Media research project: The Simpsons
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This paper analyzed three themes used in the animated cartoon “The Simpsons” such as racism, sexual politics and moral issues through research and analysis approaches of existing publications in order to find out what is represented in the satirical animated cartoon, how and why they are displayed and what are the messages that creators send to both the adult and children audiences - Media research project: The Simpsons introduction. It is evident from the said television show that a satire on American culture is represented on the widely-accepted culture phenomenon, “The Simpsons”. This satire is effectively and efficiently displayed in the show because it is ingrained in modern-day realisms amid other things. The primary purpose of “The Simpsons” is to be entertaining. On a superficial level, the show merely uses popular current issues on the plot as an excuse to make jokes and amusing visual sequences. On a deeper level, however, “The Simpsons” uses these popular current issues for satirical purposes. The messages that the creators send to both the adult and children audiences are the pretense and ineptness of pop psychology, commercialism, contemporary child-nurturing, ecological abuse, basic faith and beliefs, corporate insatiability, the shams of American education, and consumerism.
“The Simpsons”, in its simplest sense, tells the story of the Simpson family, each of whom fills a stock sitcom role. The father, Homer, is a fat, lazy, bumbler stuck in a dead-end job. Marge, the mother, is a homemaker. The oldest child, Bart, is a troublemaker, while the middle child, Lisa, possesses a near genius-level of intelligence. The youngest child, Maggie, is “agitatedly sucking at her pacifier, staring wide-eyed and mute as if in horror at what she is destined to become” (Jones 267).
Evolution has laughed at Homer Simpson. He is characterized as the lovable, if not terribly intelligent father who tries hard to please his family, his boss, and his friends, to varying degrees of success. A fumbling but devoted husband, Homer works as a safety inspector at the hilariously unsafe nuclear power plant. To him, it is a basically meaningless job that he does not particularly like, but is resigned to, and even comfortable in.
Homer’s wife, Marge, is a patient and devoted woman. The lady of the towering blue beehive hair-do runs the Simpson family home, caring for her husband and children like a stereotypical American mother, serving as the model of morality and wholesomeness. Unlike traditional sit-coms, though, on The Simpsons, the wife is considerably more intellectually gifted than husband Homer (though that may not be saying much). However, very much in accordance with traditional patriarchal programs of the past, she never asserts herself even though she’s always right. Marge’s moral qualms are a frequent episodic theme, and developing the personalities of the family members and townspeople through moral issues is a common occurrence.
Bartholomew J. Simpson is ten years old and is the constant prankster. In becoming the countercultural icon that he is, Bart (which is an anagram of “brat”) irritates his parents, sister, and teachers with pranks that range from the classic (flushing a cherry bomb down the school’s toilet, ), to the unique (painting the lines in the faculty parking lot closer together so the teachers can’t get out of their cars ). Additionally, his rebelliousness manifests itself in an alternate form– his refusal to see life the way adults dictate he should.
Bart Simpson knows what many people suspect, but never act upon: that authority figures do not know all the answers, and frequently are clueless. People tend to ignore him since he is a mischievous child, an “underachiever, and proud of it.” Very often, though, his cynicism regarding authority enables him to expose things others do not see, thus becoming a vehicle for satirizing people’s blindness towards the injustices and contradictions in the world. When the show began, Bart, the eldest Simpson child, was unquestionably the favorite. However, today, Homer is arguably the star of the show. While a case could be made that the lead is played by the charismatic townspeople of Springfield (among whom the Simpsons belong,) Homer has been the most emphasized character in any given episode.
The brains of the family, Lisa Simpson is particularly marked by her impressive, though unrewarded, intellect. She is also the “sensitive poet” of the show, with a deep respect for jazz and the arts. Often sharing insights belying her age, Lisa is close to a perfect child. In addition to her intelligence, she is kind, honest, talented, and endearing. By escaping the control of people’s great expectations of her, she is able to point out flaws in Springfield’s society that adults would never be able to.
This makes the social commentary in a Simpsons episode more pointed. One would expect to see an adult discover injustices in society, not an eight year old girl. By portraying Lisa as one of Springfield’s forces for honesty, “The Simpsons” comments on our inability or unwillingness to confront corruption in our lives by using an uncorrupted child as its muckraker. Since many viewers feel the show is a child’s adventure, this increases the effect of the social commentary by disguising it, making it more accessible to people who tend to shy away from heavy-handed social commentary. Although Bart and Lisa Simpson are two radically different characters, they both are societal muckrakers and fit well into an established tradition of using children in satire to cue viewers who dislike political or societal commentary. It is perfectly evident that the two children with speaking roles know far more about real life, street life, and pop culture life than either parent.
And then there is the youngest child, Maggie, who is a baby. She has nursed a pacifier and toddled unsteadily throughout the eight year run of “The Simpsons”. In the title sequence, the camera descends into Springfield, meeting the family members at the close of their working day, much as The Flintstones did. In fact, the similarities between the two are too apparent to be merely coincidental. The Simpsons plays on the famous opening credits of one of the last animated series to be on prime-time, as the five “yabba-dabba-doo” their way home from a typical day in the life of the Simpsons. The family leave their places of work (for Homer, the nuclear power plant, Marge and Maggie’s shopping trip, Lisa’s music rehearsal, and Bart’s after-school detention) to converge at home, settling in front of the television set to watch, of all things, “The Simpsons”.
They are, on paper, no different than the ideal American families of 50’s sitcoms like “Leave It to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best”. “The Simpsons” represent, however, a marked departure from these so-called “nuclear families”. Even this distinction is ironic, given that Homer works at the local nuclear power plant. It illustrates that while 50’s families lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust, the Simpson family live in an age where nuclear power is merely a tool.
