Manish Vij of Ultrabrown has been covering, in detail, the controversy over the upcoming Simpsons movie where one of the Simpsons characters , Apu, is being used in the movie promotion in a manner that is being considered by some to be racist and stereotypical.
For those who are unaware of the Simpsons world, Apu is an illegal Indian immigrant, a graduate from Caltech (Calcutta Institute of Technology) who despite holding a PhD f
rom Caltech (Calcutta Institute of Technology) runs a 24-hours convenience store, Kwik-E-Mart where he speaks in a sing-song “Indian” accent, cheats his customers in various devious ways and is the last word in subservience/boot-licking saying “Thank you come again” even to people who rob his store. He also has eight kids, had an arranged marriage, worships “weird-looking” Gods—you get the picture.
In anticipation of the release of the Simpsons movie, “Seven Eleven”, a chain of American stores, ironically known to hire South Asian immigrants, has launched a promotion by which 11 Seven Elevens have been converted into the mythical Kwik-E-Mart where Apu, played by the South Asian employee does the trademark “Thank you come again” routine. The promotion has been very successful, with sales in comparison to the same time last year having been double in the “converted” Seven Elevens.
Some bloggers (Manish has gone on CNN Paula Zahn and NDTV) have taken issue with this kind of promotion (Racism as Entertainment) and some of the 7-11 franchisees have felt insulted. Needless to say, there are also people who feel that Manish is a clowntown (whatever that means) and argue that people who subscribe to Manish’s point of view have a “fundamental mis-appreciation of satire”. The cornerstone of their argument is that Simpsons is an equal-opportunities offender with racial/ethnic stereotypes of all kinds—Mexican, Jewish. What makes the show a classic is the fact that it uses political incorrectness as a comic weapon to paint a bitingly sarcastic picture of American life and uses the exaggerated racial stereotyping to point out the silliness inherent in the accepted perceptions of minorities. They also feel that by protesting the Seven Elevens merchandising of Apu, people like Manish are promoting a culture of competitive intolerance, like we have in India.
Responding to the second charge first, people who feel offended (not all of them Indian) at Seven Eleven’s use of Indian stereotypes are not calling for a ban, or a vandalizing campaign at Seven Elevens or flag-burnings or Jihads. Being offended at a stereotype, however well-intentioned the stereotype may be, is not intolerance —it is a civilized difference of opinion.
Now with respect to “not getting” the Simpsons humor. While the Simpsons very well may be a sophisticated, smart play on perceptions of race, the reason why many people (note I do not say all) laugh at Apu is not because they “get” this subtlely—- it’s because they do not. They take Apu exactly for how he is depicted—a cheating, unhygienic (he sells sausages dropped on the floor) illegal brown immigrant with the funny Hindoo accent who works in a convenience store. And what tickles them is the cowardice and subservience and the helplessness of the Indian man, who while protecting the till from the robbers, gets shot and even then remembers to say “Come again thank you”. Verily, nothing tickles the racist bone more than to see debasement of the “other”.
Pointing out that the Apu character in Simpsons is sympathetically etched by its creators thus becomes moot because the racists are not bothered by the plot-line of the show, but instead by its very convenient racial stereotype. The impact of the Apu stereotype’ can be gauged from the fact that “thank you come again” has been appropriated as a slogan of hate and irreverence targeted towards the “sand niggers” and the “Pakis”. The convenience store scene in “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle” where a ” a gang of white “toughs” vandalize a “Seven Eleven”-like store, manhandle the South Asian man (who is begging and pleading to the hooligans not to damage his store) and mouth the “Thank you come again” is not regrettably as much a work of imagination as it is a slice of reality.
Incidentally, you do wonder why none of the other racial stereotypes depicted in the Simpsons ever had such a malignant effect in the real world.
I for one am not blaming the Simpsons for perpetrating/promoting racism against South Asians—after all if it was not “Thank you come again” it would have been something else. However my point is that things being as they are , Seven Eleven’s use of a character that has unhappy associations for many South Asian working men and women and the use of a line that has become a racist taunt, is according to me a rather insensitive gesture on the part of the corporation.
[ A sidepoint: What really gets my goat however is the reaction to any kind of “racism in America” discussion. One reaction is the “Indians are the most racist”—-as if that, even if it accepted, makes racism kosher when it is aimed at Indians.
The second reaction is “It’s not your country. If you have a problem, go back to where you came from”.
Counterpoint A: By that token, USA is only for native Americans: all the rest should go back from where they came from.
Counterpoint B: The people who say this, if they actually live by what they say, should not venture beyond their own apartment in their home-city. Because if they go to even another locality, or to another city they should be willing to considered as “outsiders” (the concept of “outsiders” is subjective) —-and hence, by their logic, should expect “taunts” and discrimination. And no, staying inside your country does not mean you cannot be considered an ‘outsider’. As an example, the Shiv Sena did not believe, during their anti-”Madrasi” campaign, that South Indians by virtue of being Indians were not “outsiders” in Mumbai . This is because Shiv Sena defined an “outsider” as non-Marathi.]
Coming back to the Apu issue and the “Indian Americans like Manish are oversensitive” angle, I can point out, from my very limited knowledge of American pop culture and media, that studio/media executives are very very careful of using racial stereotypes as humor props mainly because of some embarrassing cock-ups in the past. Cockups like George Lucas’s attempt at racial humor aimed at African Americans through the character of Jar Jar Binks, a pathetic unfunny racial stereotype (you can see here how the character is perceived) . I recall, that unlike the dissenting chorus of “Indians cannot understand sarcasm”, there were very few stringent voices in support of the supposedly “clever racial humor” embodied by Jar Jar Binks.
In general, you would very rarely find offensive racial humor directed towards any group in a mainstream Hollywood production because while Americans are not half as ban-happy as we are, they do know how to vote with their wallets. In this context, the Simpson’s production house (Fox what else !) and Seven Eleven’s publicity stunts seem a rather cynical marketing decision based on assessing the two sides: how many people do we offend versus how many do we please. We know which side of the balance won. I doubt if it would have been the case if the target was any other racial or linguistic group in today’s “politically correct” atmosphere.
Concluding my long post, a few weeks ago I was watching “Transformers” in a packed theater with the raucous crowd that was laughing and cheering at every point. Well nothing got them as going as the bit where one of the heroes saving the world from the Decepticon scorpion makes a call and gets stuck with an Indian call center worker who with his Apu-type accent and indecipherable mumblings keeps delaying the hero. The entire crowd exploded at presumably this “subtle bit of racial humor” and I would have also been laughing (being someone who understands “sarcasm”) when a voice rose above the din with a boisterous “Motherf**** dothead”.
And then it happened.
As the connection with the call center operator was terminated by the impatient hero, someone to my right laughed out:
“Thank you, come again.” (Do click this link)