The Simpsons Essay, Research Paper
The definition of the “typical” American family has changed considerably over time. Ever since the age of television dawned on American culture, situation comedies have tried to portray the typical American family in an attempt to reach as many viewers as possible. In the 1950s, there was “Leave It to Beaver” which represented a generic view of the American family during its time. There was a father whose responsibility was to financially support the family and be a role model for his children. There was a mother whose job was that of a typical housewife, taking care of the home and caring for the children. And there were the children who had no responsibilities, except to respect their parents and listen to their advice when anything went wrong. Most early sitcoms centered on this generally accepted idea of the typical family.
Things changed as America became more liberal, and in the 1970s, “All in the Family,” which lacked a typical white collar father and focused on the internal spats of the what would today be called a dysfunctional family, was revered by many and hated by others. “All in the Family” made a dent in the American view of the typical family, but many were still reluctant to acknowledge the notion that not all households were as happy as that of “The Brady Bunch” (which was unique in its portrayal of second marriages, but that wasn?t the true focus of the show). In the 1980s “typical family” television programming continued to dominate. Sitcoms such as “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show” are still considered American classics, but the dysfunctional trend returned in the late ?80s with the popularity of the raucous “Married With Children.” However, no non-traditional American family sitcom has been as well as received and critically acclaimed “The Simpsons” in the 1990s.
“The Simpsons” was not a hit from the start. It was criticized for its supposed negative influence on children, which may or may not have actually occurred, although its viewership in the beginning was, in fact, primarily under the age of 18. The show was all but ignored by the older viewing public, who discounted it as a trashy cartoon. The “consumption” (duGay, p.3) of the program and its messages by the American public when the show first aired regularly was drastically different than what it is now and what the writers of the show intended. On face value alone, “The Simpsons” is not much more than a cartoon about a middle-class family and their ridiculous escapades. But when examined more closely and with a more objective eye ? “consumed” as the show?s writers would intend ? one can see that “The Simpsons” is truly a comment on American society.
“The Simpsons” basis ? a father, a mother, and three kids ? is far from unusual. The ?typical? American is a blue-collar worker not unlike the father, Homer, who works a mindless job at the local nuclear power plant in the Simpsons? hometown of Springfield which is basically Anytown, USA. Marge, the mother, is a fairly typical housewife besides her large blue beehive hairdo. Bart, is the rebellious older son; Lisa, the under-appreciated middle child; and Maggie, the adorable baby. The Simpsons don?t live in luxury, but they are a generally happy family that encounters the problems of everyday, and not-so-everyday, life ? something that millions can relate to. But there is something that sets “The Simpsons” apart from the traditional family sitcom of the “Family Ties” and “Full House” era.
The show?s constant satirical exaggerations, allusions and spoofs involving this ?typical? family help demonstrate that “The Simpsons” is no simple sitcom. There is something deeper here that many people missed in the beginning of the show?s run. “The Simpsons” instead represents the need for Americans to laugh at themselves and because of that becomes a true parody of American life. When more people began to realize the intelligence of this humor, in a sense consuming it “correctly,” the show caught on. But it took awhile before Americans chose to acknowledge “The Simpsons” for what it is, and not just a primetime cartoon.
Over ten years ago, on December 17, 1989, “The Simpsons,” which originally began in 1997 as short segments on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” aired its first full-length show, the Christmas special, ?Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.? In the episode, Bart gets a tattoo, much to his mother?s dismay. Marge spends the money the family had set aside for Christmas on laser removal of Bart?s tattoo. Though the idea of a child getting a tattoo may seem a bit outrageous, it is this exaggeration of everyday problems (tattoos and body piercing are a common topic for parents and teens) that gives “The Simpsons” its satirical strength.
