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Not So Kwik: The Apu Dilemma

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Seems like everywhere I look, people are talking about the 7-Elevens that are turning themselves into Kwik-E-Marts as a promotion for the upcoming Simpsons movie. Manish at Ultrabrown is far and above at the forefront of the opposition movement to this conversion. Kudos to him. I highly recommend you read what he's written, particularly his piece for The Guardian blog.

Normally, I don't have too much to say about these kinds of things. This time though, it's got me thinking. Perhaps it's because throughout my college years I had irritating American kids come up to me and quote Apu expecting me to laugh at their brilliant wit. Perhaps also, it's because I saw some of my desi friends rationalize it, and others pretend they were being enlightened by laughing at it, but always a little extra loud. Or perhaps it's because I always felt something was amiss and never really did anything back then. It could be any, all, or none of the three – I'm not quite sure. I should also add I did regularly watch The Simpsons and other than those aspects of Apu that tick me off, I did enjoy it. Lately though, the show seems to have lost its edge and the humor has stopped outweighing the negative stereotyping.

To begin with, there is little doubt in my mind that immigrants are being exploited for the promotion. This starts with the character of Apu itself, which was created to exploit and exaggerate desi immigrants' (sometimes nonexistent) characteristics to get a quick, easy, and insensitive laugh. The accent is inaccurate and Apu is two-dimensional, badly researched, and the worst of it is that he perpetuates negative and inaccurate stereotypes. Yes, Apu has a Ph.D. which is somewhat redeeming, but Groening gives him one in computer science because that's all desis can do – I.T. And run Kwik-E-Marts, of course.

Now, one can argue that this is a cartoon and a satire, and that the whole point is to exaggerate the ridiculous to satirize society. But having wracked my brains, I can't see what is being lampooned by creating this character as such, other than the fact that immigrants "talk funny" which adds great value to the general culture, I'm sure. As an Indian in America, it's hard enough having to fight to be taken seriously in mainstream society. These irritating obstacles certainly don't make that task any easier.

Even if we assume for one second that Apu is nothing more than a bad joke, should we really take this joke into the real world? I think not. That the 7-Eleven company has actually done it and further, paid desis to say "Thank you, come again" and other silly lines is downright repulsive. Manish compares it to Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.

Pancake mascot Aunt Jemima and rice maven Uncle Ben survived only after being softened and morphed into avuncular friends. Apu too has been grandfathered into America’s affections after 19 years on television. But as Slate magazine wrote, ‘It’s worth remembering what these spokescharacters truly are: a final, living vestige of Jim Crow America.’

I don't know if I would go that far, but I do shudder to think of the consequences. And while several desi store-owners are enjoying the increased profits of the promotions, not all have agreed to convert their stores to Kwik-E-Marts.

Back home in India, you get quite used to hearing about these sorts of inequities and exploitations in society, but I was under the impression that we were in the "enlightened West". At times like these, I can only remember Mahatma Gandhi's response when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization. He said, "I think it would be a very good idea."

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