would later become a highlight of the show and three seasons after their inception the Simpsons was moved to an independent series (December seventeenth, 1989). From this point on till the present day, the show has been producing episodes, many of which feature a variety of characters who are often portrayed in a somewhat stereotypical or cliche manner. These characters and their portrayal range from the lead cast such as “The Simpsons”, a typical working-class middle American family, to more blatant and over the top characters such as groundskeeper Willie, Smithers, and Apu the shopkeeper. 

The character Apu, in particular, has been the result of much controversy, with many opponents claiming that Apu negatively represents Indians in America by harmfully reinforcing racial stereotypes. Supporters on the other hand claim that the character is only intended to be a light-hearted jab at how Americans, and American culture, in particular, perceive South Asian people. The show, after all, is noted for its use of clearly exaggerated and largely inaccurate aspects, such as in the Scottish Groundskeeper willie, who is famed for his alcoholism, love of haggis, and hatred for the English. These character traits while yes exaggerated, and exploited are not intended to discriminate or humiliate their source. They are however meant to poke fun at, tease, and even criticize how certain people and groups are socially viewed in the United States, much in the same way a friend or family member might joke around with a loved one. Joking About something doesn't necessarily mean you are making fun of it.

These jokes, however, are very indirect and it would be near impossible to state the definitive meaning of a joke. After all, comedy is incredibly nuanced and subtle, and especially on a television show like The Simpsons where the jokes and characters are over thirty years old. Clearly a number of things that were ok to say thirty years ago are simply unacceptable in modern society, and it may likewise be difficult to look at the show non objectively when not fully understanding the time and climate of its release. It must, therefore, be understood that there are likely to be no hard and fast answers to whether The  Simpsons reinforces harmful stereotypes of minorities in America. Although with careful and thorough analysis  the true intentions and connotations behind The Simpsons characters should become evident.    

Smithers 

First and foremost it must be stated that the Simpsons is a comedic show, and above all else, the show’s intention is to be humorous. However, sometimes the show does try to walk the line between making a good joke and a cultural statement. There is no better example of this than in the closeted homosexual, Waylan Smithers. In the early days of The Simpsons, America, admittedly was much more accepting of jokes centred around homosexuals. Some jokes were cheap, cruel even, but the vast majority of these jokes, on The Simpsons at least, were not intended to be harmful to gay characters in any way shape or form, they were intended to tease. That is not to say The Simpsons did not at times play its part in facilitating this kind of Homophobic-comedy culture.

They did, there are a handful examples of the ’90s and 2000’s episodes where Smithers is made the butt of the joke because of his sexual orientation. This is not okay, and to simply say that this was common of the time, and expressed how America felt towards gay people, may come off as a half-hearted excuse. Nevertheless, the character Smithers has always been more than just a gay cliche, and while yes jokes are made towards him, they are done in a light-hearted and teasing manner. 

Perhaps the best example of  The Simpsons’ portrayal of  Smithers comes in season sixteen episode fifteen of two-thousand-five. In the episode Smithers does not play a major role, he rarely does, his impact, however, is far from small. The episode is based around the idea of the Simpsons children, Lisa and Bart, having a machine that allows them to look into the future. Later, In a scene from the future, Smithers is seen to be on a date with a girl. Puzzled, a teenage Bart asks why he is on a date seeing as he is a gay man. Smithers replies by saying he is straight, so long as he takes injections every ten minutes, this is followed by Smithers injecting a syringe into his arm and blurting out the animated response “I love boobies !”. 

This is a perfect example of The Simpsons’ social commentary. The show is not making fun of homosexuality, they are doing the exact opposite, they are being sarcastic. The idea being that gay people are so looked down upon, people are willing to take painful injections to cure their supposed disease of homosexuality. Here the show is trying to promote gay people by making fun of how homosexuality is perceived as a disease. Yet, by today’s standards, some may say that the episode supposedly falls flat. Outrage stemming from the beginning of the episode where Lisa and Bart are teasing each other for being gay. There is no intent of hatred behind the children’s actions, they are using phrases that were socially acceptable in the time period. 

And while teasing people by calling them gay has come out of fashion, The words set the tone for the character smithers and the Simpsons as a whole. Parts are dated, they were acceptable in a past culture, society, and climate. The world has changed and using that kind of language is frowned upon, however that episode had the intention of making a smart and downright funny point over homosexualities perception in America. And so while elements may not be acceptable in today’s society it has done more to promote gay progress than the supposed harm of its offensive language. 

