Critics have misread "The Simpsons." It is pro-family, pro-small town life and loves to mock liberal pietiesby Paul Cantor / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
When Senator Charles Schumer visited a New York school last year, he received a civics lesson from an unexpected source. Speaking about school violence, Schumer praised the Brady Bill for its role in preventing gun crime. But a student named Kevin Davis challenged the bill’s effectiveness by citing an example familiar to his classmates but not to the senator: “It reminds me of a Simpsons episode. Homer wants to get a gun but he has been in jail twice and in a mental institution. They label him as ‘potentially dangerous.’ So Homer asks what that means and the gun dealer says: ‘It just means you need an extra week before you can get the gun.'”
The Simpsons is now ten years old, and recently passed The Flintstones to become the longest-running cartoon in American television history. The show has also travelled well; it not only attracts large audiences in Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world, but it has also been dubbed into more than 20 languages. It may seem like pure entertainment, but it evidently helps to shape the way many Americans think. Over the years, the show has taken on many big issues: environmentalism, immigration, gay rights, women in the military, and so on; it also offers some of the most sophisticated satire ever to appear on television.
The Simpsons satirises right and left. The local politician who appears most often, Mayor Quimby, speaks with a Kennedy accent and acts like a Democratic machine politician. But the most sinister political force in the series, the cabal which seems to run the town of Springfield (where the family lives), is portrayed as Republican. On balance, The Simpsons, like most of Hollywood’s output, is anti-Republican. Nevertheless, one of the best political lines came at the Democrats’ expense. When Grandpa Abe Simpson receives money meant for his grandchildren, Bart asks him: “Didn’t you wonder why you were getting cheques for absolutely nothing?” Abe replies: “I figured ‘cos the Democrats were in power again.”
The Simpsons takes up issues we all recognise. Its cartoon characters are more human, more rounded, than the actors in many situation comedies. Above all, the show has created a believable community: Springfield, USA. The Simpsons shows the family as part of this larger community. In fact it offers one of the most important images of the nuclear family in US culture.
With the names taken from creator Matt Groening’s own childhood home in Oregon, The Simpsons portrays the average American family: father (Homer), mother (Marge), and 2.2 children (Bart, Lisa, and little Maggie). Many commentators have lamented that the show provides horrible role models for parents and children, and the popularity of the show is often cited as evidence of the decline of family values. But critics of The Simpsons should take a closer look and set the show in the context of television history. For all its mockery of certain aspects of family life, The Simpsons ends up celebrating the nuclear family as an institution. By contrast, for decades, US television has downplayed the importance of the nuclear family and offered various non-traditional alternatives in shows like Alice, Punky Brewster, My Two Dads, and Love, Sidney.
The Simpsons is a hip, postmodern, self-aware show, and has found its own way to defend the nuclear family. In effect, the show says: “Take the worst-case scenario-the Simpsons-and even that family is better than no family.” In fact, the Simpson family is not that bad. Some people are appalled at the idea of young boys imitating Bart, in particular his disrespect for authority and especially for his teachers. But Bart’s rebelliousness conforms to a venerable American archetype; the US was, after all, founded on an act of rebellion. Bart is an updated version of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn rolled into one.
As for the mother and daughter in The Simpsons, Marge and Lisa are not bad role models at all. Marge Simpson is the devoted housekeeper, but she is very modern in her attempts to combine certain feminist impulses with the traditional mother role. Lisa is an over-achiever in school, as well as a feminist and environmentalist.
The real issue, then, is Homer. Many people have criticised The Simpsons for its portrayal of the father as dumb, weak and unprincipled. Homer is all those things, but at least he is there; he is present for his wife and his children. To be sure, he is selfish, often putting his interests above those of his family, (Homer:”Oh, my God! Space aliens! Don’t eat me! I have a wife and kids. Eat them!”). As we learn in a Halloween episode Homer would sell his soul to the devil for a doughnut (although it turns out that Marge already owns his soul and therefore it is not Homer’s to sell). He is incapable of appreciating the finer things in life and has a hard time sharing interests with Lisa, except when she develops a knack for predicting the outcome of football games and allows her father to become a big winner in the betting pool at Moe’s Tavern. Moreover, Homer gets angry easily and takes his anger out on his children; witness his many attempts to strangle Bart.
In all these respects Homer fails as a father. But he still has many decent qualities. His motto is: “My family, right or wrong.” Homer is also willing to work to support his family, even in the dangerous job of nuclear power plant safety supervisor, a job made all the more dangerous by the fact that he is doing it. In the episode in which Lisa desperately wants a pony, Homer even takes a second job working for the Asian businessman Apu Nahasapeemapetilon at the Kwik-E-Mart to earn the money for the pony’s upkeep-and nearly kills himself in the process.
