Individualism Versus Paternalism:
An Analysis of Homer J. SimpsonBy Dan Rousseve
One of the most widely recognized families in the world is not an actual living breathing human family but one that exists solely on the television screen. The family in fact is not even human for that matter but mere cartoons. The Simpsons television show that airs on the Fox network is the highest rated cartoon television program ever. In the week of October 25 through October 31 of 1999 two episodes of "The Simpsons" were aired and they had a combined viewership of 28 million people in the United States alone. The two episodes were the 15th and 18th most watched primetime television programs during that week of broadcasting (Bierbaum,1999, p 10).
"That graying revolutionary, The Simpsons, is not merely one of the premiere comedies of its TV generation; it also helped shape and define that generation" (Rosenberg, 1998, F-1). When the series premiered in the 1989-1990 season on the ailing network Fox it created a giant boon for television merchandising and, more importantly for Fox, it gave the network a television program that was strong enough to be its anchor for one the most watched television nights of the week. The Simpsons became the ultimate send up of "family values" and paved the path for other popular cartoons such as Ren and Stimpy on the cable station Nickelodeon, and Beavis and Butthead on MTV. The popularity of the dysfunctional Simpson family helped the cable station Comedy Central a great deal. Comedy Central airs the cartoons Dr. Katz :
Professional Therapist and the incredibly popular South Park . South Park actually has gone on to become a full length motion picture which received moderate success in the domestic box office. The Simpsons is the forerunner of these adult oriented cartoons.
The television program The Simpsons is a primetime cartoon about a dysfunctional family living in the suburban town of Springfield. (The actual location of Springfield has never been revealed and is one the many on going jokes between the writers and the viewing audience.) Homer is the father in the family and he is a self centered, overweight klutz who enjoys sitting on the couch in front of the TV or sitting on a bar stool in the local pub. Homer's job itself is an irony because he is employed as a safety inspector at a nuclear power plant but in actuality there is nothing safe about Homer. Marge is the mother and she stays at home with the baby, Maggie. Marge wants nothing more than to have "one big happy family" but that is spoiled in almost every episode by Homer's stupidity or by the trouble-making of the older child Bart. Bart goes the Springfield Elementary School and has a habit of spending more time in the principal's office than actually in the classroom. Also a student at Springfield Elementary School is the middle child, Lisa. Lisa is a member of the club Mensa which only accepts members if they possess a genius IQ level. Lisa is often the voice of reason for the family.
Each episode follows the Simpsons in their daily satirical adventures as the family struggles to get along with each other and with the world as a whole. Sometimes the
messages address common place issues: Bart's poor academic performance or Homer's relationship with his boss. However, the program quite often takes on more powerful societal issues such as alcoholism and death. A central theme of The Simpsons is the debate of Homer's worthiness as a father figure to his children and as a husband to his wife. Whether the episode looks at an issue of greater or lesser importance to society, the message presented to the viewers is created to make them reevaluate the rationale for society's beliefs.
Mary Strom Larson (1993) analyzed the communication patterns of the Simpson family as well as the Huxtable family from The Cosby Show. The study found that the family communication was in both cases were affiliative rather than conflictive. However, it was also determined that "Communication among the Huxtables was primarily centered on parents and children, seeking and giving information, with spouses offering little direction or support. On the other hand, communication among the Simpsons was primarily centered on parents and spouses offering support and direction" (p. 349). Larson concluded that the Simpson family is not a "grungy, bickering lot reflective of the squalid underbelly of life" (p. 356) because of the support and direction that is offered by the family members to each other. Thus, the Simpsons appear as a functional family to its audience which allows the viewer to focus on the social message.
Despite this study by Larson, the bulk of the writing done about The Simpsons comes from popular journalists. Howard Rosenberg (1998) writes that the Simpson family is the "ultimate send up of family values and a primer for bad parenting" (p. F-1). For example, Homer warns Bart not to drink alcohol by simply stating. "Now, son, you don't want to drink beer. That's for daddies and kids with fake IDs" (qtd in Rosenberg, 1999, p. F-1).