“The Simpsons” is produced by Gracie Films for Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Network. Fox is the network that embraces the wonderfully subversive Simpsons clan (Richmond, 2005). It began on April 19, 1987 as a series of interstitials for The Tracey Ullman Show, and premiered as a series on December 17, 1989 in the FOX Sunday, 8 p.m. time slot. Regular broadcasts began in January of 1990, debuting as the network’s highest-rated program, earning instant praise from both critics and the network’s accountants.
“The Simpsons” began as a semi-parody of a family sitcom. However, it had broadened its satirical focus over time to not just the structure of the family rather the structure of society in general. The fact that the state of their hometown of Springfield has never been officially revealed gives the show an air of unreality. Springfield is more of a “state of mind” (Crusoe, World Wide Web) than it is an actual community. Television critic Rob Owen argues that “the show’s humor is totally in sync with the sarcasm, cynicism and media obsession that appeals most to Generation X and most directly responsible for bringing Generation X’s self-consciousness to the forefront” (p. 64).
Every episode is so rich in both the obvious and subtle humor that it provides something for everyone. A character like Joe Quimby, the Springfield’s mayor, works on one level as a satirical portrayal of a corrupt politician, and on another as a thinly disguised version of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Instead of the Indiana Jones facing a booby-trapped cavern filled with poisonous arrows and a giant boulder rolling after him, Bart contends with Maggie shooting suction darts from a toy gun and Homer losing his balance and rolling down the stairs towards him. This lampooning of cultural artifacts has become such a dominant feature of the show that it is a rare modern “The Simpsons” episode that features a semi-realistic situation within the Simpsons’ dysfunctional family dynamic. It is not uncommon for some or all of the main characters to have only a few scenes in a given episode (Polishuk, 2004)..
As Eco (1998) points out, the passage of time is altered in a fictional series such as a comic book or an animated TV show; characters are trapped in the position of never being able to either age or live with disregard to time for fear of alienating their audience (p. 868 to 869). Time is malleable in the Simpsons world, and the past, present and future of the characters is in constant flux. Flashback episodes have indicated that Bart was born in 1981, Lisa in 1984 and Maggie sometime in the early 1990’s, and yet the characters are forever held at ages ten, eight and one respectively. The only substantial character development that has occurred in any of the family over thirteen seasons is that Lisa becomes a vegetarian in the 1995 episode “Lisa the Vegetarian.” It is typical of “The Simpsons” subversive humor that the show is entirely self-reflexive about the lack of change in the lives of the main characters, and has in fact become a running joke (Homer Loves Flanders, 1994).
“The Simpsons” cheerfully acknowledges the immortality of their characters and moves on. This meta-awareness allows the writers of “The Simpsons” a greater amount of freedom in creating their plots, because there is no strict narrative to be followed, each episode does not have to neatly conclude. One such episode (“Missionary: Impossible”) features Homer traveling to an exotic South Pacific island in order to avoid paying a donation to the Public Broadcasting System. The episode ends with Homer facing an almost certain death by falling towards a river of molten lava, but this sequence is interrupted by a PBS-esque pledge drive on behalf of the Fox network. This scene ends the show, and the next week, Homer was back in Springfield as if nothing had happened (Polishuk, 2004).
Based on the essay by Polishuk (2004), “while the Simpson family themselves cannot change in order to retain the basic concept of the series, time must pass in some form for the sake of narrative development” (Eco, 1998, pp. 867-868). Any growth in Springfield is reflected through the supporting characters. In the more than ten years of the series, Apu the convenience store clerk has gotten married and become the father of octuplets, the Van Houtens, the parents of Bart’s best friend, have divorced, and Maude Flanders, the Simpsons’ next-door neighbor, lost her life in a freak accident in “Alone Again, Natura-Diddly,” one of the more darkly comic episodes in “The Simpsons” history.
One of the most interesting changes in the after five years of airing in television is the character development of Homer’s friend Barney Gumble, the town’s alcoholic. Barney quit drinking in the “Days of Wine and D’Oh’Ses” episode during the 1999-2000 season, and has remained sober ever since. This complete redefinition of a major recurring character is a first for the series. Apu may now be the father of eight, but his primary role in the series is still as the Kwik-E-Mart employee. Barney’s role was that of a drunkard, but the fact that his alcoholism masked his intelligence added a tragic subtext to his character. A flashback episode showed Barney as a serious student in high school before he discovered beer, and, even in his alcoholic adult years, he still has the creativity to produce a short movie that wins the Springfield Film Festival, though this comes as news to him. “I made a movie? No wonder I was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly” (A Star Is Burns, 1995).
According to Polishuk (2004), people often laugh at “The Simpsons”, in a way, to keep from reacting with shock. Gerard Jones calls the show not “a true sitcom, to be entered vicariously. This is bitter, self-conscious, self-dissecting satire” (268). The real mythological value of “The Simpsons”, however, is that an individual can rise above their lot in life with effort (i.e. Barney). It is just that most of the characters have not yet chosen to give this effort. This hopeful message of the series keeps it from being truly bleak. The Simpsons are still heroes in a romantic genre (Eco, 1998, p. 868), not a tragedy. In going along with the show’s anarchic attitude, the ultimate finale for the Simpson family is a break from the pattern of their existence by developing and aging, thus shattering the final limitation of the modern mythical character. This final parody of their fictional roles would be enough to make even Bart proclaim “Aye carumba!” (Homer Loves Flanders, 1994).
According to Henry (2004), “deep within the structure of “The Simpsons” lies what can be accurately described as an ultra-violent cartoon series. Given its content, and the fact that “The Simpsons” itself has been intermittently controversial, it is at first surprising that no clamor has been raised (Henry, 2004). In 1987, when “The Simpsons” made their television debut as a two minute sketch on “The Tracy Ullman Show” nobody could have expected that these crudely drawn figures with their bright yellow skin and bizarre hairstyles would become popular culture icons. Those who dismiss Homer, Marge and their brood as “just another cartoon family” are ignoring the sophisticated humor, visual jokes and social commentary that is packed into every episode. The program’s writers demand their audience posses a certain amount of sophistication and cultural awareness in order to appreciate their humor (Coletta, 2000).