Regardless though, the character is still sometimes viewed as a disappointment. According to the Salon article “The Smithers Test: How TV fails to depict gay characters,” Smithers is Two-dimensional and more gay than character. Yes, there are examples of Smithers playing into these roles. In Earlier episodes, Smithers is occasionally the source of sexual innuendo, and it is often alluded to that Smithers has a sexual infatuation towards his boss, Mr Burns. 

In Season nine, episode eighteen Smithers is described to have a supposed rocket in his pocket when talking to Mr Burns. In season four episode five Smithers is playing a detective and replies to Mr Burns saying “I think Women and seamen don’t mix”.  In episode four, season eight Mr Burns asks Smithers to take off his belt, Smithers replies “with pleasure sir”. And so on and so on. These jokes, may, to some, cause offence, however,  they are no different to other sitcoms. 

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, for example, is often noted for making jokes based upon the characters height and weight. And while opponents may claim that people of below-average height and above-average weight are nowhere near marginalised to the extent of gay people, it does draw up an interesting point as to why jokes based towards gay people are less acceptable in our society. Where do we draw the line, certainly it must be somewhere, however an unintentionally harmless joke done in a friendly manner should surely be admissible, whether it be based around gender, race, height, weight, and yes even sexual orientation. So while offence towards these jokes is sometimes warranted, they do mostly fall into a theme of friendly teasing.  The Simpsons have undoubtedly made comments towards smithers that are regrettable. But there is no intention of demoting the gay community, still, In today’s society, it has become much more important to actively promote minorities, Brining us to the shows evolution.

The Simpsons is a living antique. Originally It was intended to relate and parody the Society and culture of its time, that being the late 80’s and 90’s. This would be fine, if the show had not been broadcasting for over thirty years. But it has, and therefore parts of it may be scrutinised, because as mentioned before, Things that were socially acceptable and inoffensive are now liable to the thoughts and opinions of later generations. This is predominantly a good thing. But it means there must be a cultural and social change to many aspects of one's life. Meaning television shows, and their depiction of Life, are likely to be different from what they were thirty years ago. That being said, The Simpsons is a television show that has been on the air for over thirty years and it cannot simply get rid of its characters. 

As mentioned in the Salon article Smithers does not feel like the kind of character that would be debuted in 2013, but that is a positive thing.  Smithers allows us to see a gay man evolve in American culture. In the Nineties when Smithers first began on the show he reflected America's perception of a gay man.  But as time progressed his depiction has adapted, he is changing with the times and so is the show. The Legacy of the show may in the future be drawn to question, however, It cannot be said that the show did not make an effort to promote and reformat the series in a way that reflects how the country felt at the time. In 2016 Smithers came out of the closet in the episode the  Burns Cage.

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon

What is the problem with Apu? A question that most average white  Americans would find hard to answer. Is he offensive? Or does he play into racial stereotypes? In some ways Yes. However his existence and legacy are incredibly complex, and to say definitively that his portrayal has been negative would be incorrect. The reason for adding  Apu to the show was likely to relate to a growing number of immigrants, and Americans relationship with said immigrants. Meaning it was the intentions of the Simpsons to include a range of diverse characters very early on. It must be remembered that Apu was one of the very first prominent Indian Characters ever to be displayed on American television. As well as the fact that his life and back-story was well developed, creating a character, who, unlike most minority characters of the time had depth and multiple layers.  

On many other American television shows of the time Few minority characters had as in-depth of a role, and even fewer were of Indian descent. It must also be stated that although there were a number of episodes where Apu was reduced to a stereotype or caricature of an Indian immigrant, he was in a number of incidents where he played a range of parts that showcased all the different features of an Indian- American Immigrant in positive and accepting tones. For example, he is a naturalised U.S. citizen and has a PhD in Computer Science ( season seven episode twenty-three). As well as in   Season seven episode five when Apu explains to Lisa that he is a vegetarian because he is Hindu, Lisa would later see the benefits of this lifestyle and choose to stop eating meat. 

Yet in many ways, Apu may be looked down upon because he supposedly demotes our perception of what an Indian-American immigrant should be. Much in the same way as smithers, we often have a preconceived idea of who a certain person is, based upon elements of his or her identity. But the real question is whether this is or is not harmful? In the Documentary The Problem with Apu it is cited that the character is reminiscent of someone from a Minstrel show. After all, Apu is a man of brown colour who is played by a white man. That being said the fact that Apu is offensive may be relevant but it is beside the point here, seeing as the real question is whether this depiction is harmful. 

