A topic that I’ve thought about for a while is how cartoons are changing in the midst of our modern society with cancel culture. In recent times, people have spoken out against certain cartoon characters as they portray qualities that reflect current social issues. One example of recent controversy was the removal of the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons. Apu is a prominent character in The Simpsons series. He is also an Indian American stereotype. Apu has a stereotypical look and accent, and he is shown as the owner of a convenience store. This discussion sparked from a documentary made by comedian Hari Kondabolu in 2017 called The Problem With Apu. The Simpsons responded to this documentary in a way that some found to be a bit distasteful. On The Simpsons’ Twitter they posted a clip that shows Lisa talking to Marge. A fourth wall break happens as Lisa holds up a picture of Apu and says “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do” (Schwartz ). Kondabolu was actually a fan of The Simpsons and was simply trying to spark a discussion of why representation in media matters. Kondabolu expressed his concerns with having a white voice actor portray Apu with a stereotypical accent during a time where there is little to none Indian American representation in the media.
One side of this debate states that Apu is a poor and offensive representation of the Indian American community. Apu being in The Simpsons has led to increased animosity towards Indian Americans. Many Indian Americans have stated that people will call them “Apu” or will say one of Apu’s lines in a mocking tone such as “thank you, come again.” Actor Utkarsh Ambudkar states “we just were underrepresented. We didn’t have any other representation in this country. That creates a problem when the most popular show on television is showing mainstream America what an Indian is” (Schwartz). Due to The Simpsons heightening the offensive stereotype of Indian Americans, many people felt that Apu should be removed from the show.
The other side of the debate states that Apu is an important representation to have in such a popular show. In an article from the Washington Post, a man named Amar Shah explains how Apu left an imprint on his life. To him, Apu reminded him of his dad who was an immigrant from India who opened up his own convenience store. Shah explains that he loved The Simpsons growing up and he embraced Apu because he was reminded so much of his father. He says “is Apu politically incorrect? Maybe. Is he incomplete? Yes. Does he offend me? No, because some part of him is real” (Shah 2021). There are some Indian Americans who would agree with Shah in that the representation still matters, even though the character is not perfect. Another side to this argument is that The Simpsons make fun of everyone.
In an article by Entertainment Weekly, they bring up the example of how The Simpsons have made fun of Italian Americans. In one episode, they had an Italian chef stereotype with an exaggerated accent and a wife that beat him with a wooden spoon. The people on this side of the argument are trying to emphasize that this show is not trying to target just one group of people as the butt of their jokes (Schwartz). Other shows have faced changes due to cancel culture. Looney Tunes, for example, lost or made changes to many of their iconic characters.
The character that sparked the most controversy was the skunk Pepe Le Pew. People believed that Pepe Le Pew promoted sexual harassment. The outrage towards this character became so significant that Warner Brothers made the decision to cut Pepe Le Pew’s scene from Space Jam: A New Legacy and cut him from future projects. Changes were also made to characters such as Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam who are not allowed to carry guns anymore (Cavna 2021). A prominent topic in media literacy would be the topic of censorship in the media.
The big debate is if the censorship in the media is taken too far or if it’s necessary. These examples bring up the questions of is the outrage justified in these situations, would removing these characters fix these larger issues in our society, and have these problematic characters contributed to or enhanced these problems? All of these questions are up for personal opinion and debate. While we cannot go back and erase the damage that has been done, these moments can become a learning experience for how media companies can be more racially sensitive and more socially aware.
Cavna, M. (2021, March 13). How Pepe Le Pew became the latest character in the Culture War. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2021/03/09/pepe-le-pew/.
Schwartz , D. (n.d.). Why 'The Simpsons' response to the Apu controversy was so heartbreaking. EW.com. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from https://ew.com/tv/2018/04/09/the-simpsons-apu-controversy-response-heartbreaking-essay/.
Shah, A. (2021, October 28). Perspective | To many Indian Americans, Apu is offensive. to me, he's my dad. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 27, 2021.
Michelle Rosen is from Long Island, New York, and a junior at Sacred Heart University majoring in Media Arts with a concentration in Film and Television. Her goal is to become a filmmaking and movie producer. She has a YouTube channel called Michelle Renée where she posts baking tutorials. Michelle is involved in many organizations on campus including the university’s club tennis team, as well as the manager for Sacred Heart’s Division One Women’s Basketball Team.