In one episode alone there were allusions to Paul McCartney, Crazy Horse, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Gandhi, Garfield the Cat, Edgar Allan Poe, Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock and Binky-the rabbit from “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening’s alternative comic, “Life is Hell.” When the program first achieved great popularity in the early 1990’s, Bart (an anagram for “brat”) was the main focus of most episodes and of the media’s attention. Phrases such as “Cowabunga,” “Don’t have a cow, man” and “Eat my shorts” entered the American lexicon. His pride with being an underachiever was discussed in editorials as detrimental to the nation’s youth (Coletta, 2000).
Even President George Bush said he preferred “The Waltons” to “The Simpsons.” Despite such criticisms, “The Simpsons” flourished and became even more irreverent as it began to focus less on Bart and more on the other Simpsons and their Springfield neighbors. The appeal of “The Simpsons” lies in the fact that it can be understood on two levels. Children can enjoy the quirky animation, slapstick and outrageous characters and their various misadventures. However, the program is not only for kids. Adults can appreciate the Simpson clan and other denizens of Springfield as offering a critique of contemporary American culture (Coletta, 2000).
The cartoon format serves as the perfect vehicle for addressing issues that would seem “preachy” or even “taboo” if placed within a live-action setting. Topics discussed by these outlandish characters have included: sexism, environmentalism, alcoholism, homosexuality, racism, divorce, religion, the freedom of expression and even public nudity. Somehow the audience will accept Lisa’s struggle with the sexist Malibu Stacy doll makers or Homer’s trip to Duff Gardens-the theme park that promotes alcoholism in the animated format more readily than if the same cultural satire had been performed by live actors. Groening and his team of writers have developed one of television’s best repertory companies from which to draw their laughs (Coletta, 2000).
Moe the bartender, Mr. Burns, Burns’ assistant Smithers, Principal Skinner, Bart’s best friend Milhouse, Qwik E Mart proprietor Apu and Krusty the Clown have all been fully fleshed out over the last several seasons and are, thus, engines for stories. The town of Springfield, which takes its name from the setting of the bland 1950’s sitcom “Father Knows Best,” reveals all of America’s insecurities (whether it be suffering through a dead-end job like Homer at the nuclear power plant or failing in school like Bart) and aspirations (such as Marge’s various attempts to find a career or Lisa’s goal to be the best eight-year-old saxophone player) that define America at the end of the 20th Century (Coletta, 2000).
For all the social commentary and the roster of guest stars that is rivaled by the 1960’s “Batman” series (what other show can boast appearances by Bob Hope, Aerosmith, Johnny Carson, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Smashing Pumpkins, John Updike and the three surviving Beatles?), “The Simpsons” has endured because it is funny and one of the few television programs that causes people to laugh out loud. We are amused by Homer’s gluttony and stupidity, Bart’s prank phone calls to Moe (Is Oliver there? Oliver Clothesoff?) and the other plots that can only occur in an animated universe (Bart adopts an elephant, Lisa uncovering corruption at the Junior Miss Springfield pageant, baby Maggie being accused of attempted murder). The key to “The Simpsons” is its ability to balance its cartoon mayhem with true human emotion. Groening has said, “My goal from the very beginning has been not to get mired down in this kind of sour, ‘ain’t life horrible’ kind of humor that is the hip stance today.” Without a doubt Groening and “The Simpsons” have succeeded (Coletta, 2000).
This television show is a classic example of Marxist propaganda. The mother is the voice of reason, the daughter is highly intelligent, the father is the idiot fool and so is his son. First of all, intelligence is often passed from the mother’s gene line to the children and therefore Bart would just as likely be intelligent as Lisa. Intelligence transmitted to children is not based on having the same gender (Henry, 2004).
As defined by Eco (1998), the modern mythological character takes on “a capacity to serve as a reference point for behavior and feelings which belong to us all” (p. 867). Since one of the primary vehicles for contemporary storytelling is television, there is no societal benchmark that better reflects Eco’s (1998) definition than “The Simpsons”. The Fox animated series has acquired a significance that goes beyond viewership ratings. The characters, situations and catchphrases have had an indelible influence on modern society, becoming “a pop culture barometer. If it is made fun of on “The Simpsons”, then it is an important part of pop culture” (Owen 66). Yet for a show where the humor is largely derived from the constant satirization of societal conventions, “The Simpsons” permeates its own myth buried underneath the irony. The value of the Simpsons family is not that “they are what is wrong with America” (Homer’s Enemy, 1997), but that, for better or worse, they are a chaotically exaggerated representation of the Western culture. The fact that the show is considered satire rather than farce shows how close our real world is to crossing the line into the fantasy world of the Springfield (Polishuk, 2004).
This paper employed the existing publications research and analysis approaches in order to find out what is represented in the satirical animated cartoon, how and why they are displayed and what are the messages that creators send to both the adult and children audience. The desk research focused on analyzing the existing literature and current studies done on “The Simpsons” Journal articles, books, case studies, magazines, presentations and internet data were used for this research and cited accordingly.
Over the years, “quality TV” has come to be known for its generic style and formulaic code. In the preface of his book, From Hill Street Blues to ER: Television’s Second Golden Age, Robert J. Thompson outlines the formulation of a quality TV program with eleven primary criteria which result in a twelfth criterion, that of recognition and achievement which solidify its place in television history. In December of 1989, the first animated prime-time series since the 1960’s was introduced to American culture. The Simpsons displayed a unique wit and sense of humor based on the comic art of Matt Groening, whose characters were among the first emotionally “real” ones that TV audiences had ever seen.
