David Thompson
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July 17, 2007

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Dr.Dawg

The nextdoor neighbours of Hank and Betsy Hill (King of the Hill) are unpleasant Laotians. Personally, I thought it was great to portray minorities as people, some of whom can be pills in any language, stereotypes or no stereotypes.

Apu, meanwhile, is a caricature of a caricature. Someone has plainly missed the joke.

David

Well, quite.

King of the Kill is, I think, magnificent; though for some reason it’s buried in the late night schedule over here. Um, who’s Betsy? Is that Peggy’s evil twin?

And I’m still reeling from the discovery that Hank Azaria – known to many as Phoebe Buffay’s very pale boyfriend from Minsk - is actually “a brown man.”

Horace Dunn

The people who seem to think that programme makers, indeed story-tellers in whatever medium they work, should be obliged to present the world in a way they find “acceptable” are missing the point about the nature of story-telling.

A successful story interprets the world – and human society – as it exists. You can use exaggeration, paradox, surrealism, irony or down-right fantasy to pull the world about to make points, but it still needs to interpret reality in a way that can be understood by your audience. If you try to make it present the world as you think it should be, then you’ll wind up with a sterile and unappealing story.

The reason that the Simpsons has been so successful is that it understands the true nature of story-telling. Sure, they don’t shy away from exploring often thorny subjects (religion, immigration, homosexuality etc etc) but because these themes grow from the story and the characterisation (rather than the other way around) the result is entertaining and the message – such as it is – never dogmatic. Preachiness and sentimentality are always avoided. The viewer is treated as an adult (even when he happens to be a child).

The ideologues who say that characters in TV programmes should be this-or-that because of the supposed minority or special social group into which they fall, will only succeed in stifling creativity.

David

Horace,

Welcome aboard.

“The people who seem to think that… story-tellers… should be obliged to present the world in a way they find ‘acceptable’ are missing the point about the nature of story-telling.”

And humour in general, not to mention human nature.

Matt M

CiF have put up a piece in favour of Apu now:

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/saptarshi_ray/2007/07/the_wonder_of_apu_1.html

It doesn't say much more than the PP piece, but is still an interesting read. Must be nice for the producers of the show that it's getting all this media publicity with the film just about to open. I wasn't planning on seeing it at the cinema (the show went off the boil a long while ago), but now I've been reminded of some classic lines I'm sorely tempted.

"Please do not offer my God a peanut."

David

Hm. But the Simpsons movie opens here the same week as Transformers. And Transformers has big giant robots. Big giant robots that transform.

AntiCitizenOne

David,

Didn't the director of Transformers do Pearl Harbour?

and wasn't Pearl Harbour the one attacked/defended by Giant Robots in that great film in one your previous friday roundups?

David

AC1,

He did and it was. I should point out I’m not expecting a lofty aesthetic experience from Mr Michael Bay…

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/transformers_the_movie/

…but I am expecting to see big giant robots. Transforming ones. See? You’re excited already.

Chris Allen

“It is the year 2005 and the treacherous Decepticons have conquered the Autobot home planet of Cybertron. The evil Decepticon Transformers led by the maniacal Mechatron have sworn to crush their enemy, the Autobots. To this end they have relentlessly pursued them across the galaxy from planet Cybertron to planet Earth and back again.”

http://youtube.com/watch?v=RKcqaeEZuCA

David

Correction. Big giant *funky* robots with superbad moves.

Horace Dunn

David

Thank you.

You were right to bring up humour in response to my rather solemn comment. What is significant about the humour in the Simpsons, I would say, is that it is almost always good-natured. I say significant, because it is far easier to get laughs by sneering and fun-poking. There are so many two-a-penny comedians who earn their trade in just this way. I wouldn't want to suggest that this approach to humour is invalid, merely that one is hardly likely to marvel at it.

Incidentally, Manish Vaz complains that Apu has a "slippery grasp of English”. I’m not sure where he gets this idea. As far as I can see Apu’s command of English is perfectly fine. But, since Vaz describes Apu as both “effete” and as having “excess fertility” within the same sentence, and then goes on to say that Apu is “quite a unique character on the Simpsons” I have to doubt Vaz’s own grasp of the language.