Although the Simpson family often is slammed for its problems the program as a whole has been given awards many different times by several different groups. The show has won a number of Emmy's for best animated series and in 1997 it was awarded the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in television that is handed out by the University of Georgia. It was the first ever primetime television program from the Fox network to be recognized with the award.
The Simpsons has been reviewed and judged by television critics and the communication among the family members has been analyzed in a clinical method but these discussions of the program do not look deeply at its central character. The character of Homer Simpson is absolutely flawed and he makes decisions in every episode that put his own well being far above that of his family's. Yet Homer appears too naïve to notice what he is doing.
Homer is very similar to the character of Archie Bunker in the television program All in the Family. Both characters appear in an ironic communication system. "In the ironic communication system, the central character is both intellectually inferior and less able to control circumstances than its audience" (Chesebro, 1979, p.21). Both characters have provided their viewing audience with outlandish examples of stupidity and bigotry to create a cynical perception of society. Although Archie repeatedly fails and does not recover from his mishaps, Homer is able to turn things around and "do the right thing" in the end.
The Simpsons uses a dialectical transformation from individualism to paternalism to tell its audience that people must be committed to one another because of the large scale neglect and apathy towards one another in our modern society.
The Social Values Model examines the use of two dialectically opposed values in a discourse. To perform this criticism one must name the dialectical opposition, explain the symbolic conflict, determine the pattern of change, establish if there is a psychological prerequisite, and finally, determine the role of the audience.
First, dialectically opposed values are values that are inherently good in nature but in one specific situation they directly conflict with each other. For example, in the movie Rocky the values that are opposed are materialism (represented by Apollo Creed) and moralism (represented by Rocky). The interaction of these two values is truly what is examined by this model. The two values must be identified and then defined. The real life social problem must be identified as well.
Secondly, the symbolic conflict of the two values is displayed by looking at the narrative of the conflict or by strategies used in the show to establish the conflict. The narrative method looks at the progression of the conflict from the beginning of the story, to the middle, to the end. Usually the values are defined in the beginning, then they clash in the middle, and they are resolved in the end. On the other hand, the strategies of the use of character progression, plot line (very similar to the narrative method), symbolism, or visual imagery is examined to determine the conflict between the two values and how they are symbolized.
Third, the pattern of the change of values is then determined. The pattern of change is the way in which the value system is altered. The six most often used pattern of change are:
The next step in the Social Values Model is to determine if the psychological prerequisites that are needed for change exists. This means that the characters in the story must be willing to accept the shift in values in order for there to be a shift in values in society as a whole. If the characters are ready for the value change it means the society is probably ready for the value change as well.
The final step in the process is to determine the audience role. The popularity of the story is examined to evaluate if society is ready to make the value change. The effects and reactions to the story are examined as well as how well the story's ethics mesh with society's morality and ethics.
The Social Values Model is a good fit with the analysis of Homer J. Simpson's inner conflict of individualism versus paternalism. This method allows for a specific definition of the two values that are in opposition to be established as well as a means for discussion of how the values change through the course of the television episodes.
The television show The Simpsons uses the value of paternalism to replace individualism to reflect that society is ready for a change from the habit of neglecting others to a commitment of supporting others.
This analysis the television program The Simpsons employs the five steps that make up the Social Values Model. First, the social problem of individuals not caring for one another will be discussed followed by the application of the values of individualism and paternalism to The Simpsons main character Homer. Next, the two values will be demonstrated by examining the plot of various episodes of The Simpsons. Then, the dialectical transformation pattern of change as well as the psychological prerequisites will be shown. Finally, the audience role will be taken into account.
The real life issue that is addressed by the show the The Simpsons each Sunday night is that society is becoming more and more individualized. The creator of the program, Matt Groening uses his cartoon family to show the viewers what is wrong with our society. The Simpson family is one of the last remaining nuclear families in prime time television which puts them in contrast to the growing number single parents and broken up families. The divorce rate in the United States is about 50% and yet the Simpsons stay together.
