Feeling Seen Through Reformative Representation

Apu & Representation

Media is incredibly powerful in shaping people’s perceptions of the world. Our reality is meant to be reflected in media, but often this is not the case as it is skewed and inaccurate. These faulty ideas then proliferate and shape people’s understandings of the world around them. The stereotypes then inform the new media being created, reinforcing this impression of reality and different groups and cultures, which ultimately gets misrepresented again. This cycle is why proper representation and diversity in all aspects of media are so important, as they fight back to correct the continuous mischaracterizations and false stereotypes.

Media can explore the fantastical, but when the different people in our reality are not given a chance to fully exist authentically in these media spaces, in our reality they are forgotten and maligned. and literature can influence generations. Media representation provides the opportunity for validation for many marginalized people who have repeatedly had their stories forgotten or corrupted. Seeing oneself and one’s culture accurately displayed for the world to see can often feel legitimizing. It is infinitely harder to feel understood by peers and strangers alike when you are absent, even invisible in the public consciousness. The large population of Asian Americans hailing from a wide variety of backgrounds are not exempt from this issue, as they too are continually deprived of the social opportunity that media representation helps facilitate.


The Different Forms of Representation

Representation can come in many forms and transcends someone just being on screen. The basic idea behind it is that identity is complicated and extends far beyond what traditional media has reinforced. In Western media, white, straight, cis, able-bodied, conventionally beautiful men are the predominant figures both in front of and behind the cameras. Whatever roles are not filled by them are also typically characterized by passivity and inaction, or outright villainy. marginalized by mainstream society and laws—are not seen, and the richness of their cultures, their stories, are similarly absent. Whatever representation does occur has also generally been negative. Additionally, however problematic these representations may be, they allow detractors for proper representation and diversity to say that “there is already diversity, haven’t you seen X, Y, or Z film?” The opponents will also, over time, be conditioned by these stereotypical representations to believe that they are true: women are hysterical and weak, people of color are lazy and violent, LGBTQ+ persons are mentally ill and perverse, Muslim people are terrorists, indigenous people are , and differently-abled people are invalids. It’s these kinds of stereotypes that emerge years ago and are continually perpetuated by the media. may not overtly feel and think this way, but it is an unconscious bias that infiltrates and dictates their view of the world.

In regards to the “model minority” myth, Asian Americans have been both denied the ability to tell their diversity of rich stories by being leading figures on the screen, and have had their ability to do wrong stripped away. The model minority myth mischaracterizes all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as highly intelligent, achieving, hardworking, and as a result, they are more successful than other minorities in this country as well as white Americans. Particularly, the myth boils down Asian-Americans to being highly proficient in math and science, leaving them without the ability to explore a passion for other fields, and denying them the opportunity to fail. The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929). Many portrayals of Asian characters were also done by white actors donning yellowface, most notably seen by Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Even when filmmakers felt as if they were breaking the model minority myth in their films and were using Asian actors, they still fell back onto racist tropes. The character of Long Duk Dong in John Hughes Sixteen Candles (1984) was both feminized when compared to other male characters, and was sex-crazed, inappropriately harassing women. By being behind-the-scenes in the writers’ rooms and the director’s chairs as well as in front of the camera, new thoughtful and authentic portrayals would break both the model minority myth as well as other harmful stereotypes that persisted. In recent years there have been a wide collection of stories told by Asian Americans that highlight their perspectives.


The Problem with Apu

A glaring example of negative stereotypes persisting into today can be found in the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in the long-running series The Simpsons (1989-). Stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu even made a documentary in 2017, The Problem with Apu, that focused on the character and his portrayal by Jewish actor Hank Azaria. Kondabolu cited the series as helping him understand comedy and American culture, and that he particularly liked Apu as he was a representation of his family’s own culture. He would later say that “I was happy for any representation as a kid…but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you.” In 2015, Azaria himself recognized how the way Apu and Indian Americans are portrayed contributed to the racialized bullying that children of South Asian heritage received. The film highlights the effect that images like Apu can have in representing Kondabolu’s heritage, but at the same time, a bias is created towards people like him, reducing South-Asian people to just being like Apu.

The way that Kondabulu believes that this misrepresentation could be fixed aligns with how these issues have been fixed in other series and industries: by introducing new diverse characters that can have their different set of backgrounds explored, and by having Azaria step down as voice actor. Commenting on and improving old series’ representation issues is important, but what is most needed for accurate representation that works to reverse a history of under and misrepresentation is creators of color in creative positions. By having them in behind-the-scenes positions like in the writing rooms, in the producers’ chair, creating new series where humor is not at the expense of marginalized groups but for and with them, a pathway to true reformative representation can be found.Azaria said that he was worried about reinforcing stereotypes and that “the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it,” additionally adding that more voices in the writing room can inform the direction that the character takes. The show—after initially criticizing Kondabolu’s and other dissident’s perspectives—announced in 2020 that it would no longer have non-white characters voiced by white actors.

Reformation in The Simpsons

When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Armchair Expert, Azaria apologized for his participation in racism, “or at least [his participation] in a racist practice or in structural racism, as it relates to show business.” For public perception to be changed regarding underrepresented people, there needs to be an abundance of genuine portrayals as well as an opposition to misrepresentation. With both of these, the reality where ugly stereotypes dominate can be taken over, ushering in a space where nuanced and thoughtful explorations of personal stories can flourish and coexist. In a media space with representation prioritized instead of ignored and denigrated, human identity for many groups will reveal itself to be more than just one note, but increasingly intricate. Subsequently, many groups previously feeling invalidated, stereotyped, and forgotten, can feel seen, embraced, and maybe even understood. It will never be enough to heal the damage that has been done, but through collective visibility, a foundation is created for each individual to have more freedom in how they can express themselves and tell their stories.