I recently watched the much discussed episode of the Simpsons that tried and in most people’s eyes failed to address the controversy surrounding its straight up racist character Apu. I honestly thought the whole “don’t have a cow” joke and intentional avoidance was funny which I’m pretty sure was the point but it’s not like I don’t get why people were pissed. They wanted a real apology and they got a joke instead, a funny joke mind you, but not an apology. In contemplating the entire hullabaloo surrounding the controversy I actually came to the opposite conclusion that most people did though, which is: in a show who’s humor often derives from stereotypes, it’s sort of amazing that after nearly 30 years only one of those stereotypes has become problematic. So rather than trashing the creators maybe we should actually be marveling at that seemingly miraculous accomplishment. How is that shit even possible? Seriously, half the jokes in the show are based around stereotypes.
Think about it a bit. The Simpsons are supposed to be a caricature of the prototypical middle class American family in a generic American small city, replete with the most common small city name they could come up with. Homer is a stereotype of the idiotic beer swilling/TV addicted American moron. Mr. Burns is a stereotype of a greedy old money billionaire. Chief Wiggum? Fat ass donut eating cop. The Sea Captain? I shouldn’t have to explain that one. Everyone mentions the prototypical Scottish, Asian, and let’s face it, at least 3 minorly offensive Italian American characters, but we’re also sort of failing to grasp that most of the characters are poking fun at some stereotype or another and yet, none of them are really considered offensive at this point outside of Apu. Patty and Selma? Stereotypical spinster characters. I love the fact that my mom had an unattractive perpetually single roommate when I was a kid who was also completely obsessed with MacGyver. Grandpa Simpson? Stereotype of a rambling out of touch old man. Actually, all the elderly characters on the show are essentially stereotypes. Comic Book guy? Total stereotype of what’s now evolved into the Alt Right. This is the freaking premise of the show and again, after nearly 30 years only one of these stereotypes is considered offensive to our modern sensibilities.
One character. That’s an insane track record when you think about it. It’s easy to forget that when the Simpsons was created in the late 80’s, the South Asian 7-11 owner was in fact considered a cliché and this is the cliché the character’s humor is derived from. It’s what people often experienced when they went up the block to buy beer but there’s admittedly no defending it these days (both of the convenience stores I’ve gone to regularly over the last 15 years are owned by South Asian families, but they absolutely DON’T talk like Apu). White guy doing a bad Indian accent? Sort of like blackface. Is it sometimes funny? Yep. Inappropriate? Sure. Should they change it to update it for the times? Absolutely.
But what about the other characters? As a longtime Simpsons fan I went through them in my head more than a bit and came to an odd conclusion. There’s really only one other character who I think should absolutely be considered offensive, and that’d be Cletus (and Brandine and all the hick kids really). The reason say groundskeeper Willie isn’t widely considered in poor taste has to do with there really being no huge history of oppression against Scottish people by Americans (I’m a quarter Scottish, zero offense taken). But what about poor rednecks? Have poor rednecks been continually exploited by rich white people? Abso-fucking-lutely. In fact, this is precisely what I’ve had to confront about my own prejudices. As a white guy I’ve never had any real negative feelings about other races, but hicks? Yep. It doesn’t help that when I lived in small town Ohio and looked like, gasp, a rock musician (which I was), I got fucked with by them constantly. I suppose the difference is that I have in fact actively tried to combat this shitty internal stereotype. In my professional life I continually work with people all over the country and often have to tell myself, no, just because someone talks in a thick southern drawl doesn’t mean they’re an idiot (is it really even a southern drawl when it exists in every single part of the country?). I’ve gotten better about it, but has society? Not really.
I actually dated a poor country girl for over a year in college but you know what’s fucked about that story? I didn’t even get that she was a redneck (even though she flat out told me) until I met her extended family. Why? Because she was so embarrassed about it that both her and her brother spent an enormous amount of time trying to assimilate. You could only hear that drawl when she said a couple choice words, and even then it was faint. She said the word can’t, cain’t. That was the only tell. She was so ashamed of her small town Ohio heritage that she went way out of her way to make it so no one would know her secret when she moved to the city unless she told them. It must have taken a ton of work but why would she feel the need to do that exactly? Don’t us city folk love cultural diversity?
I suppose the Cletus character would be OK if it was voiced by a legit country boy, but I checked. He’s voiced by Hank Azaria i.e. the same dude who voices Apu. Is Azaria a redneck? Nope, he’s from the biggest city in the country and went to a fancy private University (Tufts). The people writing the character mostly went to fucking Harvard for Christ’s sake. So why is this still considered OK exactly? It’s rich people openly mocking poor people quite literally.
Answer: because country folk keep voting for the dumbest shit imaginable. Remember when I was talking about the history of oppression against poor white people? That’s basically what the Republican party fucking is, rich white people manipulating poor white people in small towns to vote against their own self-interests. That should be their fucking motto (although I still think “Fuck the Poor!” is a pretty good one too). Exploiting uneducated white people is what they fucking do, and you know how they do that? By convincing them the whole world thinks they’re a joke. Which would be the problem with Cletus in a nutshell, we currently have no problem with characters like Cletus.
Come to think of it, should any actor who grew up wealthy be allowed to play a poor person on TV? Should a rich person be allowed to write them? I’m saying no. Like there aren’t enough starving actors in the world to fill those roles or broke writers willing to take those jobs. How can you pretend to understand that struggle when you’re Hollywood nepotism royalty exactly? Isn’t that a bit offensive to poor people regardless of race? Newsflash: poor white people don’t like being told that they’re privileged. Because of our shit propaganda laws (which were intentionally gutted btw), there’s now an entire industry of rich creeps constantly telling them that broke brown people and “big city elites” are conspiring against them. As long as we continue to ignore this reality and only get offended by racial stereotyping, we’re sort of fucked here. Sorry.
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