With character development of the family and community as the focus of the show, social commentary and satire have been brought to the forefront in cartoon format. Still thriving today, “The Simpsons” has enjoyed incredible success as a program which succeeds in its mission to teach a lesson, be funny, and sustain an audience while at the same time making a profit. “The Simpsons” is a “quality” program according to Thompson’s defining criteria, and is worthy of inclusion among the most highly regarded shows of our television generation. Centering on a nuclear family and the people of an “Anytown, USA” (Springfield), “The Simpsons” rarely fails to surprise as it satirizes the diverse social, political, sexual, and aesthetic norms defining American culture. The Simpson family shares certain qualities with other television families of the past, like the Bunker’s, Bundy’s, and Huxtable’s, but the way their personalities are explored is unique.
“The Simpsons” is a revolutionary show (Thompson). This television show goes beyond its humor. There is angst, a kind of doom, in “The Simpsons” that is unlike anything else on television. The Simpsons are a family of losers and they know it. Homer and Marge will never get beyond their debts and the middle-class values they actually hate. Lisa will grow up and marry someone like her father, never opening up the poet inside her. Bart will likely die in a drag-racing accident. Yet, though there’s angst and even self-pity in these characters, they are not defeated. Their awareness of their limitations and their struggle against them are a rare combination for television sit-coms. This is not a humorous twist on what psychologists like to call a dysfunctional family. On The Simpsons, it’s the world that’s dysfunctional. In other words, unlike the narrative neatness on even the best TV shows, these cartoon characters have a reality about them. A kind of joy exists in that.”
The critical humor, self-reflexiveness, intertextuality, and form of The Simpsons serve to set the show apart from its predecessors as well as others that would seek to imitate it. The most visible way in which “The Simpsons” is not like “regular” TV is in its presentation of humor. However, unlike most humorous shows on television, it does not employ the use of a laugh track to cue the viewer in to when it is being funny. Dozens of jokes, asides, and funny references are made in the course of an episode but, due to the lack of a cue, go largely unnoticed. There are so many of these allusions in a given episode that often, one can watch that episode over and over again and pick up new ones each time. “The Simpsons” is a program unique in its use of humor without a laugh track, in the way that it invites the viewers to pick out for themselves the lines and actions they think are funny, based on their own personal experiences and awareness of popular culture.
Unlike many shows on TV, “The Simpsons” works to encourage critique, demanding that viewers be active in their consumption. Without hesitation or apology, it ridicules the advertisements, slanted news stories, and inane talk shows that appear on their own beloved TV set. Other societal institutions are similarly targeted. The systems of law and justice, religion, the medical profession, the political structure, and the educational system all are revealed to be hollow and almost always, narrowly self-interested. Very little is sacred on “The Simpsons”. The ability of “The Simpsons” to entertain while at the same time pointing out things that people might not otherwise see about themselves such as our beliefs and our institutions, is surely a mark of quality. Mark Sinker of the New Statesman & Society notes that there had never really been a mainstream program where the mockery of the very idea of parental authority was so total. Indeed, this is what helped the show break ground in the way it dealt with family issues.
In addition to family issues, The Simpsons covers the most serious of topics. More than most live-action shows, the program has candidly covered scores of sensitive social issues in its nearly eight years in prime-time. These include: sexuality, the corruption of our political and legal systems, the stratification of society, homosexuality, prejudice, parenting, the moral decay of society, bigamy, the plight of the elderly, TV as “vast wasteland,” violence in society, media bias, and the crumbling education system. Plenty of shows touch on these topics, but how many mask them with the humor and yellow fleshtones that The Simpsons does? Not in many cartoons will viewers find such serious issues addressed as in this animated family sit-com.
Quality television generally is produced by people of quality aesthetic ancestry, who have honed their skills in other areas, particularly film. The primary creators of “The Simpsons” each had specialized talents that allowed them to collaborate and create such a tremendously successful program. Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon, along with scores of others, came from their already established careers in all sorts of fields, joining forces to create “The Simpsons” in all its animated glory.
The subversive comic sensibility of Matt Groening has probably influenced as many kids as Joe Camel. The cartoonist started drawing as a release for his frustrations at his miserable existence in Los Angeles after graduating from Evergreen State College, WA, in 1977. His “Life In Hell” caught the attention of James L. Brooks of Gracie Films, who planned a production meeting with Groening to discuss a TV project involving the cartoon. Realizing that would force himself to give up a substantial amount of royalties from the strip, Groening decided to sketch an animated family of five while waiting to see Brooks about the animation project. The Simpsons were born in 15 minutes.
Groening drew a balding, overweight father, a mother with a mile-high beehive hairdo, and three obnoxious, spiky-haired children. He then named the characters after the family he knew best– his own. The Simpsons are named after, but not based on, creator Groening’s own relatives: Groening’s father and son are named Homer, his mother is Marge and he has two sisters, Lisa and Maggie. These characters were intended to represent the average American family, which he then gave the typical American surname, Simpson.
One of Matt Groening’s intentions in creating “The Simpsons” was to make the audience forget they are watching a cartoon by portraying a fuller range of human emotion than that presented in most live-action sit-coms, emphasizing individual responses to moral dilemmas and specific character traits. In doing so, he is able to convey his own politics through the Simpsons’ daily activities, such as Homer’s job. At the nuclear power plant, there is constant danger of meltdown, and in each episode dealing with the plant, disaster is flirted with. Indeed, that is one of the benefits of being a creator of the show– the ability to make political statements and observations. Maggie, in the opening of the show, is accidentally scanned by a bar-code reader in the grocery store and is listed as costing $847.63, a figure once given as the amount of money required to raise a baby for one month in the U.S. Subtle observations such as this are commonplace on The Simpsons.