The most effective defence of the family in the series comes in the episode in which the Simpson family is actually broken up. The episode pointedly begins with an image of Marge as a good mother, preparing breakfast and school lunches for her children. She even gives Bart and Lisa careful instructions about their sandwiches: “Keep the lettuce separate until 11:30am.” But then a series of mishaps occurs. Homer and Marge go off to the Mingled Waters Health Spa for an afternoon of relaxation. In their haste, they leave their house dirty, with unwashed dishes in the sink. Meanwhile, things are going badly for the children at school. Bart has picked up lice from the monkey of his friend Milhouse, prompting Principal Skinner to ask: “What kind of parents would permit such a lapse in scalpal hygiene?” The evidence against the Simpson parents mounts when Skinner sends for Bart’s sister. With her shoes stolen by her classmates and her feet covered in mud, Lisa looks like a Dickensian urchin.
Faced with this evidence of neglect, the principal alerts the Child Welfare Board, whose staff are themselves shocked by the mess when they take Bart and Lisa home. The bureaucrats decide that Marge and Homer are unfit parents, and send them off to be re-educated in a family skills class. Meanwhile, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are handed over to the family next door, presided over by the patriarchal Ned Flanders. Flanders and his brood are the perfect family according to old-style morality and religion. In contrast to Bart, the Flanders’ boys, Rod and Todd, are well behaved and obedient. Above all, the Flanders family is pious, and they are shocked to learn that their neighbours do not know of the serpent of Rehoboam, not to mention the bridal feast of Beth Chadruharazzeb.
The Flanders may be righteous as parents but they are also self-righteous. Mrs Flanders says: “I don’t judge Homer and Marge; that’s for a vengeful God to do.” And Ned’s piety exasperates even Reverend Lovejoy, who at one point asks him: “Have you ever thought of one of the other major religions? They’re all pretty much the same.” The episode also ridicules the intrusion of the state into every aspect of family life. When Homer desperately tries to call up Bart and Lisa, he hears the official message: “The number you have dialed can no longer be reached from this phone, you negligent monster.”
Who is best able to raise the Simpson children? The answer is that the children are better off with their real parents-not because they are morally or intellectually superior, but simply because Homer and Marge are the people most genuinely attached to Bart, Lisa and Maggie, since they are their own offspring. In the end, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are joyously reunited with Homer and Marge, underlining that odd combination of traditionalism and anti-traditionalism which characterises The Simpsons. Even as the show rejects the idea of a return to the traditional family, it rejects nanny-state attempts to undermine the family.
Another way in which the show is unusual is that religion plays a significant role. We often see the family going to church, and in one episode God even speaks directly to Homer. Judging by most US television programmes, we would never guess that Americans are by and large a religious, even a churchgoing people. But The Simpsons accepts religion as a part of life in Springfield. If the show makes fun of piety, in the person of Ned Flanders, in Homer Simpson it also suggests that you can go to church and be neither a religious fanatic nor a saint. One episode, devoted to Reverend Lovejoy, deals sympathetically with the problem of pastoral burnout. The overburdened minister has heard too many problems from his parishioners and has to hand the job to Marge Simpson, the “listen lady.” The show’s treatment of religion is like its treatment of the family. The Simpsons is not pro-religion-it is too cynical for that-but when The Simpsons satirises something, it is usually acknowledging its importance.
That is certainly the case with small-town life itself. In several episodes, Springfield is contrasted with Capital City, a metropolis which the Simpsons view with trepidation. Obviously, the show makes fun of small-town life, but it simultaneously celebrates its virtues. One of the principal reasons why the dysfunctional Simpson family functions as well as it does is that it lives in a traditional small town. The institutions which govern the family’s lives are not remote from them or alien to them. The Simpson children go to a neighbourhood school. Their friends in school are largely the same as their friends in their neighbourhood. The Simpson parents are not confronted by an uncaring educational bureaucracy. Principal Skinner and Mrs Krabappel may not be perfect, but when Homer and Marge need to talk to them, they are there. The same is true of the Springfield police force. Chief Wiggum is not a great crime fighter, but he is well known to the citizens of Springfield has even been known to share a doughnut or two with Homer.
Similarly, politics in Springfield is largely a local matter. As his Kennedy accent suggests, Mayor Quimby is a demagogue, but at least he is Springfield’s own demagogue. When he buys votes, he buys them directly from the citizens of Springfield. If Quimby wants Grandpa Simpson to support a freeway he wishes to build through town, he must name the road after Abe’s favourite television character. The nuclear power plant is a source of pollution and danger, but at least it is locally owned by Springfield’s own industrial tyrant and tycoon, Montgomery Burns.
