We're All Pigs
Representations of Masculinity in The SimpsonsBy Karma Waltonen
"So man sets his course by immutable laws and, his journey over, sinks into darkness, to rise again in his children and begin the cycle anew." -Jung
In the first season of The Simpsons, Moe revealed a terrible truth to Homer: "You're a pig. Barney's a pig. Larry's a pig. We're all pigs . . . once in a while, we can crawl out of the slop, hose ourselves down, and act like human beings" ("Some Enchanted Evening"). For those of you who've been watching sit-coms in the decade since, it sounds pretty mild. Nevertheless, this representation of men, especially fathers, was shocking to the TV generation not yet weaned from The Cosby Show. Regular viewers, however, can assure you that although Homer is not a perfect man, he strives to overcome his shortcomings by the end of each episode. At the beginning of each episode, he embodies all that is bad about patriarchy and masculinity, only to become closer to the early-twenty-first-century liberal, sensitive man by the end. The question is: What about the beginning of the next episode? Alas, Homer returns to his beginnings. Lessons are unlearned. While the message of this satire is politically liberal, and sometimes feminist in intent, the very format of the series, the sit-com, prevents the male characters from truly advancing out of their masculine/piggish rut.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the show, picture the nuclear family from the sit-coms of old, but blend in lots of satire and add a postmodern flair: "Homer, the series' hero, is firmly rooted (or so he believes) in a patriarchal household of the 1950s. He's sick and tired of going to work each morning (though, initially at least, not of the work itself) and wishes that he could work from home to be waited upon by Marge, his devoted wife" (Hodge 4). Marge embodies the nightmare of the woman ruled by patriarchy as envisioned by Luce Irigaray: "the woman's obligation to devote herself to the cult of the children of her legal husband and to the husband himself as male child" (Irigaray 2). The series reinforces this notion of Homer as fourth child, in effect the older brother to Bart, Lisa, and Maggie.
Homer also represents the white, American, lower to middle-class concepts of masculinity. That is, Homer is well meaning, but not exceptionally bright. He wants to reap the benefits of the patriarchal system, but isn't motivated enough to pursue them. Here, masculinity is seen as associated with beer, bowling, sloth, armchair sports, non-militant bigotry, and weight problems. Some critics have associated Homer with the traditional comic clown. His community sees him as lovable, although his wife, when pressed, does have grievances:
He's so self-centered. He forgets birthdays, anniversaries, holidays—both religious and secular—he chews with his mouth open, he gambles, he hangs out at a seedy bar with bums and lowlifes. He blows his nose on the towels and puts them back in the middle. He drinks out of the carton. He never changes the baby. When he goes to sleep, he makes chewing noises. When he wakes up, he makes honking noises. Oh, oh, and he scratches himself with his keys. I guess that's it. Oh no, wait. He kicks me in his sleep and his toenails are too long . . . and yellow. ("War of the Simpsons")
The qualities Marge lists are coded for comic masculinity. In this series, however, Homer is our hero, our lower-middle-class everyman, and his family, by extension, is our nuclear every-family.
The nuclear family has long been a staple of sit-com television. For the purposes of my argument, I will be drawing on the book, The End of Comedy: The Sit-Com and the Comic Tradition by David Grote. Grote distinguishes sit-coms as a unique form of comedy. He traces the development of comedy from the playwright Menander to early 80s sit-coms and concludes: "[The sit-com] has overturned more than two thousand years of comic traditions and established an entirely new and unique form of comedy" (Grote 12). Grote sets up many binaries to compare forms. Traditional comedy relies on a plot ending in resolution, while sit-coms rely on situations that require only solutions. That is to say, a normal plot-driven comedy begins with equilibrium. Conflict arises, usually over love, the hero actively resolves the conflict in the climax, and we are left with a new equilibrium. Not so in the sit-com. Grote maintains that "[t]he most important point of any sit-com is not what happens, but what does not happen" (59). The situation of the sit-com threatens the equilibrium, and the solution merely re-establishes the same equilibrium, usually without the active involvement of the characters. The format of the sit-com demands an inert nature: "The solution rejects all changes, and nothing that might in any way affect the basic situation ever carries over to the next episode" (68).
Thus the form of the sit-com changes the traditional content of comedy. The earliest Greco-roman plays established comic content. Comedy is a corrective measure, seeking to overthrow bourgeois politics for a better future, traditionally in the quest to establish marriage for love instead of parental command (Grote 55-56). Therefore, if the format doesn't allow the basic situation of the program to change, the effect is a defense of middle-class values, rather than a critique.
If you've been watching television lately, this might not seem to be the case. A contextualization of Grote's argument is in order. The End of Comedy was written in 1983, six years before The Simpsons revolutionized television. Television content has changed. The Simpsons breaks many of Grote's sit-com rules due to its variation of traditional sit-com format: "The Simpsons works to incite critique, demanding that viewers ask 'what stories should we believe.' It is a television show that challenges passive television watchers, ridiculing the advertisements, slanted news stories, and inane talk shows that appear on the Simpsons' own beloved TV set" (Hall 5). Thus, when Grote maintains that "[t]opical allusions have almost disappeared" (95), or that sit-coms don't reference their own episodes, he wasn't envisioning the postmodern satire that is The Simpsons. Most tellingly, Grote has also noted, "And one could watch years of families at home in sitcoms and never see them do the one thing that almost every family does at home—watch television" (94). If you've seen the opening credits, you know that The Simpsons is the true exception. Of course, it's not only satire that separates The Simpsons—it's also a cartoon, a much better vehicle for satire and one that allows the characters to escape the normative subject matter of the nuclear sit-com. As Grote observes, "[t]he numerous family comedies develop their situations out of the normal problems of children growing up" (60). No one grows up in the Simpsons family.