Matt Groening is credited as the primary creator of “The Simpsons”. Today, he is officially known as the show’s Creative Consultant, and has a hand in almost every phase of the production process. His name appears on all Simpsons merchandise, by agreement with the 20th Century FOX Film Corporation, who bought the rights and ownership of the program. As primary creator of the show, Groening works in an overseer capacity, supervising character design, working over the story boards other artists have created, directing the complicated animation, and co-directing the dialogue. However, writing is his major concern, a task he shares with co-producer Sam Simon and executive producer James Brooks.
Without James L. Brooks, it is doubtful “Simpsonia” would have swept America. In the beginning, he sponsored “The Simpsons” by hiring Groening to contribute his cartoonery to The Tracey Ullman Show with “The Simpsons” skits before and after commercial breaks. Fellow creator Sam Simon says of Brooks, “It was Jim Brooks who had the vision of what this series could be. The breakthrough was Jim’s marching orders to do a show based on the emotional inner lives of its cartoon characters, and that’s really never been done before.” An alumnus of the prestigious MTM production company, Brooks is a deity in the comedy world. The Simpsons was a giant leap from his previous projects, as producer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Tracey Ullman Show, and director of the films Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News.
Sam Simon has also been a key player in the success of “The Simpsons”. At the time of creation, he was a co-producer of the Tracey Ullman Show, where he, Brooks, and Groening decided to spin “The Simpsons” bumpers off into a show of its own. Famous for his work on Taxi and Cheers, Simon contributed his skills in sit-com writing to the show. Later, he became a producer of “The Simpsons”.
Unlike many quality shows which suffer early on from low ratings, within two months of its series premiere in January 1990, “The Simpsons” had jumped into Nielsen’s Top 15. This is an astonishing performance, considering that the FOX network reached only 80% of households in the country at that time. Even more amazing than that is the series’ demographics. Not only does The Simpsons consistently rank in the top 10 among the young, but it draws plenty of older people as well. In addition to Simpsons fans being young, they are also smart. At least their writers are. “There are jokes you won’t get,” says Groening, “unless you’ve actually attended a few classes in college.” It also helps if you know old movies. Simpsons plots have spoofed King Kong, Citizen Kane, Thelma & Louise, Cape Fear and countless Hitchcock films. The writers work in as much material to appeal to more educated viewers as they do for the maintenance of plot.
Indeed, there is not much mystery as to why the show rates highly among young viewers. The series, in the opinion of critic Harry F. Waters, “shamelessly panders to a kid’s eye view of the world: parents dispense dopey advice, school is a drag, and happiness can be attained only by subverting the system.” The reasons for the show’s captivation of older viewers is a bit more complex. Baby boomers who grew up watching The Flintstones and The Jetsons, the last cartoon families to make it in prime-time, undoubtedly hold a soft spot for animated antics. This cartoon, though, is loaded with sophisticated satire and cultural asides that only adults would fully comprehend. And only then, the most pop-culturally aware of adults.
In the beginning of its syndication run, Twentieth Television was faced with the dilemma of choosing a target audience in strategically marketing The Simpsons. Twentieth ended up emphasizing the adult appeal of The Simpsons to target 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. access periods. Competitors contended that because the cartoon is not a classic adult situation comedy, it should be targeted to children. Twentieth executives supported their decision and countered criticism by citing that “The Simpsons” regularly beat or tied The Cosby Show during its Thursday 8 p.m. airing years earlier. The decision to make adults the target audience was a difficult one to make because there was no precedent of an animated series airing in prime access, where stations can determine if it has the straight adult appeal of a live-action situation comedy.
After being aired as a successful Christmas special in 1989, the show consistently scored high ratings in its prime-time slot on Sunday evenings. Since “The Simpsons” was a success from the outset, it cannot be said that the show suffered with cancellations or the like, as is common to many of the quality prime-time dramas. In fact, for a time, it was stacked up against the extremely successful The Cosby Show, and Twentieth Television executives noted it often beat out Cosby head-to-head in the ratings. Time slots have always generous to the program. In addition to its developing a following after becoming independent of Tracey Ullman, The Simpsons’ primary difficulty with respect to this criterion of quality was merely trying to find a niche audience for advertising purposes.
The seventh criterion of quality TV according to Thompson is that it defies genre classification by creating a new one. It does so by mixing several established genres. In addition to being considered a prime-time animated sit-com, “The Simpsons” also shows flashes of drama, mystery, action/adventure, romance, and musicals, often all in the same half-hour. In effect, “The Simpsons” defies ordinary genre classification because of its mixture of so many varieties of programs. Another unique characteristic of the show is that it does so in the form of a cartoon! Everything from drug use, censorship, racism, violence, and hatred to contemporary social movements, pop culture, and politics has been etched in celluloid by individuals who realized that the pastel colors of animation often blind the censors to their biting critiques of the world. Despite its animated form, “The Simpsons” takes several different genres of television and blends them together to produce one of the most stylistically varied programs on the air.
“The Simpsons” subject matter tends toward the controversial. In combining entertainment and subversion, “The Simpsons” angers some people as much as it amuses others. In addition to its humor and surface entertainment, “The Simpsons” deals with some serious issues. The show’s ability, as a cartoon, to discuss issues such as work and relationships and love, sex, violence, and death have taken critics aback. One reason for this is that not much is expected of an animated sit-com. Despite its mixture of genres, as previously discussed, not many “lessons” are supposed to be taught in such a program. It has been claimed that television is such a frivolous medium that when The Simpsons’ writers write about subjects that actually cause people anxiety, the people are surprised by it. Joe Rhodes of Entertainment Weekly noted that “The Simpsons at its heart…is guerrilla TV, a wicked satire masquerading as a prime-time cartoon.”