Indeed, for all its hipness, The Simpsons is profoundly anachronistic in the way it recalls a time when Americans felt more in contact with their governing institutions and family life was anchored in a larger local community. There is one respect in particular in which the portrayal of the local community in The Simpsons is unrealistic: in Springfield, even the control of the media is local. It is quite plausible that the Simpsons get their news from a local television station and that reporter Kent Brockman lives in their midst. It is also believable that the kiddie show on Springfield television is local, and that its host, Krusty the Clown, is available for supermarket openings. But what about the fact that the world-famous Itchy & Scratchy cartoons are produced in Springfield? Indeed, the Itchy & Scratchy empire is headquartered there. This means that when Marge campaigns against cartoon violence, she can picket Itchy & Scratchy headquarters without leaving town. Springfield’s citizens can have a direct impact on the forces which shape their lives. Thus The Simpsons takes the phenomenon which has done more than anything else to subvert the power of the local in US life-the media-and brings it under local control.
The Simpsons presents Springfield as a kind of classical polis; it is just about as self-contained and autonomous as a community can be in the modern world. Talking a few years ago, Matt Groening said that the subtext of The Simpsons is that “the people in power don’t always have your best interests in mind.” The Simpsons is based on distrust of power, especially of power remote from ordinary people. The show celebrates a community in which everybody more or less knows everybody else (even if they do not necessarily like each other). By recreating this older sense of community, the show manages to generate a kind of warmth out of its postmodern coolness, a warmth which accounts for its immense success. No matter how dysfunctional it may seem, the nuclear family is an institution worth preserving. And the way to preserve it is not by the offices of a distant, therapeutic state, but by restoring its links to a series of local institutions which reflect and foster the same principle which makes the Simpson family itself work: the attachment to one’s own-the principle that we best care for something when it belongs to us.
Celebration of the local in The Simpsons was reinforced in an episode which explored the possibility of a utopian alternative to politics in Springfield. The episode begins with Lisa disgusted by a gross-out contest sponsored by a local radio station, which among other things results in burning a travelling Van Gogh exhibition. Lisa fires off an angry letter to the Springfield newspaper, charging that “Today our town lost what remained of its fragile civility.” Outraged by the cultural limitations of Springfield, she complains: “We have eight malls, but no symphony; 32 bars, but no alternative theatre.” Lisa’s outburst catches the attention of the local chapter of Mensa, and the few high-IQ citizens of Springfield (including Dr Hibbert, Principal Skinner, the Comic Book Store Guy, and Professor Frink) invite her to join the organisation. Inspired by Lisa, Dr Hibbert challenges the town’s way of life: “Why do we live in a town where the smartest have no power and the stupidest run everything?” Forming “a council of learned citizens” (what reporter Kent Brockman later refers to as an “intellectual junta”) the Mensa members set out to create the cartoon equivalent of Plato’s Republic in Springfield. They begin by ousting Mayor Quimby, who in fact leaves town rather abruptly once the little matter of some missing lottery funds comes up.
Taking advantage of an obscure provision in the Springfield charter, the Mensa members step into the power vacuum. Lisa sees no limit to what the Platonic rule of the wise might accomplish: “With our superior intellects, we could rebuild this city on a foundation of reason and enlightenment.” The new rulers immediately set out to redesign traffic patterns and abolish all sports which involve violence. But the abstract rationality and benevolent universalism of the intellectual junta prove a fraud and the Platonic revolution degenerates into petty squabbling. A deus ex machina then arrives in the form of physicist Stephen Hawking, proclaimed as “the world’s smartest man.” When Hawking voices his disappointment with the Mensa regime, he ends up in a fight with Principal Skinner. Seizing the opportunity created by the division among the intelligentsia, Homer leads a counter-revolution of the stupid with the cry: “C’mon, you idiots, we’re taking back this town.” Hawking pronounces the epitaph of the utopian experiment: “Sometimes the smartest of us can be the most childish.” The episode ends with Hawking and Homer drinking together in Moe’s Tavern and discussing Homer’s theory of a doughnut-shaped universe.
The utopia episode offers an example of what The Simpsons does so well. It can be enjoyed on two levels: both as farce and intellectual satire. The episode contains some of the grossest humour in the history of The Simpsons (there is a subplot about Homer’s encounter with a pornographic photographer). But at the same time, it is filled with subtle allusions; for example, the Mensa members convene in a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie house. The utopia episode also embodies the mixture of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism characteristic of The Simpsons. In Lisa’s challenge to Springfield, the show calls attention to the cultural limitations of small-town America, but it also reminds us that intellectual disdain for the common man can be carried too far. The Simpsons seems to offer an intellectual defence of the common man against intellectuals.
Few people have found the Critique of Pure Reason funny, but in The Gay Science, Nietzsche felt that he had put his finger on Kant’s joke: “Kant wanted to prove in a way that would puzzle all the world that all the world was right-that was the private joke…. He wrote against the learned on behalf of the prejudice of the common people, but for the learned and not for the common people.” In Nietzsche’s terms, The Simpsons goes one better than the Critique of Pure Reason: it defends the common man against the intellectual, but in a way that both the common man and the intellectual can understand and enjoy.
Edited from an article which originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of the journal “Political Theory” © Sage Publications