Hank Azaria apologizes for voicing Apu in The Simpsons

Hank Azaria, who’s white, voiced the Indian character Apu on the Simpsons since 1990. But in January 2020, he announced that he was stepping down from the role. Apu has been criticized for portraying racial stereotypes, and Azaria took this criticism to heart. When he was interviewed on Dax Sheperd’s Armchair Expert podcast, he said, “Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize.”

The Problem With Apu

The controversy surrounding the character heightened in 2017. That’s when Indian-American comic Hari Kondabolur released a documentary called, The Problem with Apu

In the film, Kondabolur explained that he had liked Apu as a child. It was the only regular representation of his culture on TV at that time. As he grew up, he became more critical of him. “He’s funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you.” 

Kondabolur’s film also discusses how the character contributed to bullying. “After a while, you’d watch the Simpsons on a Sunday, and you’d get a sense of how you’d be made fun of at school on Monday, based on what Apu did in the latest episode.” 

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With Apu, his accent is often the butt of the joke. As Kondabolur said in a segment for Totally Biased, the voice-acting is like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” 

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Many people defend Apu’s stereotype because he’s nice and lovable. Meanwhile, others films depict Indians in a supremely negative light — like the monkey-brain-eating, human-sacrificing zealots in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But a soft stereotype is still a stereotype. [1]

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Azaria Apologizes

So when Hank Azaria saw the documentary, the criticism stung. At first, he wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t want to make a snap decision in response to what could have been “17 hipsters in a microbrewery in Brooklyn“. Instead, he dedicated himself to research for the next year. He “read, spoke to people who knew a lot about racism, spoke to lots of Indian people, and went to seminars.”

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He said, “I realised I have had a date with destiny with this thing for 31 years.

Although he believes Apu was created with good intentions, he still was part of “structural racism”.

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“I really didn’t know any better.” Azaria said, “I didn’t think about it. I was unaware of how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens. Just because there were good intentions, it doesn’t mean there weren’t really negative consequences to the thing that I am accountable for.”

On the podcast, he directly addressed the co-host, Monica Padman, who’s Indian-American, saying, “I really do apologize. I know you weren’t asking for that, but it’s important. I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels I need to go round to every single Indian person in this country and apologize.” [2]

Kondabolu responded to Azaria’s podcast interview in a series of tweets. He called Azaria “kind and thoughtful” and said that the voice actor proved that “people are not simply ‘products of their time’ but have the ability to learn and grow.”

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He also wrote that ‘controversy’ is the wrong way to label this situation. “The ‘Apu Controversy’ is not real. Racism isn’t ‘controversial,’ it’s a constant. Unless you think People of Color finally standing up for themselves is ‘controversial.’ However, I suppose a word like ‘controversy’ is more clickable than ‘comeuppance.’” [3]

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Recasting The Simpsons

Matt Groening, the show’s creator, says that they originally tried to laugh off the criticism before admitting things needed to change.

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They even broke the fourth wall about the issue. In one episode, Lisa looked at the audience and said, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

Now, the show is recasting characters of color originally voiced by white actors, not just Apu. As Matt said, “Bigotry and racism are still an incredible problem, and it’s good to finally go for more equality and representation.” [4]

However, not everyone agrees with Azaria’s decision. The cast of the Simpsons often plays multiple characters, so people claim there’s no need to change the voices for sensitivity’s sake. 

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“I have people say to me, ‘Oh does this mean you can’t play Wiggum because you’re not a real cop?’ That’s just ridiculous,” says Azaria. “If it’s a character of color, there’s not the same level of opportunity there. The first argument is, if it’s an Indian character, Latin character, or Black character, please let’s have that person voice the character.

“It’s more authentic; they might also bring their experience of their culture to it – and let’s not take away jobs from people who don’t have enough.

Keep Reading: Non-Binary Person Says We Should ‘Stop Associating Periods With Womanhood’

Sources

  1. “The Simpsons’ Apu: ‘A stereotype hiding in plain sight’.” BBC. Christian Blauvelt. November 6, 2017
  2. “The Simpsons: Hank Azaria apologises for voicing Indian character Apu.BBC. April 13, 2021
  3. Hank Azaria apologises ‘to every Indian person’ for voicing Apu in The Simpsons.” The Guardian. Richard Luscombe. April 13, 2021
  4. “Hank Azaria apologises for voicing Apu on The Simpsons amid racial insensitivity claims.” ABC News. April 14, 2021
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