A myriad of tactics have been used to perpetuate the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of black and brown men, from FDR’s anti-marijuana campaign to Clinton’s three strikes law. One of the chief reasons for the legislative success of throwing men of color in prisons was propaganda and it presented itself in various forms.
In the 1930s, the movie Reefer Madness warned parents about the evils of weed and contributed to the federal criminalization of marijuana against the American Medical Association’s recommendation. In the 1990s, the prominence of the TV show Cops, which essentially showed a perpetual array of black and brown men being arrested, contributed to the narrative of violent men of color and created the supposed public need for tough on crime policies, hence Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill. In both of these and many other instances, media influenced public opinion which influenced public policy.
The representation of people of color in media has always been propagandist. The first feature film in the history of Hollywood was about klansmen getting justice for a white woman who killed herself in order not to be raped by a slave, and it was screened at the White House.
The Simpsons premiered the same year as Cops. It hyperbolically addressed seemingly mundade problems that most families could identify with. And then there’s Apu, one of the show’s only non-yellow main characters. From its birth the show was controversial, and it remains so. But it has also consistently been smart, funny and critical of society. However, those aspects of it have become less evident.
When the effects of 9/11 are discussed, seldom are the experiences of brown people in America and the rest of the world prominently featured or placed within a paradigm that involves sympathy. However, similarly to the war on drugs, the war on terrorism was an epithet, only it criminalized skin color and religion.
In his documentary “The Problem with Apu”, comedian Hari Kondabolu seeks out Hank Azaria, the white man who voices Apu, and confronts the feeling of trying to identify with a show that actively dehumanizes him. Kondabolu points out how limiting it is to see his entire existence be limited to a terrorist and Apu. The documentary ultimately argues that the main problem with Apu is just that, it exists in the pool of east Asian representation in media, amongst only similarly dehumanizing caricatures. Azaria has since publicly allaud Kondabolu and urged the writers to listen to east Asians who are vocal about how Apu has affected them.
In response to the growing criticism, The Simpsons writing room responded differently. What we expected, as viewers of the show, was something worthy the legitimate criticism of Apu’s portrayal as well as something as smart as the show claims to be. What we got was a half thought analogy for political correctness and the vilification of the show’s established moral compass. Not only was it lazy, it was dismissive. Responding to criticism by saying it wasn’t a problem when they started is frankly illogical, it’s asking time to stand still as the world changes. If we kept things as they were simply because they weren’t an issue at their conception, I would only be considered 3/5ths of a person. There’s a reason Apu exists. It’s because the writer’s room where he was created was full of no one at all that looked like who he was supposed to represent, no one to question the moral authority straight white men so frivolously give themselves. To think that a show can simultaneously claim to have an intelligent comedic voice and still confidently respond to criticism is so lacklusterly.
In the age of self proclaimed free thinkers, it’s so easy to trick yourself into thinking your mind, your self image, your perspective value in society, are not influenced by media. It’s so easy to trick yourself into believing your actions are libertarian and that codependence is purposeful. But some things are inherently never changing, including the fact that we need each other. We help and we hurt each other, whether or not we do so consciously. Human evolution favored collaboration over competition for a reason. If the Simpson’s writer’s room can’t figure out how to fix their Apu problem, it might be time to add a couple of chairs to the table.