WI News Roundup, The Problem With The Simpsons And Their Token Indian Character, More Changes To The Retail Landscape

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The Simpsons character Apu was for many decades the show’s token Indian character, perpetuating many Indian stereotypes as the owner of the Kwik-e-mart. We talk to a culture writer about what the show has done to acknowledge the problem. In our weekly look at some of the top state news stories, including new funding formulas for schools in the University of Wisconsin system, a fundraising appearance by Vice-President Mike Pence in Wisconsin, and more. And with Bon-Ton closing stores throughout Wisconsin and the nation, we’ll see whether there is anything that could draw shoppers back to the mall.

Featured in this Show

  • State News Roundup For April 20, 2018

    Students at UW-Stevens Point demonstrated at the state capitol this week to protest the elimination of many majors at their school, including philosophy, history, and English. At the same time, state lawmakers backed a new funding metric for the UW System based on “workforce needs.” We check up on that, as well as a decision regarding ballast water in the Great Lakes, and Vice President Pence making a trip to Wisconsin for a fundraiser with Governor Walker.

  • What's 'The Problem With Apu'?

    “Thank you, come again.”

    It’s a phrase that is widely associated with Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the convenience store cashier from the legacy animated sitcom, “The Simpsons.” But as a South Asian growing up in Queens, it’s one that still grinds comedian Hari Kondabolu because it was often weaponized as an insult to his ethnicity.

    Kondabolu’s TruTV documentary, “The Problem With Apu” explores the concept of cultural representation in the media landscape, and more importantly, who is creating and in control of those representations.

    “There were no brown people making Apu, right. White comedy writers, white executives, you know, white voice actor. So that’s clearly a problem. The idea of being depicted without your say,” Kondabolu told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Kondabolu argues in the film that in the case of Apu, the bigger problem might be under-representation. Apu was the only South Asian character on television. And it wasn’t a very flattering portrayal.

    “He’s heavily accented in an inauthentic accent and he’s in this position of service, never being able to be move upward,” Kondabolu said, “You know, those are not necessarily the most positive things.”

    According to Kondabolu in the film, the character was forging a view in American audiences that all Indians were similar: “servile, devious, goofy.”

    “We don’t have that kind of other identity where we can be identified, it’s basically — especially at that time — it was the ridiculous Indian immigrant and that stood in for all of us,” said Kondabolu.

    “The Simpsons” has long dabbled in stereotypes (think the Italian Chef Luigi Risotto and Groundskeeper Willie) for mining humor, but as Kondabolu points out, there was no shortage of other Italian or Scottish representations on TV and “those ethnic identities end up turning into whiteness.”

    If we lived in a culture where there was equal opportunities for representation, then equal opportunity offense is fair,” Kondabolu said.

    For many South Asian actors, the lack of representation led to a disturbing kind of typecasting where they were asked to perform what “House of Cards” and “Homeland” actress Sakina Jaffrey dubbed “patanking.” As she describes it, “patanking” is an exaggerated Indian accent made popular by characters like Apu. What’s more painful in this case is that Apu is voiced by white actor Hank Azaria.

    “I don’t think it’s ‘patanking’ just because he’s not South Asian,” said Kondabolu. “So for him it’s … straight, you know, clowning a group of people.”

    The bulk of the documentary follows Kondabolu’s quest to track down and have a conversation with Azaria — who claims he crafted the voice of Apu after Peter Sellers’ performance in the film, “The Party.”

    Toward the end of the film Kondabolu receives an email from Azaria stating he’d like to connect after the film’s release, but not participate in it directly.

    Off camera, Kondabolu says he actually spoke to Azaria on the phone and Azaria proposed a joint interview on a platform such as “Fresh Air” or the podcast “WTF with Maron” so that the conversation would be in a controlled setting without one party having command of the final edit.

    “I said absolutely,” Kondabolu said. “If that’s what you need for us to do this, let’s do it. And he still said no.”

    For his part, Kondabolu was ready to let the film and subject matter stand — hoping people would see the film before jumping into the conversation.

    “I think a lot of people, especially on the internet, critiqued it without ever seeing it,” he said. “It just became a stand-in for these larger issues about political correctness and representation that people, you know, were frustrated by, but they haven’t actually seen it.”

    While Kondabolu never had a conversation with Azaria, “The Simpsons” recently addressed the controversy in an episode titled, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” where Marge rewrites a childhood book for Lisa to be less offensive. For Kondabolu, the message missed the mark. He tweeted a response the following day:

    Kondabolu added that in the process of not addressing Apu’s flaws, the show fundamentally altered the one seemingly flawless character on the show.

    “In order to make it clear they weren’t going to change Apu in any way, ‘The Simpsons’ changed Lisa,” Kondabolu stated in a tweet. “That’s some serious spite.”

    Hari Kondabolu will be appearing live in Madison from Thursday, April 19 through Saturday, April 21.

  • 'The Simpsons' Responds To Recent Apu Criticism

    Last year comedian and filmmaker, Hari Kondabolu released a documentary that was critical of the character, Apu from long-running animated television show, The Simpsons. In the film Kondabolu makes the case that the Apu character is a negative stereotype of Indian people and that the show should address it.

    We talk to a writer about the show’s recent response to the criticism, and why cultural stereotypes continue to exist in television and movies.

  • The End Of Bon-Ton And The Challenges In The Brick & Mortar Retail Industry

    Bon-Ton, the parent company to stores like Boston Store and Younkers, announced it will be liquidating in the coming weeks. We talk to a retail analyst about what the news says about the ongoing struggles for brick and mortar retailers.

Episode Credits

  • Rob Ferrett Host
  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Dean Knetter Producer
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Karl Christenson Producer
  • Brad Kolberg Producer
  • Rachael Vasquez Producer
  • Rob Mentzer Guest
  • Hari Kondabolu Guest
  • Aisha Harris Guest
  • Hart Posen Guest

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