Funny though it is, “The Simpsons” has attracted a great deal of serious analysis for the way it deals with contemporary life. Like Roseanne and Married with Children, “The Simpsons” certainly seems to be part of a trend where sit-coms look at the often unpleasant underbelly of working-class families. “The Simpsons” has caused controversy in the U.S. over some of its stories. In one, Homer’s wife, Marge, contemplates having an affair. Many episodes of “The Simpsons, such as this one, also seek dramatic undertones to create emotional situations to help strengthen their messages. “Thematically, the network was very worried about it, and I think that was one of our real breakthrough episodes,” says Sam SimoÐn. “It was the first time I watched the show where I really felt I’d never seen anything like it before.
“The Simpsons” aspires toward realism. The Simpsons is perhaps the best example television viewers have of a realistic family show. Matt Groening described them as “people who love each other and drive each other crazy.” The characterization is so much like real families that many people suffer the shock of self-recognition. Simply put, people can relate to the humor that “The Simpsons” creators extract out of “normal” family life. We can identify with the feelings of each character during the good times and the bad, in a way most family-based shows never acknowledge. Springfield is somewhat realistic in its “Anytown, U.S.A.” depiction. Though no doubt stereotypical in its portrayal of people, places, and things, there is a degree of realism to Springfield.
Matt Groening elaborates on the show’s authenticity: “The world kicks Homer in the ass but he doesn’t resent it. And that’s because he doesn’t get it. A lot of people identify with being kicked around, so it’s fun to see someone not understand it and struggle through fairly happy anyway.” Richard Corliss expounds on the authenticity of the main character: “Homer isn’t bright, but he loves his brood. The poor patriarch is so dull witted that he probably couldn’t count to 16 if he used all his fingers and his toes. But he is a faithful husband, and if he often derides his kids, he will do anything – go skateboarding off a cliff, defy his boss, buy Lisa a pony – if the tots scream loud enough and if Marge gives him a lecture.”
Indeed, perhaps what has made the show as popular as it has been is its portrayal of the American family. Before its arrival, by the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, television comedy had become stale. The typical sit-com family was an upper-middle-class professional family with wise parents and generally well-behaved children, as in The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Growing Pains. Seeing a family more like themselves, with a well-meaning but boneheaded father, a mother whose greatest accomplishment is keeping the family members from killing each other, a lazy, mischievous son, and a sweet and intelligent, but moody and self-pitying daughter, has been a breath of fresh air for viewers. For we see the Simpsons as more like ourselves than any television family of the recent past.
Although they may be crudely drawn characters, the Simpsons embody a genuine social force. It can be argued that television mirrors us more than it molds us. In so doing, The Simpsons sends out an intriguing message about ourselves. As viewers, we begin to revolt against television’s idealized images of domestic life, while at the same time lovingly embracing “our favorite family.” The genius of “The Simpsons” is that it deconstructs the myth of the happy family and miraculously leaves what is real and valuable about the myth unscathed. Based on past TV programs such as the Walton’s and the Brady’s, in our national delusion, we have been hit with the idea that the life of the sit-com family is the way things are “supposed” to be.
This paper analyzed “The Simpsons”. The methodologies used are through researches and analysis of existing publications and media information gathering from industry experts. It is essential to study “The Simpsons” establish the relevance of this as a globally-watched program. Hence, journal articles, books, case studies, magazines, conference presentations and internet data were used for research and cited accordingly.
Racism is explicit in the later episodes of “The Simpsons”. For instance, Lisa, the show’s overriding voice of reason and center of intelligence, despite her age she is well-educated in the ways of the world, and it is her voice that most readily and most effectively denounces the amoral behaviors of those around her. Over the years, she has promoted liberalism, and multiculturalism, and as vociferously denounced racism (Henry, 2004). The other characters are still trapped in their assigned positions, and thus are often portrayed in a fashion that is totally based on their ethnic, national or religious background.
These characters represent the extremes of their stereotypes; for example, it is a cliche that all convenience store workers are minorities, and thus Springfield’s local Kwik-E-Mart is operated by Apu, a native of India. The show then exaggerates the stereotype for both comic and symbolic purposes, as shown in the episode “Homer and Apu” where Apu is fired and travels to the Kwik-E-Mart headquarters in an attempt to get his job back. The Kwik-E-Mart headquarters is an ancient temple in India equipped with automatic doors and the head of the organization is an elderly Indian guru who sits in cross-legged meditation while sipping a Squishie iced-candy drink: his mantra is “Thank you, come again” (Homer and Apu, 1994).
There is no racism in such a farcical portrayal, and given that “The Simpsons” has parodied so many different nations, the show cannot be considered to be, like Homer’s advice for getting out of jury duty, “prejudiced against all races” (Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie, 1992). The real target of the show\’s satire is not people from foreign nations, but xenophobic North Americans who actually regard Apu’s character as an accurate representation of Indian culture (Polishuk, 2004)..
In several episodes of “The Simpsons, sexual politics is the theme in the said animated television series (William et al., 2001). According to Henry (2001), “perhaps in response to such a cultural climate, “The Simpsons” has become, in recent years, more openly political regarding homosexuality”. The show clearly has a leftist political vision (Signorile, 1993), but it regularly presents and juxtaposes both liberal and conservative ideologies usually as a means of critiquing the latter (Sadownick, 1991). An episode from the sixth season, “Sideshow Bob Roberts,” well illustrates the battle of ideologies on the show and its engagement with the politics of sexuality (Snow, 2001).
In this episode, conservative candidate Sideshow Bob runs for mayor of Springfield and, with the support of Mr. Burns, wins the election over the liberal candidate, Diamond Joe Quimby. It is clear, however, that Bob did not win the election legitimately. Lisa’s subsequent investigation leads her to an anonymous source, who provides her with information to expose the rigged election. After being inadvertently exposed as the source, Smithers confesses his guilt at betraying Mr. Burns. When Lisa observantly asks why he does so, Smithers states: “Unfortunately, Side Show Bob’s ultraconservative views conflict with my choice of, um, lifestyle.” There is no mistaking what Smithers means here, nor what the show is saying about the relationship between homosexuality and conservative politics: the two can not coexist. Moreover, whereas in the past Smithers’ sexual orientation was private and apolitical, it has now become public and overtly political (Henry, 2001).