In the same episode, Homer, while still on his morning coffee break at 4:00 p.m., learns that he won?t be receiving a Christmas bonus. After finding out that Marge is depending on the money for Christmas, he decides to do the Christmas shopping for the family. He buys panty hose for Marge, paper for Bart, crayons for Lisa, and a dog toy for Maggie. When he realizes that his gifts will be disappointing, he takes a job as a mall Santa for extra money. He steals a Christmas tree on the way home from work. The exaggeration here lies with the length of time it takes Homer to discover that his gifts are no good. This also parodies the cliche notion that men never know what gifts to buy.
At the mall the next day, Bart sits on Homer?s lap and pulls down his fake Santa beard. Homer chokes Bart and makes him agree to help him improve the family?s Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Homer receives his paycheck: only $13.70 for over 40 hours of work. Homer decides to take Bart to the dog track in a final attempt to recover their Christmas money. Again, the rather over-the-top nature of the story line continues.
Homer and Bart believe they discover a steal in the third race, named Santa?s Little Helper. Their reasoning: How could this dog lose on Christmas Eve? The odds are 99 to 1, so they think they are going to be rich. Homer bets everything he has on Santa?s Little Helper, and as luck would have it, the dog never even makes it to the finish line. Homer and Bart comb the parking lot for winning tickets late into the night. Then, they see the track manager dispose of a dog. Coincidentally, it is Santa?s Little Helper. Bart and Homer return home to a worried Marge with the dog, making for a nice Christmas after all.
Not many noticed the show for more than a simple cartoon at the time. It was not consumed in the manner in which it was intended. The show, which invented the idea of the animated sitcom, dealt with many of the issues that other more “wholesome” television programs (i.e. “Facts of Life” and “The Cosby Show”) dealt with before, but cartoons for adults with sitcom-like messages had never really been considered. “The Simpsons” first show covered, albeit in an unorthodox way, child rebellion, economic problems, and family pride among other large issues of importance to the American family in the late 1980s. But, unfortunately, many viewers probably never made it to the end of the show, dismissing it too early as insulting and ridiculous to recognize the satire and eventual positive message that money doesn?t make a Christmas special in the end.
In addition to the satire, the writers of “The Simpsons” often allude to well-known aspects of popular culture such as movies or politicians. In the episode ?Itchy & Scratchy & Marge? which originally aired on December 20, 1990 during the second season, still before many people had noticed the depth of the show. The scene: Homer is in the garage. The soundtrack of the famous shower murder scene in Alfred Hitchcock?s film “Psycho” plays as little baby Maggie hits Homer over the head with a mallet. As Homer falls, he grabs a tablecloth (alluding to the shower curtain in the movie). The view changes to a shot of red paint pouring down a drain (just as blood did in the movie), and then changes again to a close-up of Homer?s eye. The scene ends with Homer lying the floor (as Janet Leigh lies in the bathtub). Clearly, the humor of this scene is not intended for an under- 18 audience because the humor lies in the allusion to “Psycho.” Most children under 18 would not understand the allusion because they likely have not seen the movie. “The Simpsons” have alluded to many popular movies in the ten seasons its been on the air, such as “Pulp Fiction,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo?s Nest,” “Cape Fear,” “Terminator 2,” “The Graduate,” “Jurassic Park,” “A Few Good Men,” several James Bond movies ? most of which people under age 18 have probably never seen. There was even an entire episode devoted to Stanley Kubrick?s horror classic “The Shining.”
But this scene is not the core of the episode. The plot revolves around Marge who is convinced that the subject matter of ?The Itchy and Scratchy Show? (a cartoon that Bart enjoys which often involves violence) is a bad influence on children. This plays on the irony that “The Simpsons” itself was, at the time this episode aired, still considered a bad influence on children. Marge launches a campaign that eventually leads to a change in subject matter on ?The Itchy and Scratchy Show.” The new, more light-hearted, show drops dramatically in the ratings.
