As a long-time fan, I can’t help but feel these complaints are missing the point. Firstly – and as many have highlighted – practically every character in the show falls into some kind of racial, religious or cultural stereotype. There’s the perennial bagpipe-playing Scotsman, Groundskeeper Willie, Evangelical Christian Ned Flanders, incompetent alcoholic Barney Gumble, evil billionaire Mr Burns, corrupt politicians like Mayor Quimby, Chief Wiggum, the archetypal ‘comedy inept cop’ – to name but a few.
Less has been made of the fact that employing common tropes is an integral feature of the show’s comic method. The Simpsons is actually highly inclusive in its wide array of stereotypical characters and critiques, which cut across all conceivable ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries. This deliberate strategy of ‘equal opportunities offence’ allows Springfield to function as microcosm of American society, and it works precisely because everyone is included.
Even the show’s core characters are archetypes. Homer Simpson, the head of the dysfunctional family, embodies several American stereotypes of working-class blue-collar men. He is fat, crude, clumsy, ignorant and an indifferent husband and father. Homer is often described as an “everyman” figure. Yet this hardly bodes well for everyday Americans, since The Simpsons reserves its most brutal commentary for Homer and his ilk.
In the brilliant, ultra-dark Season 8 episode, ‘Homer’s Enemy’, the arrival of enterprising new colleague Frank Grimes throws Homer’s shortcomings into sharp focus. Grimes, himself portrays a stereotype, that of the persevering “real American hero” – a self-made man who has struggled hard to eke out a meagre living despite a series of personal tragedies and rotten luck. Shocked by Homer’s ignorance and lack of professionalism, Grimes confides in his co-workers at the nuclear power plant, only to find that they, like everyone else in Springfield, have no problem with Homer and his obvious flaws. It is a razor-sharp social critique – and Frank Grimes’s eventual downfall a damning comment on our own value systems, as we are confronted, for the first time, with the real-world harm caused by Homer’s deficiencies.
In comparison with this kind of critique, then, exactly how offensive are Apu’s ‘stereotypical’ qualities? Granted, he has an accent – as people who speak English as a second language often do – and he owns a corner shop (the horror!) Yet he is also a hard-working business owner and family man, who embraces American ideals, while staying true to his own culture at the same time.
The Simpsons uses Apu’s character development as a focus for explicitly positive narratives about immigration and integration. Over the course of the series, he goes from being an insignificant side figure to a rounded, multidimensional character. The viewer comes to know and like Apu in a way that mirrors his own process of integration within the Springfield community. Importantly, Apu doesn’t remain in the margins of Springfield, unlike other occasional “stereotype” characters, such as Bumblebee Man or Luigi the Italian restaurateur. Instead, his background and personal qualities are gradually fleshed out.
We learn that he first arrived on a student visa, but through hard work and long hours, eventually became the manager and finally the owner of the Kwik-e-Mart. Apu is a pillar of the local community, and unlike Frank Grimes, realises his “American Dream” both economically and socially. Despite his many work commitments, he is a member of Homer’s bowling team, sings in the barbershop quartet and volunteers with the local fire brigade. In one episode, he becomes the most coveted bachelor in town, and is inundated with dates. The common trope of the shy, socially excluded immigrant doesn’t fit Apu at all.
In other ways, of course, Apu is a stereotype – in more ways than just his accent and profession. He embodies many positive traits associated with South Asian and other migrant communities. Apu speaks English fluently, is highly educated and hard-working, qualities which are often contrasted unfavourably with the likes of Homer and Barney. In common with other ambitious migrants willing to supplant their lives and shoot for success in foreign lands, Apu seems entrepreneurial, almost by instinct. He is a diligent employee, despite working in gruelling and sometimes dangerous conditions. Like many immigrants, he is a small business owner – US migrants are almost twice as likely to set up businesses as native-born citizens.
Having graduated first in his class of seven million at ‘Caltech’ (Calcutta Technical Institute), before earning a doctorate in Computer Science, Apu is one of the best educated characters in Springfield – something which, again, conforms to demographic trends. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 76 percent of Indian immigrants aged 25 and older have a Bachelor’s or higher degree, 2.5 times more than the general population. Though accounting for just one percent of American citizens, they make up 3 percent of engineers, 7 percent of IT workers, and 8 percent of surgeons and physicians.
His success mirrors that of the well-integrated, enterprising demographic to which he belongs. With median annual household earnings of more than $100,000, Indian immigrant households earn more than double the U.S. median and are far more likely to be employed than the native population. Apu even fulfils the cliché of close family bonds, another common stereotype about Indian immigrants, with his brother Sanjay, his business partner and most important associate.
Yet through Apu, the Simpsons also debunks common myths about migration, by exploring how immigrants often find themselves blamed and scapegoated for problems in society. Another memorable episode, Much Apu About Nothing, sees Apu contending with a draconian immigration system, after Mayor Quimby proposes a new law expelling “undocumented aliens” from Springfield. Quimby, the archetypal lazy political leader, deploys the tried and tested strategy of whipping up anti-immigration sentiment to distract Springfield residents from domestic complaints – in this case, high tax rates. Apu’s quiet dignity in the face of rampant xenophobia, and his relatable reasons for having outstayed his student visa – “First, I wanted to pay off my student debt, then I had made so many friends here” – give a decidedly sympathetic take on migration (even the illegal kind). Ultimately, the people of Springfield come to realise just how vital Apu, and hard-working immigrants like him are to the functioning of society.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a stereotype, of course, but as ever in The Simpsons, he’s so much more than that.