Professor Hits a Homer for 'Simpsons'

By James Warren

© Chicago Tribune, June 16, 2000.

Life imitates art, but some people would surely be chagrined by the prospect of youngsters' imitating Bart.

Bart Simpson, of course, is the rebellious member of "The Simpsons," the hugely successful cartoon show that is now 10 years old and seen worldwide (dubbed into at least 20 languages). But the contention of some that Bart and his entire family are necessarily poor role models for America is disputed in "At Home With the Simpsons," an essay in the June issue of Prospect, a British monthly on culture and politics.

It's by Paul Cantor, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and appeared last December in slightly longer form in Political Theory, a very small political journal. In sum, it argues that critics have totally missed the boat in deriding the supposedly negative morals and values of the show, which he finds distinctly pro-family, pro-small town life and pro-religion.


He concedes its raunchy elements and its anti-Republican thrust, as well as the ways in which certain characters, notably Homer Simpson, can be viewed as "dumb, weak and unprincipled."

But he contends that in fixating on the show as an alleged exemplar of declining values, observers can miss how it winds up "celebrating the nuclear family as an institution."

For instance, contends Cantor, say what you will about Homer, he is generally there for his wife and children.

Yes, he fails in many ways as a dad but his motto is, "My family, right or wrong," and he works a dangerous job (nuclear power plant safety supervisor) to support them, even taking a second job at one point to earn money to pay for the upkeep of daughter Lisa's pony.

Some critics will instantly point to the way the show's Child Welfare Board has cited Homer and wife Marge for neglect, dispatching them to a family skills class while giving their kids over to the next-door neighbor for a brief period. But Cantor says it is more important to note that the real message of the episode is that the natural parents are ultimately deemed the best to raise the children and do get them back.

Cantor also notes the role of organized religion in the family's life as well as the importance of local institutions. The family may be dysfunctional, but it is lucky to exist in a seemingly traditional small town, where politics are intensely local and the school system is not the cold bureaucracy found in big cities. (Heck, the town even has local ownerships of the media, an out-of-date situation in most communities.)

"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," Cantor writes.

He even likens their fictional town, Springfield, to the classical Greek city-state, or polis, "about as self-contained and autonomous as a community can be in the modern world."

"By re-creating 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," Cantor writes. . "No matter how dysfunctional it may seem, the nuclear family is an institution worth preserving."

Quickly: The June American Demographics inspects how Americans use their time while commuting, especially those stuck in cars, finding the latter do a good deal more than listen to the radio or scan billboards. It cites one survey of 15,000 drivers which concluded the favorite activity is talking, whether to passengers (nearly 55 percent), other drivers (54 percent), themselves (55 percent) or their cars (68 percent). Oh, and nearly half of female commuters admit to applying make-up while in traffic, as do 4 percent of men.

George, the magazine founded by the late John F. Kennedy Jr., has done better work than its June cover article, "The Lethal Politics of Beauty," which uses a somewhat old story -- covered previously by Chicago magazine -- namely the tale of former Chicago newscaster Mary Nissenson's disastrous experience with cosmetic surgery, to opine hyperbolically on the "generational warfare" caused by women's quest to look younger. The story includes, oddly, a shot of Nissenson posing atop her bed (seemingly with make-up on) with various pain medications surrounding her. Hmmmm.

Hand washing versus gloves: which is more effective against pathogens? For the answer, check out the May Meat & Poultry.

Amid disclosures (many by the Tribune) of the weaknesses of the death penalty system, the June ABA Journal, from the American Bar Association, explores whether we could conceivably be facing a "Death Knell for Death Row" as the execution moratorium movement picks up steam. It leaves little doubt, though, that death penalty proponents will fight vigorously and maybe even triumph in the end.

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Last updated on October 10, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (