Cover art by Hanifa Abdul Hameed
Growing up, I would never look forward to lunchtime at school. Being a first-generation Indian-American, my parents would always choose to pack ethnic food like chapati and upma rather than the Lunchables that my peers would feast on. My white classmates never understood this lunch period vendetta that I had, but they weren’t the ones being called “curry-muncher” and “terrorist” during recess. They weren’t bullied for wearing lenghas and kurtis during Indian holidays and harassed for having body hair, but I was. This problem would be brushed off as a joke, the bullies rudely labelling those that spoke out against them as a “snowflake”. Fortunately, due to increased stigmatism towards discrimination in any form, I doubt that this remains a problem. Still, one question remains – why did they find my culture so mockable? Today, we shall dissect how this influx of racism towards South Asians is caused by one of the biggest influences in the world: television.
What is the first cartoon character you come up with when you think “South Asian”? For many, the answer to this is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons. Infamous for his extremely stereotyped background and personality, Apu became the point of controversy right when he was introduced. For starters, he is extremely stereotyped as he was a convenience store owner with a PhD in computer science. Of course, there is nothing wrong with having these accomplishments, but it has been a South Asian trait for far too long. Since when is it considered comedic relief for someone to work at a franchise to sustain their family? Moreover, there was a whole episode dedicated to him escaping the arranged marriage in which Homer Simpson wears a mask of Ganesha, a Hindu god, a form of blatant appropriation.
However, this isn’t the worst of it. As watchers of The Simpsons may know, Apu had a particularly strong accent. Being an immigrant, this was expected from him, but the problem lay with the person that voiced this accent. Apu’s voice actor was Hank Azaria, a definitely-not-Asian, white man. This may seem fine, seeing as though anyone can mimick an Italian, French, or British accent without being found offensive, but those accents are usually romanticized whereas the accents of BIPOC are used primarily for comedic purposes. Moreover, according to Azaria himself, the accent he developed was based on Peter Seller’s accent in the 1968 film, The Party, where Seller, a white man, plays an Indian character while in brownface. This movie was problematic on its own, as it was a minstrel show in movie form, so how could Azaria not see the problem with voicing Apu? And how does this in itself influence the many watchers of The Simpsons?
You see, The Simpsons has such a big cult following that their audience will defend the show in any way possible. Under the video “The Problem with Apu – Hari Takes Aim at a Beloved Stereotype”, a sort of trailer for comedian Hari Kondobolu’s documentary on Apu, fans of the show took to the comments to protest Hari’s vendetta against the character. Most of the comment section was filled with responses like “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and “I know, let’s get a tech support scammer to play Apu”. Notice how these responses either defend Apu or use an additional stereotype. How can we fight it if there are so many people indulging in it?
But what if I told you that these tropes are used in children’s television as well? That’s right, Disney Channel, a corporation known for being family-friendly, is at fault for bad representation. In 2011, Disney introduced a new show, Jessie, narrating the story of a young nanny, four adopted children, and their bumbling butler. The show’s leads were incredibly diverse, but one stood out to their South Asian audience. Ravi Ross, an Indian-American, was implemented into the sitcom as one of the family’s adopted children. However, problems surfaced when fans began noticing some of Ravi’s troubling quirks.
For starters, his main personality traits were his great intelligence, pet lizard, and intolerance to physical activity. Along with this, Sahar Fatima, the author of “Let’s Talk About Disney’s Portrayal of Indians”, brought up how the show regularly uses Ravi’s heritage as a plot point. Namely, Ravi lashes out in Hindi; only wears Indian clothes; speaks with a rather thick accent; and can play the Sitar, a traditional Indian instrument, all despite being adopted by a white family. This causes the show’s young, impressionable fans to see South Asians in a distorted fashion. Moreover, Manas Khatore, a youth contributor at the Los Angeles Times, recalls his classmates making fun of his appearance and calling him “Ravi” after the show’s debut. If the show had this effect on one group of kids, it’s pretty reasonable to assume that Khatore isn’t the only teen that had to deal with this.
Phineas and Ferb, a show about two brothers and their adventures during summer vacation, gave their South Asian lead, Baljeet Tinder, similar traits. Like Ravi, Baljeet has a thick accent, can’t attract girls, and is constantly bullied. However, the majority of his personality revolves around his academics like when he revealed that his worst fear was failing a math test and pulled down his “drapes of shame” for when he did. These stereotypes push the narrative of Asians being the “Model Minority”, a demographic that expects Asian Americans to be prodigies, says Sarah-Soonling Blackburn in “What is the Model Minority Myth?”. But why is this bad? Well, it isn’t fair to expect someone to do well in something because of their race. There’s no need to put unnecessary pressure on already stressed students. Furthermore, this narrative pits POC against each other, with parents comparing their children to others and students hiding valuable information about colleges and tutoring from their peers.
Moving on, fans of the show also use Baljeet’s name as an insult. Dan Povenmire, one of the show’s original creators, took to TikTok to condemn these fans after being called out by a South Asian creator. Although Povenmire’s apology to South Asian fans was acceptable, many others defended his actions in the comment section. These horrid responses ranged from blaming cancel culture to questioning the existence of the issues. This defence of blatant racism harms us more than the actual names they label us with. I would rather be called “Apu” myself than be told that my experiences and struggles are nonexistent.
Alas, these three shows are only a few of the many productions that use South Asian culture and stereotypes for comedy. It may seem funny to some, but every action has an equal and opposite reaction, in this case, the reaction is the racist namecalling and discrimination that South Asians face. Fortunately, people are taking a stance against these tropes, but without dispelling the “race equals to comedy” quirk in entertainment, this will be an ongoing problem. My culture isn’t a joke, and I am more than just a stereotyped TV personality.
Cover Photo: https://www.instagram.com/p/CMkPnuhpfTk/
Edited by Michelle Nishidera