Apu of “The Simpsons” … Positive Hindu character or degrading stereotype?

ApuThe most famous Hindu outside India!

There’s been a lot of controversy about how Hindus are portrayed in the West in media and arts in general. Hindus have long protested about being stereotyped on TV as oppressed women awaiting liberation, and chauvinistic men. Whereas critics have argued that any Hindus who object are fundamentalist, extremist, fascist, etc (frequently under the veil of freedom of speech). Often sounding reasoning goes out the window during such heated debates.

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a star in his own right from his numerous appearances in The Simpson’s. He’s even had episodes with him has the central character and interestingly enough his Indianness (or Hinduness if you will) was often the central theme.

Apu, as a Hindu you either love or you hate him. He’s either refreshingly hilarious or an insulting stereotype. He could well be one or the other, or even both. But as far as I’m concerned it really doesn’t matter. One thing that has been central towards the Simpson’s continual success is that no character featured is shown as perfect. Even ‘goody two shoes’ Ned Flanders negative characteristics are shown from time to time. Compared to a lot (probably in fact all) of the show’s non-Hindu characters Apu stands up pretty well.

But in many ways he does live up to the typical Indian stereotype fashioned by the west. For example He own a Kwik-E-Mart convenience store (the US equivalent of our very own cornershop), not to mention ripping off customers

Customer: I need a 29 cent stamp
Apu: That’s $1.85!

He works ridiculous hours, even at the expense of his family. And will come in to work regardless of being shot.

I have been shot eight times this year, and as a result, I almost missed work

He is also incredibly educated with a pHd and degree in engineering. He is extremely pacifistic and has patience, even in the midst of much offence, worthy of Gandhi. And lastly his unforgettable trademark “Thank you…Come Again” in a thick Indian accent that has been mocked by many racists in America particular (see Harold n Kumar).

The Arranged Marriage!!!

One episode “The Two Nahasapeemapetilons” actually revolves around Apu getting an arranged marriage! Simply put there’s not many Hindus who wouldn’t be able to sympathize with Apu’s predicament in the episode. Despite the extremely negative image that arranged marriages have in the western world’s eyes, this episode actually in a way goes against the grain and shows them to be perfectly fine as in the end Apu and Manjula (his bride to be) do get married, but not because they are forced by tradition but because they want to and want the marriage to work.

Indian Men Are Chauvinistic Pigs!!!

Now it’s not difficult to understand that Hindu men (and Sikhs, Muslims and just generally anyone of colour) have a bad reputation for treating their women rather shabbily (Now this reputation deserves a discussion of its own so I won’t go into here)

Apu in many respects belies that notion, although in another he may give it more credence. At the start of the same episode, the town of Springfield have a Bachelor auction, needless to say every single male (all Caucasian btw…so again this is another reason why the show isn’t biased towards Hindus and minorities) is portrayed as a loser that no woman wants. Then Apu comes out and after briefly describing himself as follows:

“I’m not much of a talker, but I love to listen. I also like to design and build furniture and then to have a discussion about where it could be placed in a room.”

Which sends all the women in the audience into flutters and he becomes so much in demand that they decide to form a group so they can all have a share. The aftermath is shown as Apu is shown to be taking them all out individually with every single one of them having a good time.

Another Apu-centric episode is “I’m with Cupid”. The central theme to the episode is that Apu is the only husband/boyfriend in the town that loves and cares for his partner, whereas the other men are shown to be lazy, sleazy and just neglecting their partners in general. On each day leading up to Valentines Day Apu is shown to be flowering Manjula with a unique show of affection, this leads to the infuriation of the towns remaining men folk who instead of trying to replicate Apu’s attitude towards Manjula’s towards their own loved ones, they try to instead to sabotage Apu’s attempts because he’s making them look bad (as their wives and girlfriends become jealous of the affection that Apu is flowering on Manjula). Can’t imagine anyone thinking that Apu can be counted as a negative stereotype now!

What About The Women???

His attitude towards his mother is also worth noting. Although obviously very fond and respectful of her, he cheers when she falls over because it will buy him more time for him to get out of his arranged marriage that she is insistent upon. Needless to say when he does stand up to her stating he is not happy with her trying to marry him off

“Don’t you know 1 in every 25 arranged marriages end in divorce!”

She inevitably has the last word telling him that he is going through with the wedding.

As explained in the previous section, Apu greatly loves his wife and does not hide in showing it. When he realised he has been neglecting her he does his up most at making it up to her.

But it’s easy to forget where he has an affair with the Squishee lady that works in his convenient store. When his wife finds out, she kicks him out of the house, which leads Apu to attempting suicide. Manjula only decides to take him back if he manages to complete tasks set out by her which he accomplishes. He is extremely remorseful over his philandering (unlike Joe Quimby, the town’s philandering remorseless married mayor) and is shown to be sincere about it as he goes about making amends for his failures. This shows him to be a fully three dimensional character possessing both good and bad qualities as a human being. Again as I stated at the start this is what makes many characters in the Simpson’s so memorable.

Manjula is also shown to have broken Apu’s teeth during a marriage counselling meeting (due to his aforementioned affair) which is something stereotypically would have the roles reversed.

Both these examples again portray Hindu females in a positive light. Both Manjula and Apu’s mom are assertive, again heavily questioning the stereotype that all Hindu women are submissive, oppressed and generally lacking in any confidence or self esteem. They both seem to have some domination over Apu as a mother and a wife. Every time in an argument with either of them two Apu has inevitably come off second best.

Hinduism Under Attack???

Apu’s religion Hinduism is scrutinised and insulted by both Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders.