This would ultimately boil down to a question of whether it is ok for White actors to voice or impersonate minority characters. There seems to be no supposed offence towards white people impersonating other white people, Groundskeeper willie being just as if not more offensive than the character Apu, yet there has been almost no vocal upset over his portrayal. This may come down to the fact that  Groundskeeper willie is less of a threat to Scottish people because there is much more inclusion and representation of whites than of people from India. This may lead to many Americans having a warped view of what an Indian person living in America is like, seeing as there are so few examples of their culture and identity. So does that mean you cannot make fun of or imitate groups that have been marginalised or misrepresented? 

That is a difficult question to answer, as comedy can often walk the thinnest of lines between offence and humour. But does that  mean poking fun at someone or thing that has suffered unfair discrimination is wrong? By saying yes that would essentially mean that nearly all jokes that mock or satirize something are unethical. They can be, as mentioned in the documentary, Indian-Americans were sometimes teased and ridiculed because of Apu’s depiction. This brings us to the question of when a joke is just for fun or whether or not it is offensive. As the comedian, Hari Kondabolu puts it comedy is all about context, delivery, execution whether the audience will go with you on the journey and whether or not it is believable? So based on these guidelines does Apu cause offence and by extension, discrimination towards Indian-Americans? 

To fully understand the extent of Apu’s offensiveness we must analyse his run throughout the show.  Apu first began his recurring role as the local kwik e-mart convenience store clerk. From here on his character has been developed into many episodes where he has played into Indian stereotypes. Firstly some general aspects of Apu’s character have been deemed by Indian-Americans as offensive and harmful. His speech, for example, is incredibly slurred and pulled back even being described like a monkey ( Sakina Jaffrey, The Problem with Apu). Secondly, the writing surrounding Apu is visibly ignorant. In episode five Season 13 Homer and Apu travel to India to the world's very first convenience store. This is seen as demeaning because it puts Indian-Americans into a box, labelling them as members of the service Community. 

Essentially “The Simpsons”, whose writer’s room is likely predominantly white,  thought it would be funny for Apu and Homer to travel to India and go to the world's first convenience store because it is a stereotype that all Indians work in a setting such as this. The show goes on further with similar incidents such as in season eleven episode seven.  During the episode Apu and his wife are deciding whether or not to have a baby, which prompts Apu to mutter the line “ Who will float my corpse down the Ganges”. Which again may very well cause outrage towards the South-Asian community as it reducing and degrading the group to a very small feature of Indian life. Lastly, In season sixteen episode six Apu is seen drinking a hot cup of coffee.

This causes Apu to burn his mouth and flail his tongue, while the person next to him places a wet cloth around his head to cool him down. This causes people in the episode to mistakenly view Apu as a terrorist. This is a very good example of  The Simpsons trying to do Apu justice. At this moment the episode is trying to relate and satirize how people from south Asia or South-Asian descent have been viewed socially in the united states post nine eleven. The show has good intentions, their execution and knowledge of the majority of these issues may be inadequate, However, the purpose of this character was not intended to cause genuine harm to anyone.  

In part Society is to blame for the depiction of Apu. At this time in America, It was normalised to poke fun at minority groups in this way. And it is important to remember that at this time there was no South-Asian voice to respond to the Simpsons Portrayal of Apu. After all, Apu was the only representation the Indian community had in the united states for such a long period of time. But that was in a different era of the United States, that does not make Apu’s representation anymore ok but it does explain where the show was coming from. To simply dismiss the character as a racist parody would be inaccurate, he was reflecting the time. The Show was not intentionally infuriating the Indian community, they just were not actively thinking about the consequences of the personas portrayal. As mentioned In the Documentary above many  Indian-Americans “ did not think the character was meant to be offensive.'' But the fact of whether or not the character was intended to be offensive or not is irrelevant. 

The fact of the matter is The Simpsons is a thirty-year-old Show, and they are being considered offensive by this year's standards. Would Apu have been accepted or added into a television show debuting today, likely not, or at least with vocal opposition. But the character has been grandfathered in from previous seasons,  meaning we get to view how a portion of American society viewed South-Asian People in the nineties. This could be a good thing, It could allow for a character who evolves and progresses with the times. Yet this is likely not the direction the show is taking the character, it has even been suggested that Apu may be silently departing the show. But to quietly sweep Apu under the rug is the wrong way to go about his run on the show. His role could be a valuable lesson on how to go about supposedly ill-humoured remarks. His depiction has been to many inconsiderate, insensitive and ignorant, but he could be so much more.