The most recent attempt to directly engage the politics of sexuality on “The Simpsons” appears in “Homer’s Phobia,” an episode from the ninth season. In this episode, the show finally confronts the specter of fear that surrounds gay identity by having the Simpson family befriend a gay man named John, the proprietor of an antiques and collectibles shop at the Springfield Mall. John makes a living selling “kitsch” and items with “camp” appeal, such as old issues of TV Guide, 1970s-era toys, and inflatable furniture. Homer is incredulous that anyone would spend hard-earned money on such “junk,” but in the hopes of turning a quick buck, he invites John over to the Simpson house because, as he says, “Our place is full of valuable worthless crap.” Initially, Homer and John bond over their shared affinity for the “junk” the Simpsons have amassed, and they quickly become friends. The two then spend time talking and laughing together and, in a wonderfully ironic scene, even dancing to Alicia Bridges’ disco classic, “I Love the Nightlife” (Snow, 2001).
Despite such clear signals, Homer is oblivious to the fact that John is gay. However, Marge and Lisa both intuit this fact, and when they share this information with Homer, his homophobia comes to the fore. Initially, Homer is fearful that others will find out he has befriended a gay man, presumably because this would stigmatize him, so he refuses to go with John and the family on a tour of the sights of Springfield. In response, John is nonchalant—he does not react negatively to Homer’s fears, nor does he make any apologies for being gay—and simply tells Homer “You don’t even know what you’re afraid of.” What is clear to both John and the viewing audience is that Homer expects gays to be readily identifiable—he indicates as much to Marge when she chastises him for his narrow-mindedness; he says: “You know me, Marge. I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaming.” In short, Homer is upset at having mistaken a gay person for a straight one; in other words, he is upset that gays do not conform to his preconceived stereotypes (Henry, 2001).
As mentioned by Polishuk (2004), on the occasions where “The Simpsons” has directly dealt with prejudice, it is clearly presented as wrong. In “Homer’s Phobia”, Homer becomes worried that an openly gay friend of Marge’s will turn Bart towards homosexuality, and thus Homer takes his son on a hunting trip and forces him to shoot a reindeer as a sign of masculinity. The moral of the episode is clear. That is prejudice will have a far more adverse effect on a child than the influence of any minority group (Schulman, 1995). The gay stereotypes in the episode are exaggerated (i.e. steelworkers whose factory is instantly transformed into a disco club at the end of their shift) to mirror Homer’s exaggerated fears, but Marge’s friend and the steelworkers are not presented as bad people. It is clearly Homer “whose sudden dislike of homosexuals is created solely for the purpose of his episode (Capsulo, 2000, p. 370)” who is in the wrong. The reasons for his homophobia are, like the reasons of any bigot, ridiculous (Russo, 1987), such as the accusation that gays “ruined all our best names like Bruce, and Lance and Julian (Homer’s Phobia, 1997).
To support the claim that “The Simpsons” promotes a moral agenda, one usually needs to look no further than Lisa and Marge. Just consider Lisa’s speeches in favor of integrity, freedom from censorship, or any variety of touchy-feely social causes, and you will come away with the opinion that “The Simpsons” is just another liberal show underneath a somewhat thin but tasty crust of nastiness. One can even expect Bart to show humanity when it counts, as when, at military school, he defies sexist peer-pressure to cheer Lisa on in her attempt to complete an obstacle course.
The show also seems to engage in self-righteous condemnation of various institutional soft-targets. The political system of Springfield is corrupt, its police chief lazy and self-serving, and its Reverend Lovejoy ineffectual at best. Property developers stage a fake religious miracle in order to promote the opening of a mall. Mr. Burns tries to increase business at the power plant by blocking out the sun. Taken together, these examples seem to advocate a moral position of caring at the level of the individual, one which favors the family over any institution (Korte, 1997).
However, one can find examples from the show that seem to be denied accommodation within any plausible moral stance. In one episode, Frank Grimes is a constantly unappreciated model worker, while Homer is a much beloved careless slacker. Eventually, Grimes breaks down and decides to act just like Homer Simpson. While “acting like Homer” Grimes touches a transformer and is killed instantly. During the funeral oration by Reverend Lovejoy (for “Gri-yuh-mee, as he liked to be called”) a snoozing Homer shouts out “Marge, change the channel!” The rest of the service breaks into spontaneous and appreciative laughter, with Lenny saying “That’s our Homer!” End of episode.
In another episode, Homer is unintentionally responsible for the death of Maude Flanders, Ned’s wife. In the crowd at a football game, Homer is eager to catch a t-shirt being shot from little launchers on the field. Just as one is shot his way, he bends over to pick up a peanut. The t-shirt sails over him and hits the devout Maude, knocking her out of the stands to her death. These episodes are difficult to locate on a moral map; they certainly do not conform to the standard trajectory of virtue rewarded. “The Simpsons” is committed to caring, liberal family values (Korte, 1997).
The Simpsons takes a stable moral stance. There are episodes which seem not to under-cut themselves at all. In the episode in which Bart helps Lisa at military school. In that episode, many things are ridiculed, but the fundamental goodness of the relationship between Bart and Lisa is left unquestioned. In another episode, when Lisa discovers that Jebediah Springfield, the legendary town founder, was a sham, she refrains from announcing her finding to the town when she notices the social value of the myth of Jebediah Springfield.
Barney’s continued sobriety is a sign of the morality hidden within the otherwise entirely ironic world of “The Simpsons”. Barney is able to grow as a person and strive for a better lot in life because he breaks from his role and, in a sense, emerges from the satirical wasteland that is Springfield (Polishuk, 2004).
