Last week, The Simpsons, the iconic animated series that has satirized pop culture and politics for nearly three decades, found itself in a rare position: on the other side of protests and controversy. At question was the character Apu, the show's friendly local convenience store employee who has been rendered in racially insensitive stereotypes by voice actor Hank Azaria for the entirety of the series.
The issue has come to the forefront thanks to comedian Hari Kondabolu's documentary The Problem with Apu, which takes the show to task for the portrayal. Last week's episode of The Simpsons acted as a quasi-official response to the documentary, with a few quick jokes that seemed to signify the producers' disinterest in the addressing the controversy or rectifying the hurt feelings. Showrunner Al Jean, responding to subsequent outrage on Twitter, gave a direct — and lukewarm — response on Twitter, writing that he would "continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right."
As is his wont, HBO host Bill Maher weighed in on the controversy over the weekend, and landed squarely on the side of the politically incorrect. "If you spend your time combing through old TV shows to identify stuff that by today's standards looks bad, you're not 'woke', you're just a douchebag,” he said, throwing shade at Kondabolu without actually mentioning him by name.
Because it stands as a microcosm for Asian representation in Hollywood, the issue only stands to get more heated. And with that in mind, Adi Shankar, the producer of Netflix's Castlevania series and movies such as Dredd and the upcoming film Bodied, emailed SYFY WIRE to weigh in on the topic. The controversy is especially close to Shankar's heart, as he grew up consuming American pop culture mostly from afar, in India and Hong Kong. He moved to the United States two days before September 11th, and has worked to break stereotypes throughout his Hollywood career.
Here is his open letter to Jean and Maher:
Dear Mr. Maher and Mr. Jean,
Apu wasn't "applauded" or "inoffensive" at any time. We are the most educated minority in America yet that fact was completely extricated from '80s and '90s pop culture and all that existed was a hurtful caricature, a cousin to the coon and Jewface caricatures, that reinforced our fears of how we were perceived by gatekeepers such as yourselves. By dismissing this issue as a joke, a fad amongst entitled millennials worthy of a light chuckle, neither of you are acknowledging that this creation has and was used to hurt countless kids who were already struggling to fit in.
We have a fabulous platform and with it the ability to affect change on an unprecedented level, and as such you both have the responsibility to do better.