Perhaps the best way to deal with the Apu problem was said by the man who voices Apu himself. “We have to listen to South- Asian people… meaning inclusion in the writer's room … genuinely informing whatever new direction this character takes… and I am perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new” ( Hank Azaria ). This is the way to go forward with this character. Re-developing Apu into a person who is promoting Indian people in America could do a lot for healing and alleviating some of the many struggles of Indian-Americans. Rather than taking away one of the few representations of South- Asian people we should use Apu as a tool to promote positive features of Indian-Americans.

Groundskeeper Willie Versus Other Characters 

 So is The Simpsons offensive, and does it perpetuate harmful stereotypes? That is difficult to answer definitively, however, Its offence and outrage will vary from person to person as well as from the time and culture it is currently in. The Show has made a name for itself by consistently making fun of traits of individuals and groups. This can be seen in characters such as groundskeeper Willie. He is an incredibly over-the-top depiction of a Scottish male, and unlike most over the top depictions of a national or ethnic group, he has been well received. Why is this might you ask? Power. 

Caucasian men are very secure of their position of power in the united states. Historically however that has not been the case for people of colour.  Apu may be insulting or demeaning towards Indian people because their national identity has put them on a lower social standing. This means they have had to fight to get towards a higher social status and therefore are threatened by inaccurate portrayals. This might even contribute towards the divisions between Indian-Americans and the rest of the United States. Indian- Americans who have lived in the country they call home, may suffer repeated abuse and mistreatment because of their national background. Go back home, a phrase which may be commonly heard among Indian - Americans, is likely not for Scotts. 

Although one might argue that the offence and outrage towards any of these characters are based upon the ways in which the country internalises their meanings. Apu is offensive because he is dangerous. He could reaffirm or establish racial biases against Indian people. Groundskeeper Willie is funny, he is a goofy character and the connotations behind his traits do not harm Scottish people. Both Characters follow a similar format so what would inspire the differences between there perception. Is it possible that perhaps the Outrage behind Apu’s portrayal is due just to the fact that he is a person of colour rather than the actual content of his character? After all both Groundskeeper Willie and Apu are meant to be parodies of their true inspirations. So why then do people claim Apu to be politically incorrect and groundskeeper Willie to be acceptable?  

The show “ The Simpsons” is trying to portray both characters and groups in a humorous and stereotypical manner. The show is not trying to incite racial biases, they are intending to poke fun at people and groups including minorities. However the outrage and supposed harm from these depictions come from us the viewer. If Viewers of the Simpsons use Apu as a basis for there idea of An Indian man they are somewhat to blame. Yes, Apu may contribute to a stereotype of Indian people, however, he is a comedic tool on a late-night cartoon show.  If this is where the majority of America is gaining their information, perhaps they only have themselves to blame. The fact that there is very little Indian representation is beside the point. While there is perhaps more representation of Scottish people, it is likely that the majority of America is ignorant towards Scotland as well.

That does not mean that Scottish people face the same level of discrimination, but it may mean that Groundskeeper Willie, contributes to some misconceptions and inaccuracies about Scotland that would make Scottish people take annoyance and offence at. Therefore If People take offence at Apu they should very well take offence at Groundskeeper Willie too. So by that logic, Christians should be offended by the character Ned Flanders, and white middle-aged men should be offended by Homer, and pretty much everyone should be offended by everything said about their group. People do not have to like a joke, but that doesn't mean we should stop making them. If something is harmful and hate-filled we should end it, If something is annoying and insensitive get over it.  

Conclusion

So it would appear that the connotations behind The Simpsons characters are somewhat unclear. To some people, characters such as Apu are joking imitations, to others they are harmful examples of mocking which can lead to discrimination towards minorities.  There is no way to say who is correct, this is all a matter of opinion. However, the content of the show has never been aimed at discriminating or harming anybody. If a joke is made in good taste and without a deeper meaning of hate why then would anybody take offence. Some may claim that such jokes are ignorant or distort groups that have little representation. Yet it would seem that these claims are inconsistent and unrealistic. The Simpsons is a comedy show and it is likely doubtful that people are inspiring hate from these characters. Should we then stop making fun of someone or thing because some people find it offensive, or should we make jokes and poke fun at everything and one, Equally? Either way, a joke is rarely meant to genuinely insult, jokes, however, are often misconstrued.