The Simpsons and the Challenge of Portraying Believable Nigerian Characters

 

In the second part of an on-going project on The Simpsons, we asked bloggers, writers, cultural thinkers and academics to comment on the episode “The Princess Guide” [s26 e15]. Below is a selection of the comments, with an introduction by Dzekashu MacViban.
In the first part, Wesley Mead reviewed the same episode, examining the decline of The Simpsons from the cultural touchstone it used to be to a weak, repetitive sitcom at 550+ episodes.

Homer, Princess Kemi (Fox)Homer, Princess Kemi (Fox)

A lot of people— die-hard fans included— no longer watch The Simpsons. Far from its peak in the early 1990s, aided in a way by the controversies surrounding it, The Simpsons, according to Jim Schembri, “has gone from commanding attention to merely being attention seeking”. “The Princess Guide”, which is the fifteenth episode of the twenty-sixth season, perfectly backs this claim and the previous episode, wherein Marge is an Uber cab driver, offers no solace in its weak plot. “The Princess Guide” episode received an audience of 3.93 million which shows a remarkable drop over the years compared to an episode like “Simpson and Delilah”, which had 29.9 million viewers when it first aired on October 18, 1990.

 
There has been a lot of talk about “The Princess Guide” episode, mostly because of the fact that a Nigerian character plays a major role and it as well features books by Nigerian writers. To understand how people received the episode, I reached out to bloggers, writers, cultural thinkers and academics to comment on the episode.

 
Ikhide Ikheloa, on stereotypes and poor research
This episode is disappointing on at least one level— the script was poorly written. As someone who used to watch The Simpsons religiously in the past, it just seemed disjointed and contrived. Sarcasm, snide retorts and brilliant takes on society’s dark sides are her trade mark, but this episode struggled. The research was awful at least with respect to the Nigerian or “African” princess. The joke about eating monkey brains straight out of a monkey’s skull is taken from the 1978 mondo film Faces of Death, which refers to habits of a Middle Eastern country. It was later revealed to be fake. On the other hand, as unfortunate as the stereotypes are, they actually reveal the intellectually incurious mindset of many in the West— and the failure of African societies and their thinkers to grab hold of their narrative and change the mindset out there. The depiction of African literature (the works of Achebe, Okri and Adichie) as depressing and issues-based is offensive but based on the reality, to the extent that the world sees “Africa” only through the lenses of a few writers and thinkers. The world has moved on but Africa stays savage in their eyes— and our eyes. Until African societies begin to invest heavily in education, the arts and publishing and producing home-grown narratives, we will continue to whine about the depiction of our lives by the West.
Ikhide Ikheloa blogs at www.xokigbo.com

 
Charlie Sweatpants, on slapstick and one-dimensional characters
Deep into its third decade, The Simpsons, or, as cranky fans such as myself like to call it, Zombie Simpsons, is a generally dimwitted imitation of the show’s 1990s pinnacle. It is cruder, messier, and shallower than ever before. Its relatable satire of everyday life, institutions, and stereotypes has been dropped in favor of cartoonish slapstick. Its rich characters have been reduced to one-dimensional caricatures. And its subtly sophisticated stories have been replaced by meandering nonsense that frequently doesn’t make sense even from one scene to the next.

Working under twenty plus years of backstory, they continually repeat and recycle ideas, jokes and entire plotlines. Such was the case with “The Princess Guide”, an episode centered on Moe the bartender falling in love. Moe first did that back in 1998, and they go back to that story every three years or so. In this case, it was with a Nigerian princess whose father was in town to sell uranium to Mr. Burns. I have no idea whether the current writing staff knows that Nigeria is not, in fact, ruled by a king, but it hardly matters. Their nationality appears to have been selected just so that they could make a lone 419 scam joke.

Meanwhile, her father is negotiating with Burns in scenes that consist mostly of Burns insulting him while Smithers fantasizes about he and Burns escaping to a tropical paradise. Both the princess and her father are little more than props that allow regular Simpsons characters (Homer, Moe, Burns, Smithers, etc.) to go through their usual shtick.

The closest the episode comes to caring that they’re actually supposed to be Nigerian occurs near the end, when the princess plunks down books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri, and the late Chinua Achebe. But that’s all it does. The book covers appear on screen very briefly and then they disappear. There are no in-jokes for people who might’ve read them, nor any indication that anyone on the writing staff did anything more than Google “Nigerian literature” and copy the top results.
Charlie Sweatpants is a software geek in the U.S. who spends his free time criticizing Zombie Simpsons episodes at deadhomersociety.com.

 
Georgina Mexía-Amador, on seeing the US through Hollywood films
It’s not surprising that “The Princess Guide” is filled with stereotypes about African people from a Western perspective, for example, exchanging uranium for goats, or Burns’ offering of monkey brains to the Nigerian King as food. What I want to point out in this comment, though, is how United States is perceived by the Nigerian characters depicted in this episode, the nameless King and his daughter, Princess Kemi.