Another episode worth mentioning is that in which jazzman Bleeding Gums Murphy dies, which truly deserves the Simpsonian epithet “worst episode ever.” This episode combines an uncritical sentimentality with a naive adoration of art-making, and tops everything off with some unintentionally horrible pseudo-jazz which would serve better as the theme music for a cable-access talk show. Lisa’s song “Jazzman” simultaneously embodies all three of these faults, and must count as the worst moment of the worst episode ever. However, beneath the surface irony of The Simpsons one will find a strong commitment to family values (Korte, 1997).
In creating its own comic versions of Western myths about gender roles and foreign nations, “The Simpsons” illustrates how absurd these prejudices are and how such extreme behavior does not work in the real world. Springfield is a natural focal point for bizarre happenings because all of the inhabitants are such stereotypes such as the corrupt mayor, the lazy police chief, the evil billionaire, the cranky senior citizens, and many others. The message of the show, therefore, is that to have a rational society which Springfield certainly is not, it is necessary to have a behavioral happy medium.
It is fine to be religious, such as the Simpsons, who attend church each week whether they like it or not, but not fanatical, such as their uber-Christian neighbor Ned Flanders. It is fine to be in the “upper-lower-middle class” (The Springfield Connection, 1995), but not a greedy and miserly billionaire like Mr. Burns. Barney’s evolution from a drunk to a responsible member of society shows that some hope does exist in “The Simpsons”, and that if the warped society of Springfield is not a lost cause, neither is ours (Polishuk, 2004).
The Simpsonian hyper-ironism is not a mask for an underlying moral commitment. This is due to the fact that “The Simpsons” does not consist of a single episode, but of over hundreds of episodes spread out over more than ten seasons. There is good reason to think that apparent resolutions in one episode are usually undercut by others. In other words, we are cued to respond ironically to one episode, given the cues provided by many other episodes. However, one could argue, that this inter-episodic under-cutting is itself undercut by the show’s frequent use of happy family endings (Korte, 1997).
As a self-consciously hip show, “The Simpsons” can be taken to be aware of and to embrace what is current. Family values are hardly trendy, so there is little reason to believe that “The Simpsons” would adopt them whole-heartedly. However, this is weak confirmation at best. As a trendy show, The Simpsons could merely flirt with hyper-irony without fully adopting it. After all, it is hardly hyper-ironic to pledge allegiance to any flag, including the flag of hyper-ironism. Also, in addition to being a self-consciously hip show, it is also a show that must live within the constraints of prime-time American network television. One could argue that these constraints would force The Simpsons towards a commitment to some sort of palatable moral stance. Therefore, it cannot be inferred that the show is hyper-ironic from the lone premise that it is self-consciously hip (Korte, 1997).
Messages that the Creators Send to Both Adult and Children Audiences
One may assume that because it is an animation or a cartoon, “The Simpsons” is primarily for children. Unfortunately, it is not. Although it rose on the commodification of the image of Bart Simpson and his bad-boy posture, “The Simpsons” is aimed at an adult audience, one that can identify with the working-class experience of the Simpson clan, relate to the difficulties in parenting faced by Homer and Marge, and recognize and appreciate the numerous allusions, both obvious and obscure, to American popular culture. But above all, the show is a sophisticated satire (Henry, 2004).
Certainly many people were upset by the PG-13 rating and how frightening the film might be for kids. Interestingly, Jurassic Park in a similar position to “The Simpsons” in this regard, for it too was perceived as being for children–and thus was successfully marketed to them–as well as adults. Nevertheless, it became the single highest grossing movie ever made. In short, people flocked to the violence, not away from it (Henry, 2004). “The Simpsons”, which is the longest-running sitcom in television history, is not just a very funny show, though it is certainly that. It is also a rich source of social commentary and ethical and existential insights (Irwin et al, 2006).
The intended audiences are both the young and old. For the youth, however, they may not always be available to see. They are sometime confused if the events they see on the television are true. In a study by Dorr (1983), it was observed that young people were only able to discern if what they see are real by the 6th grade. Dorr said that the most dramatic advances in children’s understanding of television occur before the age of eleven. Some researchers like Hodge and Tripp (1986) have noted that discernment between fantasy and reality may not always be observed in a young people’s way of interpreting television (Morison & Gardner, 1978). Another researcher, Howard (1993) observed in her research that children judged some television programs as realistic simply because they liked them (or unrealistic because they did not), while for others the funnier the television program, the less realistic they were regarded as being (Howard, 1993, pp. 44, 49 -50).
This paper analyzed the influence of The Simpsons’ themes such as racism, sexual politics and moral issues in its successful globally-patronized television show. The methods used are research and analysis approaches of existing publications in order to find out what is represented in the satirical animated cartoon, how and why they are displayed and what are the messages that creators send to both adult and children audience.
Results of utilizing research and analysis approaches of existing publications revealed that the said long-running television show reflects a satire on American culture which is represented on the widely-accepted culture phenomenon, “The Simpsons”. This satire is effectively and efficiently displayed in the show because it is ingrained in modern-day realisms amid other things. The show depicts things and issues that people meet in their everyday life. The show reflects what is happening in the real environment through the use of humor. The messages are embedded in the comic portrayal of the characters. The primary purpose of this show is to be entertaining. On the superficial level, “The Simpsons” only utilizes known current issues on the plot as an excuse to show humor and amusing visual sequences. But on the inner level, this television show uses these known current issues for satirical purposes. Numerous messages are being sent by the makers of “The Simpsons” to its televiewers, both the adult and children audiences, such as the pretense and ineptness of pop psychology, commercialism, contemporary child-nurturing, ecological abuse, basic faith and beliefs, corporate insatiability, the shams of American education, and consumerism.
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