Despite a national call for more diverse racial representation in the media, the issue of representation continues to be complex and divisive as societal memory follows its push forward, according to comedian, writer and podcaster Hari Kondabolu.
Undergraduates, professors and other community members joined Hari Kondabolu last Wednesday for a panel discussion titled “Racial Animation: A Conversation with Hari Kondabolu.” The event is the first installation of a series co-hosted by the Asian American Cultural Center and Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration.
The discussion — moderated by Director of the AACC and Peer Liaison Program and Assistant Dean of Yale College Joliana Yee, Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration Albert Sergio Laguna and Adhya Beesam ’22 — explored the intricacies of diverse representation in media in the context of Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary “The Problem with Apu.” The documentary teases apart the tense relationship between Western culture and South Asian representation using the infamous South Asian character from “The Simpsons,” Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, as its focal point. While much of the media deemed the documentary as controversial for perpetuating a culture of extreme political correctness, Kondabolu rebutted these misconceptions by explaining the evolving complexity of the issue of representation.
“This is the golden age, I think, for people in marginalized communities to create art, because [Hollywood] [wants] more stories, they’re looking to buy stuff from that culture,” Kondabolu said.
Kondabolu explained that the intent behind including Apu’s character in “The Simpsons” is closely tied with the capitalistic potential to use such characters for profit. As an example, Kondabolu referenced 7/11’s 2007 promotion in which the chain transformed some of its stores into Apu’s Kwik-E-Marts and thus sold Simpsons-themed products.
According to Kondabolu, Apu was created as a character lacking “depth” that has been aired for 30 years, designed by a predominantly white team of writers and voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. These attributes, he said, have ensured that Apu’s impact on society is “forever.” Kondabolu said that this was especially poignant in the late ’80s and ’90s, when non-white representation was infrequent and such narratives could easily become the single story for an entire race.
“You can talk about how he [Apu] is a representation of a model immigrant, but that’s not what people are laughing at,” Kondabolu said. “The punchline is his voice, and all the other stereotypes … That’s the one [story] we experienced on a regular basis.”
The Simpsons aired a response episode to “The Problem with Apu” in an episode entitled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” in which they satirized the culture of political correctness that Kondabolu’s documentary was criticized for perpetuating. While Kondabolu has been trolled to the extent of receiving death threats in response to his documentary, he was “surprised” that the show chose to answer back to him and “disappointed” that they did so by “breaking the fourth wall and betraying” the core characteristics of one of their principle characters.
According to Kondabolu, the response by “The Simpsons” was driven by “white fragility.” There was no other reason for them to respond since the documentary “wasn’t trolling them,” Kondabolu said.
Mariko Rooks ’21 said in an email to the News that she particularly enjoyed listening to Kondabolu’s subsequent discussion on other possible mechanisms The Simpsons could’ve used to strip away the negative stereotypes of Apu’s character.
“I really enjoyed exploring alternative and more grounded/less racist ways of dealing with or re-imagining this character (e.g Hari pointed out that they could have an episode that exposed Apu’s stereotypical accent as fake/intentional, etc.),” Rooks wrote. “I’m always amazed by the brilliance of BIPOC creators & their rich and ingenious ideas for narrative change.”
When asked about the impact of “The Simpsons” as a global export, Kondabolu said that the issue of representation becomes increasingly complex, as the “context of the joke” might “very well be read differently in different places.”
“It’s all about the community, in this country, in this context,” Kondabolu said.
Kondabolu said that the “reawakening of race for so many white Americans” has led many to channel their “guilt” into resolving issues of representation. However, he added that the hasty nature of such fixes coupled with the longevity of such issues — like replacing the Aunt Jemima bottle logo — often have left him feeling that the sentiment is “somewhat disingenuous.” Kondabolu said that while issues of representation are important and impactful, discussing them can be easily used to detract from the “major changes” society needs such as “defunding and abolishment” of racist institutions.
According to Kondabolu, this issue is relatively new to mainstream America, given that the past 10 years have seen a surge of Asian representation. In having “The Problem with Apu” structured in a style of a “pop doc” accessible on TrueTV, Kondabolu hopes that audiences have used and will use it as an introduction to the history of representation in Western cultures.
When asked how some comedians choose to lean into stereotypes, Kondabolu said that performers often have to “rely on stereotypes” in order “to play to [their] community,” referencing popular comedians Russell Peters and Lilly Singh.
Kondabolu added that because stand up is “local by nature,” he can better relate to his audiences as he accumulates life experiences that have made him more thoughtful.
“I think Hari stands out to me among male comedians, and even within the landscape of South Asian comedians, just because of the way he imbues meaning into his sets,” Beesam said. “Nothing is without purpose, and everything is tremendously thoughtful and meant to educate and get the audience to consider his viewpoint.”
Kondabolu said that relying on writing by people who may not understand certain cultural complexities presents a difficult choice for many up-and-coming comedians and actors. This issue applies especially when they may play a part just to give a “character that is undignified some degree of authenticity and dignity that he would not have had otherwise.”
In the same vein, Kondabolu encouraged students to “support independent artists” in a “variety of fields.” Dora Guo ’23, who is an Illustrations Editor for the News, wrote in an email that she enjoyed the “positivity” that Kondabolu conveys about the future of the entertainment industry.
“I wanted to attend … because I am an artist of color and the need and limits of racial representation in visual media affects the work I want to create and for whom I want to create for,” Guo said.
“The Problem with Apu” was released in November 2017.
Samhitha Josyula | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Oct. 19: A previous version of this article contained an error in Joliana Yee’s title and the spelling of Yee’s last name.