 
Princess Kemi has just arrived the most powerful country in the world, and therefore wants to see everything “as it appears in the movies”. But Springfield is far from reaching her expectations, even though her reactions are of sincere bewilderment: watching water pouring from a water uptake after a car hits it, or watching burning tires, happen to be the most exciting sights Moe is able to show her.

 
Where is development? Where is the power the US endlessly promotes through Hollywood films? Princess Kemi is waiting to see all this, but ironically US culture is embodied in Homer Simpson and in Moe. Princess Kemi feels so sympathetic towards Moe because, maybe he, even more than Homer, represents in her opinion, a more genuine “American experience”: there isn’t really anything to see, but her amazement is genuine, naïve and childish. Because of this, I wouldn’t say that this depiction solely involves Africans, but rather includes any visitors to the United States for whom Hollywood has been their only source.

 
In the end, despite all its tedious flaws, “The Princess Guide” laughs at the fact that nothing is really what it seems, especially the American Dream.
Georgina Mexía-Amador is a Mexican writer and poet. She contributes regularly to The Ofi Press and Bakwa magazine.

 

 
Yema Ferreira, on the challenge of portraying believable Nigerians

I like Kemi, so I will focus on her. I could not help but fall for her as she embodies two of my greatest passions: literature and natural hair! I greatly appreciate the fact that she was not paraded across the screen with slick straight hair, wearing a wig or a weave of some sort (which I fear she might do herself if she existed). And I love that she, being a book lover, shared some Nigerian literary gems with her new friend, Moe, who will most likely never read them. Besides being a literatus and naturalista, she is intelligent, humble, a super polyglot and quite fashionable. I did find it odd that, being a Nigerian, she did not seem to have any African language in her wide repertoire! And, of course, it is incomprehensible why they decided to make her a princess. A generic Afro–Nigerian one at that. Last but not least, I would have enjoyed a proper Nigerian accent. But this is The Simpsons after all. I do not expect from the show a highly sophisticated portrayal of modern African woman.

Watching “The Princess Guide”, I did sense an effort from the producers to get the portrayal of the Nigerian characters “right”, while still keeping the humour— I would even say a nervous attempt. An awareness of both the necessity and the pitfalls of portraying African characters. The strained effort to avoid the pitfalls is primarily focused on princess Kemi, neglecting to make her father a believable modern Nigerian.
Yema Ferreira is an Angolan writer. She blogs at copenhagenhair.com and currently lives in London.

 
Imade Iyamu, on the episode’s relatable character, Princess Kemi
For any regular watcher of The Simpsons, this episode is different. Unusually, the story is centred outside the main characters of the Simpson family and around Moe, the grumpy, unsociable bartender. Homer Simpson is assigned by his boss to watch over the daughter of a Nigerian king he is attempting to woo into a contract, and Kemi (the daughter) escapes the confines of her hotel room and cable television to stay in the bar with Moe.
I appreciate the choice of Moe to befriend Kemi. Out of the entire cast, Moe is the most cynical and he is certainly not carried away by power or royalty. When he first meets her, he sees nothing in Kemi but the cybercrime and internet fraud he associates her country with, but by the end they are friends and he respects and loves her. There is a strong message in that: the fact that you can look beyond the prejudice and see a person for who he/she is— a human being. Also, I did not miss the side joke Moe makes about the grave, grim-sounding titles of the Nigerian novels that Kemi shows him.

 
The main African character in the episode couldn’t have been better. Kemi is everything: she plays Nigerian music, dresses in African-styled clothes, is dark-skinned and, yes, that beautiful natural hair!
Again, Kemi is also very beautiful and classy, kind, well-mannered knowledgeable and loves to travel. I love the fact that none of her black features were droolishly over-exaggerated, as in, her lips and nose weren’t unrealistically thick and her body wasn’t drawn overly buxom and curvy to the point of looking cartoonish. Even though this is a cartoon. Well…

 
I don’t watch every episode religiously but I’ve always liked and watched The Simpsons. Unlike American Dad and Family Guy, there’s hardly any crude profanity and the shock value isn’t purely to get attention. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the episode as I watched it, but I am sure now: I feel proud. Seeing a woman who comes from my part of the world and looks like me (granted, animated) be poised and pretty and get a happy ending washed me with this wave of pride until it shined all over me.
Imade Iyamu blogs at Sadgirlsays.

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4 responses to “The Simpsons and the Challenge of Portraying Believable Nigerian Characters

  1. Pingback: [TV Review] The Simpsons’ Nigerian Characters | BAKWA·

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  3. Pingback: The Simpsons & Telling our own stories | imade.·

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