Manish

"Fans of the grotesque Groundskeeper Willie might disagree with this claim"

There's no comparison. Apu is the only Simpsons character who's a crude ethnic stereotype of a small, relatively unknown U.S. minority (unlike cops, Scots, or Bumblebee Man, whose job and dress is not a Latino stereotype). And he's become the main reference for racist abuse against Indians in the U.S. The thank-you-come-again and go-back-to-your-convenience store theme is common. So making Indian-American employees dress up as Apu is incredibly insulting.

"one might wonder why the size and visibility of a minority has any obvious bearing on the alleged grievousness of the parody."

Absolutely insofar as Apu's surface layer reinforces stereotypes and makes life difficult growing up as an Indian-American. But please, if you didn't grow up a small ethnic minority in the U.S., continue conjecturing.

"I find myself wondering how Vij would rewrite Apu’s character to spare our sensitivities"

Get rid of the accent so off and crude as to be insulting, one with a pedigree from Peter Sellers and Short Circuit. Hire a voice actor who can actually do it. Stop being so lazy in writing the character - write him as not milking lame yuks from foreigner and South Asian stereotypes but rather specific and individual and subverting stereotypes, e.g. Dr. Hibbard (yes, he's Cosby, but he's not in a stereotypically black job).

"Readers unfamiliar with Mr Azaria’s pigmentation will be amazed to see just how brown he is."

For those with a less literal idea of reading, brown has come to connote non-WASP.

"I have to doubt Vaz’s own grasp of the language."

Mr. Whores Done, my last name is Vij. Please make a note of it :)

"Incidentally, Manish Vaz complains that Apu has a "slippery grasp of English”. I’m not sure where he gets this idea."

Apu uses archaic language and out-of-date idioms and does not use contractions. He disregards the vernacular and is painted as a foreigner. English is clearly his second language.

"But, since Vaz describes Apu as both “effete” and as having “excess fertility” within the same sentence"

Since you can't grasp how someone could be both effete and have too many children at the same time, allow me to supply some examples:

1. Michael Jackson
2. All members of Congress

David

Manish,

Thanks for your reply. I doubt we’ll agree on this, at least with regard to Apu in the context of the show. It seems to me that your article conflates a particular issue – arguably one of employment rights – with a more general argument about Apu as a fictional character. As I understand it, you regard Apu’s “slippery grasp of English” as signifying something negative and fostering ill-feeling:

“Apu uses archaic language and out-of-date idioms and does not use contractions. He disregards the vernacular and is painted as a foreigner. English is clearly his second language.”

But for me these verbal characteristics are for the most part rather endearing. Those I’ve asked regard Apu as a likeable character, more sympathetic than most, and certainly not as some cipher for all Indians, even those who do happen to work in convenience stores. (Incidentally, an aversion to verbal contractions didn’t do Spock or Data any harm in the popularity stakes. But then they were an alien and an android respectively, and how “foreign” is that?)

People who harbour racial ill-feeling can, I’m sure, use almost any cultural product to reinforce that sentiment, regardless of the product’s original intent. That’s pretty much what such people do. I struggle to see how one can inhibit stupidity of this kind without policing and “correcting” all culture - and how it’s perceived - with all that entails. And if you’re prepared to annex all “non-WASP” people as being somehow “brown”, then I fear you’re playing a very similar game to that of the bigots you claim to oppose.

Chris Allen

Maybe Vij can post a kind of "Richter" scale of the maximum and minimum permitted extent to which writers can poke fun at each group? Does he really think that the best use of his time is to behave like the "National Viewers and Listeners Association"? Welcome back, Mary Whitehouse!

Dom

There's a lot wrong here:

"the effete cornershop owner" -- Apu is not effete. Smithers, a white man, is. His store is not a cornershop; it's a quickie-mart.

"with fractured English" -- nope. Like most Indians, Apu speaks perfect English. What is foreign about his English is that it is too perfect.

"excess fertility" -- nope. The wife was being fed fertility drugs by different people.

"bizarre religious practices" -- I haven't noticed this.

"illegal immigration status" -- not a stereotype of Indians in America. And he is now legal.

"and a penchant for cheating customers" -- That's a joke on quickie-mart operators, not Indians.

Rich Rostrom

"a small American minority relatively unknown in the mainstream"???

Hindu convenience store operators are as well-known today as Greek coffee-shop proprietors used to be. And not just in big cities. Indians run half the motels in Mississippi. And so on.

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