In the same episode, while the above is going on, there is controversy in the town over the Springfield Art Museum?s display of Michelangelo?s ?David.? Because of her crusade against ?The Itchy and Scratchy Show,? Marge is asked to comment on the debate over ?David.? She doesn?t find anything objectionable with the piece of art and ends up losing her position with the ?anti-free speech brigade.? Again, the idea that a historic piece of art such as ?David? could be considered obscene and the existence of an anti-free speech organization are both outrageous. But the exaggeration is the basis for the satire. At the time this episode, schools across the nation were banning “The Simpsons” t-shirts that depicted Bart Simpson glorifying his “underachiever” status. Although a case may be made for the difference between ?David? and the t-shirts, the underlying issue here is free speech. The pro-free speech message in this episode was not intended for children watching, but for adults who may have began to understand the satirical messages within the show.
But, as the years progressed, “The Simpsons” slowly became accepted as a sitcom like any other. People started to consume the show in the manner in which it was intended, not as a simple cartoon, but as the satire of American life it truly is. Furthermore, the way the show finds humor in the topics that most sitcoms wouldn?t dare is testament to its creativity and intelligence. Take, for example, the episode entitled ?Homer Badman.?
A babysitter accuses Homer of sexual harassment. Homer is hounded by the media; the exaggeration being the ridiculous number of media that cover the case and the way they portray Homer. This episode, which originally aired on November 27, 1994 during the shows sixth season, not long after the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings that garnered extraordinary media coverage. Without the Thomas case as background, the episode could not be consumed in line with the writers? intention.
“The Simpsons” have tackled such topics as alcoholism, government corruption, and inter-office relations among a multitude of other difficult issues. The irresponsible Homer does not seem like the person any sane adult would want as a security officer of their local nuclear power plant, but the average teenager or preteen will most likely not understand this subtle humor. Nor would a child understand the understated humor such as seen on the sign for the Springfield Hall of Records which says “Not the good kind of records ? historical ones” or in common Homer saying, “OK brain, I don’t like you and you don’t like me, but let’s just do this, and I can get back to killing you with beer” when referring to any sort of mind work. There is an Ayn Rand School for Tots (the application of Rand?s philosophies to a kindergarten are clearly ludicrous); there are references to Machiavelli, The Beatles, prohibition and a plethora of other aspects of historical and modern culture ? the vast majority of which can only be consumed correctly with the previous general knowledge that only an adult is capable of having. Though, also, many adults may not necessarily have the knowledge to consume all of the references and parodies. This is merit to the sheer intelligence of “The Simpsons.”
In one episode, a character, Chespirito, often referred to as ?The Bumblebee Guy,” a Mexican comedian working in the United States on a television program that the Simpsons occasionally watch, says, “Credit the audience with a little intelligence, with the willingness to work it out, and they will reward you with their attention and their understanding” (another allusion here: this is a quote by film director Spike Lee). In reality, Chespirito?s inane show credits the audience with nothing.
Ironically, the writers of “The Simpsons” do credit their audience with a considerable amount of intelligence, yet for the first few years of the show, the majority of the audience did not reward them with much attention or understanding. The educated audience did not take the time to attempt to consume the program the way it was intended. Even former First Lady Barbara Bush was quoted as saying “The Simpsons” was “the dumbest thing [she?d] ever seen.” But, when people finally gave the show a real chance, they recognized its breadth of the issues it covers ? they consumed its understated messages. This is proven by the show?s popularity today, ten years after it premiered, by the lack of criticism it receives, by numerous other shows it has inspired, and by the awards it has won. “The Simpsons” truly is now and will remain an important part of American popular culture, as are the many classic sitcoms that preceded it.
Du Gay, Paul, Stuart Hall, Linda Janes, Hugh Mackay, Keith Negus. Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. Copyright 1997 The Open University.
Http://thesimpsons.com/frameset.html?content=/index.html TheSimpsons.Com (Various pages from this website were used but because of its frame design, all pages have the same URL.)
http://www.snpp.com/guides/chespirito.html The Bumblebee Guy File
Discovering “The Simpsons”
The Consumption of the First Animated American Family