The collapse of the family structure is not the only issue addressed by this claim. Society as a whole is becoming more and more individualized and segmented as one's self reliance is valued over contributions to the community and to helping others. Due to the focus on self reliance people literally have been completely tuning out the needs of their family and their community and elevating their needs and desires to a level that not only neglects others, but it also disenfranchises them because they are not receiving the support required.
The value of individualism means to place the self above others and focus on satisfying one's own needs which contrasts the value of paternalism in which the needs of the family unit and striving to become a good father are the dominate characteristics.
The American Western myth is very similar to the dialectical opposition in this case. In the American Western myth the focus is on the male "loner," such as The Lone Ranger, and his division over individuality or community. The character wants to be alone and be independent from others yet he is constantly in situation where a community of people require his aid. He must decided whether his own independence and personal well being is more important or if the community in danger is more important and he must sacrifice himself for the good of the people and their society.
The character in The Simpsons that is faced with this conflict of fundamental values is Homer. As a father Homer's main responsibility is his wife and three children however, Homer's actions are more like a bachelor with no one to look after except for himself. In a number of episodes Homer has refused to go to church with his family despite its importance to Marge, danced with belly dancers, fantasized about a female coworker, told the community about his family's shortcomings, and gone fishing in the middle of a retreat designed to improve his marriage.
Homer got off to a quick start in the first season of the show in an episode entitled, "Homer's Night Out." Homer went to a bachelor party and danced on a table with a belly dancer. Bart sneaked into the room and took Homer's picture on the table. The picture was developed and soon the entire city of Springfield had a copy, including Marge. Marge kicked Homer out of the house and the only way Homer can win back her trust is to introduce Bart to the belly dance to show Bart that she is a real person and that women are not objects. Not only does Homer succeed in his task he also delivers a passionate speech to the patrons of the strip club at which he and Bart find the belly dancer. Homer states that women are merely not objects but members of family and his speech brings several of the patrons to tears and causes them all to reach out to their female loved ones. Marge heard the speech as well and she lets Homer know that she is proud of him for denouncing the objectionalization of women and proving that he cares about his family (www.snpp.com).
In the fifth season of The Simpsons Homer almost entered into an extramarital affair with a coworker named Mindy in "The Last Temptation of Homer." In the beginning of the episode Homer fantasizes about Mindy and he and Mindy are sent to Capitol City to represent the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant at an energy convention. Homer learns that he and Mindy have several things in common (such as eating donuts and junk food and sleeping as a hobby) and there lips briefly touch (resembling the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp as the two share a giant chilidog. Although Homer knows that continuing with the relationship is wrong, Homer can not resist. Things get worse as the two are named king and queen of the convention and they win a romantic dinner together. After dinner the two go back to the hotel and just as the two are leaning in for a kiss the scene cuts and Marge is in the hotel bed with Homer. It is revealed that at the last second Homer has second thoughts about cheating on his wife and he invited Marge to come to Capitol City to share the remainder of the weekend with him (www.snpp.com).
"The War of the Simpsons" in the second season epitomized Homer's inner struggle with the values of individualism and paternalism. The episode opens with Homer getting very drunk at a party the Simpsons hosted. By the end of the night Homer has yelled at guests, worn a lampshade on his head, and looked down his neighbors dress. The next day Marge signs them up for a marriage retreat at Catfish Lake. While on the retreat Homer learns of a legendary fish named General Sherman in the lake that no one has been able to catch. Of course, Marge opposes to Homer going fishing in the middle of a retreat that is needed to save their marriage. Despite Marge's misgivings about it, Homer sneaks out and goes fishing. He catches the elusive General Sherman and as he pulls up to the dock to celebrate his victory over the fish Marge appears. An argument ensues and she tells Homer that the fish represents his selfishness and that he does not care for their marriage or their children. In a maddening rage, Homer throws the giant fish back into the water. After a moment of silence Homer realizes that he just threw away what could have been his only opportunity for fame all for his marriage. Marge acknowledges that their marriage is indeed more important to Homer than anything else (www.snpp.com). And once again, Homer chooses his family over himself in the end.