Now some Hindus may feel offended by the episode “The Two Nahasapeemapetilons” especially where Homer dresses up as Ganesha to stop the wedding going ahead (as Apu stated grudgingly “Only the Gods can stop this wedding”) although it should be noted that the entire attendance at the occasion (Hindu and non-Hindu) were appalled, one large Hindu chased Homer around the location and at the end of the episode we see Homer being attacked by a real elephant. Needless to say in comical fashion he gets cummuppence. Some Hindus are likely to be offended by the following conversations during the series:

Homer: “Hey Ganesha, Want a peanut?”
Apu: “Mr Simpson, please do not offer my God a peanut”
Homer: “No offence Apu, but when they were handing out religions you must have been taking a whiz”
Apu: “(angrily)Mr Simpson, please pay for your stuff and get out!!!…(cheerfully) and come again”

Although very offensive, they should be seen in context. Homer is the buffoon and idiot of the show (and is shown as such), someone who has been portrayed by the writers to have very little intelligence and hence he can be excused for holding some ignorant views. For example.

Lisa: Aunt Selma, this may be presumptuous, but have you ever considered artificial insemination?
Homer: I dunno, you gotta be pretty desperate to make it with a robot.

Homer: All right, let’s not panic. I’ll make the money back by selling one of my livers, I can get by with one.

Homer: This year I’ve invested in pumpkins. They’ve been going up the whole month of
October, and I got a feeling they’re gonna peak right around January. Then, bang! That’s when I’ll cash in!

Homer: I’m a white male aged 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me – no matter how dumb my suggestions are!

In the episode Bang Bang Bangalore where the nuclear power plant is relocated to India. Homer calls Vishnu “Johnny Six Arms”, Brahma “Papa Smurf” and henceforth decides himself to be a god. Later on it shows a group of Indians appear to be worshipping Homer as a deity but this is rejected at the end of the episode where the workers explain that they were just respecting him for being in American employment benefits into India.

Ned Flanders is a different kettle of fish; he’s a good old fashioned devout Christian. But despite his good two shoes appearance he seems to lack diversity of thought and tolerance of those that ascribe to a faith different than his. He even tried to convert Apu, something which every Hindu can relate to.

Apu: Homer, tell Mr. Ned to stop trying to convert me.
Ned: I was telling about how brave it is to worship a false god.

However Apu confidently defended has faith time and time again. I don’t see how portraying Apu to be a confident and open Hindu can be counted a negative stereotype.

The fact that Apu never resorts to violence or profanities against these insults is very encouraging. He always manages to retain his composure in such instances, something that can’t always be said of Ned Flanders. Hence Apu claims the moral high ground, as he has never insulted any one’s belief. He is shown imparting invaluable advice to Homer’s daughter Lisa

Lisa: When will all those fools learn that you can be perfectly healthy simply eating vegetables, fruits, grains and cheese.
Apu: Oh, cheese!
Lisa: You don’t eat cheese, Apu?
Apu: No I don’t eat any food that comes from an animal.
Lisa: Ohh, then you must think I’m a monster!
Apu: Yes indeed I do think that. But, I learned long ago Lisa to
tolerate others rather than forcing my beliefs on them. You know you can influence people without badgering them always.

Also the show’s Christian authority figure Reverend Lovejoy, finds Ned’s Christian behaviour a bit too over zealous and even asks him to consider other religions as “they’re all pretty much the same” as a way of getting Ned Flanders away from him. He even officiated as the priest at Apu’s wedding “Christ is Christ. Plus I consulted a Hindu website”. Which actually shows a healthy respect for Hinduism.

However there is still one thing in the Simpson’s that can be seen negatively is that in the episode “Much Apu About Nothing” he is seen in a flashback during his post –education days leaving home saying to a little girl (who was then Manjula) that he is sorry that he will not be able to fulfil their child marriage. However in defence of the show’s writers they seem to have noticed this incredibly insensitive part and tried to rectify it in later episodes such as the ”The Two Nahasapeemapetilon’s” where both Manjula and Apu are shown as the same age when their parents agree to their marriage and when they do actually marry they are fully grown adults and in the same episode are shown in flashbacks to be of the same age. As a side note the scene described from the episode is often cut when aired, which at least shows that someone somewhere has some commonsense

Some critics may point out that the episode where Apu and Manjula have octuplets is adding credence to the stereotype that Indians have many children, but this is unfounded as the same episode shows a Caucasian couple having nine-tuplets”. Also his attitude towards his children may be offensive to some (as he is seen being unable to cope, going to desperate measures to offload them to unsuspecting people), but that isn’t related to his religion or his ethnicity as it could well apply to any other character if put in the same situation.

When it comes to religion in the Simpson’s, any viewer would realise that Christians/Christianity and Jews/Judaism comes under the spotlight more than Hinduism. Again the treatment handed out to these faiths is no different than towards Hinduism. When you realise that many of the writers of the Simpson’s are practicing Jews and Christians it all becomes clear.

But all in all as I stated before, Apu is a three-dimensional character with positive and negative traits and compared to the majority of others on the show he comes up shining bright. Although there are many more instances of Hinduism and Apu interacting within the context of the show, I feel that what has been said in this article should leave many skeptics with just a little bit more appreciation for the most famous Hindu outside India.

That a fictional Hindu, and a supporting one at that too, is the most famous and well known Hindu amongst non-Hindus of the western world may well be a slap in the face. It’s almost implying that real life Hindus just aren’t that charismatic or media-genic. But that’s another issue all together.

This article was originally published in Hindu Voice UK in 2007.

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