This isn't about offense or political correctness.
In November 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called "The Problem With Apu."
The TruTV feature was a pretty powerful look into the life of Kondabolu and other South Asian actors who've struggled to sidestep the stereotype of "The Simpsons"' Kwik-E-Mart proprietor, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (a character voiced by Hank Azaria).
Throughout the documentary, Kondabolu tries and fails to get Azaria to agree to an on-camera interview about the character.
Nearly five months after the film's release, "The Simpsons" finally issued a response of sorts — though it's still unclear whether they actually understand the issue.
In the April 8 episode "No Good Read Goes Unpunished," Marge is seen reading a story to Lisa, struggling to update an outdated passage for the modern age.
"Well, what am I supposed to do?" Marge asks.
Lisa responds, rolling her eyes, "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect... What can you do?"
[rebelmouse-image 19476301 dam="1" original_size="500x281" caption="All GIFs from "The Simpsons."" expand=1]All GIFs from "The Simpsons."
The shot pans out, showing a photo of Apu next to Lisa's bed.
"Some things will be dealt with at a later date," says Marge.
Lisa responds, "If at all." The two look directly at the audience. The segment seems to be a clear dismissal of Kondabolu's criticism.
The entire point of "The Problem With Apu" was to use pop culture as a starting point for a larger discussion about representation, not to urge for the censorship of past works.
Anyone who's actually seen the film knows that Kondabolu's hope was to see more authentic portrayals of marginalized people so that inaccurate and stereotypical versions are no longer the primary cultural point of reference.
Wow. “Politically Incorrect?” That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved th… https://t.co/BSGtBOK72G— Hari Kondabolu (@Hari Kondabolu) 1523249108
In “The Problem with Apu,” I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the represe… https://t.co/EkFE38ScY8— Hari Kondabolu (@Hari Kondabolu) 1523250840
In other words, the stereotypical Apu wouldn't be so bad if there were other diverse South Asian voices and characters in the media. "The Simpsons" didn't create the problem, but they could help solve it by taking steps to add additional characters that better represent and humanize those who are underrepresented.
The show's response suggests that won't be happening.
"If you only have a handful of images, and that's what defines a large group of people," Kondabolu said in an interview around the time of the documentary's release, "then each time you have a negative image or you go after that particular group, that's a big thing."
"We just have to control our stories to the best of our ability," he said. "That part's on us. I think that we need to call out portrayals when they are inaccurate, when they are homophobic, when they are transphobic, when they're racist and sexist, and when there's fundamental things about them that are not true about an experience."
Kondabolu is not "offended" by Apu. That needs to be made clear.
The backlash to the backlash (which, sadly, seems to be a thing these days) over Apu seems to hinge on the argument that people are just too easily offended these days, or something about "PC culture run amok!"
"Imagine getting butthurt about a cartoon character," one person tweeted at Kondabolu.
Again, though, it's not about offense.
People are disappointed the show wouldn't so much as engage in this discussion without distorting it to be about "political correctness." Kondabolu didn't call for Apu's banishment, for him to be scrubbed from past episodes, or anything of the sort. He simply wanted to have a discussion about the role pop culture plays in our lives and how we see others.
The reason people are upset with how "The Simpsons" responded is that they sidestepped the issue altogether and tried to reframe it as being about offense. It's not.
W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN's "United Shades of America," broke down why he stands with Kondabolu in trying to have these tough conversations.
We can never stop having discussions just because they're challenging, and we can never allow issues of representation be reframed as unimportant. This discussion matters — and Kondabolu was brave for trying to start it.
Bell's entire Twitter thread is worth reading, but these three tweets sum up the argument well:
I always tell the #UnitedShades crew that comedy can fix any creative issues. That's what comedy's for. It can't fi… https://t.co/Kejo6HLlpo— W. Kamau Bell (@W. Kamau Bell) 1523254890
The "argument" the episode makes is basically things used to better before political correctness when nobody cared… https://t.co/hEo34usmny— W. Kamau Bell (@W. Kamau Bell) 1523257648
It's even more noteworthy because this is the era that on 1 hand created President Trump & on the other (Black) han… https://t.co/FgAxaehO0m— W. Kamau Bell (@W. Kamau Bell) 1523259891
"The Simpsons" may have dropped the ball on their response, but that doesn't mean Kondabolu and others will give up in the fight for better, more accurate media representation.