In all three of the examples given Homer is forced to choose between himself and his family and he always chooses his family. In the beginning of these episodes Homer behaves without concern for his family and goes along with the value of individualism. He was very selfish when he danced with a belly dancer, thought about cheating on Marge, got drunk and acted like a fool at a party, and when he went fishing instead of participating in a marriage retreat. However, in each situation Homer came through for his family and made the necessary changes to be committed to his wife and three children. The Homer at the end of the episodes embodies the value of paternalism.
A dialectical transformation occurs in each one of these situations. Dialectical transformation is when one value is replaced by another opposing value. The value of individualism is emphasized in the beginning of each episode but through Homer's choices, the value of paternalism takes over as the dominate value.
The psychological prerequisite for change is in existence because Homer is able to change his self-serving ways. Since Homer has the ability to change the value that is more important to him, The Simpsons is telling its audience that society is ready for a shift in values as well. The character of Homer is set up to be a model for society to
follow. The real message of the program is "if a bafoon like Homer can do it, you can too." The creator Matt Groening believes that the Simpson family represents the American family (Pinsky, 1999). Therefor, the characters are designed with the acknowledgement that society is prepared to make the changes necessary to place an emphasis on paternalism and in turn, community.
The huge success that The Simpsons has had shows what a large part the audience role was in making the show what it is today. As stated previously, the ratings received by the show have been among the highest for the Fox Network ever (Bierbaum, 1999). Not only has the show proved to be a hit domestically, "the animated series has hit TV screens in upwards of 60 countries" (Swart, 1998). Marion Edwards, the executive vice president of Twentieth Century Fox International Television said, "It is now our most successful half-hour (international seller) next to MASH" (qtd, in Swart, 1998). In 1997 The Simpsons surpassed The Flintstones (whose record stood for nearly 30 years) and became the longest running animated prime time television show (King, 1997, Calender-4).
The success of the program is due to its fulfillment of the viewers' needs. The audience is looking for a character to do what they would not have the courage to do, such as Homer's selfish behavior, but they also require a reinforcement of a moral value as they exit from the fantasy of Homer's behavior. The audience feels good about Homer making the transformation, therefore the viewers feel good about themselves as well because their fantasy has ended with the "right" choice being made.
Through the course of each episode of the hit program The Simpsons a dialectical transformation occurs in which the value of paternalism replaces the value of individualism. The two opposing values are displayed via Homer and through his actions the change in values is shown.
This analysis shows that the cartoon phenomena of The Simpsons has a quite profound message to convey to its viewers each week. The message is affectively delivered because the audience is brought into the artificial cartoon world. Because the characters are animated it is difficult to take anything that the characters do at face value which allows the viewer to be open to the criticism of society that the show provides.
However outlandish the situation may be, the solution provided is always a well grounded real life possibility. For example, in "The War of the Simpsons" Homer gave up the fish as a sign of the sacrifice he is willing to make for his family. In society people are faced with the same situation that Homer was in, a personal sacrifice is needed in order for there to be a true devotion to the other person, or in Homer's case, the marriage.
The short-term effects of The Simpsons have been very positive as seen by the immense popularity of the program. Long-term effects of the show are yet to be realized because episodes of the show are still being produced. However, the show will likely be viewed as one of the most successful social satires in any media ever. The program has been able to spread its humor so thickly that the program and its theme of togetherness will be difficult to ignore in the future.
Homer J. Simpson represents the glimmer of hope that the producers of The Simpsons have for society. In each episode Homer over comes his naïve child like ways and does a complete about face with his moral standing. In order to perform this 180 degree turn the value of paternalism must be already within Homer. Homer stands up to everything that he is surrounded by that influences his life (television, the bar flies at Moe's Tavern) and he resists the temptation to continue being self centered in order to restore peace within his family. Although Homer on the surface appears to always be a self serving slob with no redeeming value, he in fact is the character that has the strongest will to redeem himself which is a characteristic that is not too prevalent in society. After all, time and time again he is tested, and time and time again Homer passes the test with flying colors.
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© Dan Rousseuve 2001
Last updated on March 31, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)