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The Daily Rhino
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart?
rohin-simpsons.jpgOver a year and a half ago I wrote my first post for Pickled Politics, entitled ‘Much Apu About Nothing’ and it concerned my love for Springfield’s favourite shopkeeper. I sought to explain why I feel Apu is a positive character, having heard opinions against him. This has proved easily to be my most widely-read post.

Recently a publicity campaign for the upcoming Simpsons movie has developed into a contentious issue in America and Ultrabrown’s Manish has quickly become the go-to man for all things Apu. What Manish probably doesn’t realise that it was his view of Apu that inspired my article; I wanted to highlight how the British perception of Apu is so different from the American. So I figured I should chuck my two cents in, but I’ll try not to duplicate my reasons for being an Apu fan this time.

The recent ‘Apu controversy’, having made national American and Indian news, may have started as a debate about the ad campaign, but it has grown into a new dissection of Apu’s character.

It is thus fundamental to separate the 7-Eleven issue from related discussion. Examining the former first, Manish has, in several posts, argued succinctly why this promotional strategy irks him. Central to my defence of Apu has always been his context. The Simpsons parodies all its inhabitants and Apu is not a racist stereotype but a rounded, human figure.

This advertising campaign removes Apu from that context. Apu, like all the caricatures in Springfield, exists on two levels. Every character has a superficial exterior, which personifies a stereotype; they also have a rich personality which undermines all of those clichés.

I have learnt that unfortunately the fact Apu has a memorable catchphrase has resulted in it being used as a racist taunt in America. Critics of Apu argue this shows that he is the sole troubling character, which is why he draws so much flak. However I feel that sadly racists in the US would still be abusing Indians without a convenient convenience store catchphrase. The fact some Indians in the US dislike hearing “thank you, come again” reveals more about how American society has latched onto tormenting Indians than the racism of Apu.

Upon initially viewing the dozen-or-so Kwik-E-Marts, I loved the idea and I still do. The one point upon which I agree wholeheartedly with Manish is his criticism of the role the real-life shopkeepers have played in this saga. The majority of 7-Eleven employees affected by this campaign seem to be of Asian origin. Almost all seem game for a laugh, but dressing them up as Apu can surely not be in their best interests.

I think the Brits reading this will feel the way I initially felt, that there’s no harm in assuming the role of Apu for the month. But once again context is paramount. My view of the American experience for an Indian, shaped predominantly from the writing of Indian Americans and Harold and Kumar is one where Indian shopkeepers can frequently be the subjects of abuse. If this is indeed the case, the dumb racist’s conflation of a stereotyped Indian and a real one will only be reinforced by an Apu outfit and name badge.

However, if Indian shopkeepers aren’t subject to more abuse than others, then I can’t see any difference between the UK and the US, so I once again see nothing wrong with Apu. The basis for criticising him or his place in this advertising is grounded in the assertion that America is inherently racist, whether this is true, you decide.

I do not buy the argument that Americans are not familiar with Indians, which is cited as making Apu more harmful than other stereotypes. Firstly, I think “Americans don’t know any Indians” doesn’t wash anymore, secondly many of the stereotyped minorities are those Americans might be unfamiliar with like the Scots or the Japanese. Lastly, and most importantly, no special familiarity is needed. The vast majority of Americans will be familiar with the Indian shopkeeper and that is the very reason he is in The Simpsons. He effectively needs those stereotypies so that he can be recognised in his place in the town's makeup, and to act as a framework to flesh him out.

Another sore point for those who dislike Apu is his accent. It’s a comical accent but they say it is racist. Why? Because he is voiced by a non-Indian. This is nonsense. Are we seriously suggesting that only brown-skinned actors can voice brown cartoon characters? A blacked-up white man playing an Indian on screen would be wrong. But only a bigot would complain if a Pakistani played an Indian, because they “look right”. What of the analogous “sounding right”? The Indian voice is not dramatically different in timbre or pitch.

I think saying there is a racial barrier to voices as well as skin is dangerous ground. If a white man should not do an Indian accent, then can an Indian comedian not impersonate a white celebrity or voice a black cartoon character? The accent itself is criticised as unrealistic, but if based on a genuine thick Indian accent, opposition to Apu would not stop.

Annoyance at Apu’s accent is based on a false double standard, exposed by today’s multicultural society. The white West and the brown East are now intimately intertwined. When Western, but brown actors adopt ridiculous accents, such as Kal Penn in Van Wilder (the actor credited with trying to reclaim Apu’s phrase), there are few complainants.

But there is no reason why someone born and raised outside India is more qualified to attempt an Indian accent simply due to the fact his skin is brown. Those who don’t like Hank Azaria voicing Apu don’t ask for a test of ‘Indianess’ in a replacement candidate, they would be appeased by just Asian heritage. I have British Indian friends who do a more fake Apu-like Indian accent than some white friends. Indian actors make fun of regional accents in Indian films, but it’s OK cos that’s brown-on-brown. This is all phoney. The belief that “only our kind can make fun of us” is unhealthy and reactionary.

Most Indians, in whatever country, like Apu. Comments on British, American and Indian blogs have overwhelmingly favoured him, so Manish is firmly in the minority. It seems somewhat condescending to insist Apu degrades convenience store employees if they themselves have no problem with the character. It would be more condescending still if their views were dismissed as being insecure eager-to-please immigrants.

Levelling the notion that if we are party to the Apu joke, we are condemning future generations of brown-skinned people in white countries to racism is unwarranted. Forced attempts to reclaim a phrase or reject a cartoon character are laying the onus on us to change our ways instead of those guilty of racism.

I feel I haven’t addressed everything, so I will do my best to participate in comments. If you wish for a more detailed examination of Apu, please do read my first piece. Manish and I have both written plenty about Apu. His massively commented-upon Comment is Free article criticised the 7-Eleven campaign. He and I are agreed that the subtle nuances of Apu’s character are lost in the adverts. But we remain in disagreement about just about everything else to do with Dr Nahasapeemapetilon.

Many of the CiF comments are along the lines of “I’m X and my community is mocked as well, but I don’t complain”. Not all of these statements can be explained away by Indians being less familiar to Americans, and while I do not think Indians complain more (as has been alleged), I am not sure I fully understand why Apu is so much more of a talking point than any other character. I cannot help but feel some of it is due to the fact he is a key main player, which is a testament to his importance, not his subjugation.

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