On one hand, its cartoon nature makes The Simpsons the perfect sit-com in Grote's definition—if the children don't have to grow up, nothing has to change. In the words of Borchard, however, "Television programs such as 'The Simpsons' represent a fairly recent development in the history of television: the self-reflexive, intertextual program" (Borchard 314). And so, our problem: sit-coms uphold middle-class values of patriarchy and masculinity while satires aim to deconstruct such values. What, then, are the issues satirized by the show? Can The Simpsons as a satire escape the trappings of its sit-com format?
Much of the outcry raised about The Simpsons initially arose because of what was called the lack of family values in the program. Most famously, former President Bush said of the show, "We need a nation closer to The Waltons than The Simpsons" (Fiske 121). The show indeed seems to be going against Walton-esque family programming. Harry F. Waters, of Newsweek, comments on the Simpsons' hometown of Springfield: "By absolutely no coincidence, that was also the name of the Andersons' hometown in 'Father Knows Best,' which might lead an armchair visitor to expect yet another set of domestic paragons" (Waters 58). He then goes on to say the similarities between the Andersons and the Simpsons end with their town's names, noting: "What could be less Father-Knows-Bestish than a husband who, on his wife's 34th birthday, presents her with a bowling ball engraved with his name?" (Waters 58). One need not look to the black and white era to find the patriarchal structure devalued by The Simpsons. Right from the beginning, The Simpsons was set up in a ratings war with The Cosby Show. To quote Jerry Herron:
Cosby sums up a lot of history, specifically the history of the infantalized dad, which extends back at least through Ozzie and Ward to Riley and beyond. Dad's power can neither be interrogated nor challenged because it is always hidden, and thematically defended, within the family's enforced therapeutic agenda. Which is precisely where Bartman enters the picture. In a stroke of genius, the Fox network put a real cartoon up against NBC's 2-D pater families: not to defeat Cosby so much as to expose his informational nullity. (Herron 18)
The Fox network, it seems, was only following the lead of the show's creator, Matt Groening: '"I love the characters [on the Cosby show], but I'm worried that millions of Americans think that a good-humored, intelligent father can solve all the problems in a family'" (Groening as Homer qtd. in Bruns).
Homer Simpson is obviously not the father Heathcliff Huxtable was to his clan. Naturally, the self-reflexive series references Cosby when Homer tries to pick up some parenting advice from Cosby's book, Fatherhood. His response to a lesson on reverse psychology: "Thank you, Bill Cosby. You've saved The Simpsons!" ("Saturdays of Thunder"). Homer may have to turn to Bill Cosby for advice, but it is his desire to be a better parent which enables critics to remind us that Homer achieves the same effect in parenting as his super-parent counterparts: "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" (Corliss 77).
Marge's position in the patriarchy is troubling to critics. One acknowledges her as "both nurturer and servant, although thought of/treated as a lesser member of the family" (Hodge 4). Nevertheless, another states that "[Marge and Lisa] represent the voices of sanity and piety and they always (or almost always) triumph in the end" (Bowler 5). This seems to underline the idea that within this "everyfamily," the women are the leaders and the men are in need of constant redemption. Some critics have gone so far as to say that there's "more than a hint of feminist" ideas in the show. Is Homer displaced from power? Is the ultimate message of the show a feminist one after masculinity is satirized?
In order to get a better grasp on the issues, let's look at two episodes in particular that concern feminist/liberal issues. True to form, or should I say content, neither show deals with the children growing up—it's Homer's development that interests us. The first episode we will examine is "Homer Badman"—a lesson in sexual harassment. Homer steals the rare "Gummy Venus DeMilo" only to lose it. Upon driving the babysitter home, he sees it stuck to the back of her jeans. When he attempts to recover his lost treasure, she misreads his intentions. Ashley Grant—feminist graduate student—rallies the community against this "monster." This episode, although dealing with a feminist issue, actually has very little to say about sexism. When Homer explains the charges to his daughter, we understand how little he's investing in becoming a sensitive 90s man. Lisa: "Dad, I don't understand. What is she saying you did?" Homer responds, "Well, Lisa, remember that postcard that Grampa sent us from Florida of that alligator biting that woman's bottom? . . . That's right, we all thought it was hilarious. But it turns out we were wrong. That alligator was sexually harassing that woman." The lesson in sensitivity is a good joke at feminism's expense.
Grote contends that the main characters in sit-coms don't learn anything from episodes that deal with social issues (83). Rather, issues are explored through characters who aren't part of the regular cast. Is Ashley Grant educated about the dangers of throwing around a sexual harassment claim? By the end of the show, when Homer has been exonerated, we find Ashley admitting she was wrong: "Homer, I thought you were an animal, but your daughter said you were a decent man. I guess she was right." Homer: "You're both right."
"Homer Badman"'s focus is actually a critique of television news shows and their inflammation of events. From Homer's interview on "Rock Bottom" to the Fox TV-Movie, "Homer S.: Portrait of an Ass-Grabber," we watch television media distort facts. At the end of the episode, we find our innocent Homer watching a "Rock Bottom" report about the man who absolved him. He falls for it:
Homer: Oooh, that man is sick!
Ah, the satire. But what exactly is being satirized? The sit-com convention of unchanging characters, television's unlimited power over the weak-minded, or the masculine sex as being the weak-minded? In order to determine this, we should move on to an episode that does purport to show a changed Homer.
"Homer's Phobia" confronts the liberal/feminist issue of homophobia. Homer makes friends with a gay man named John, but refuses to continue the friendship once he discovers John's sexuality. Marge, as usual, is our voice of reason when Homer turns against John and begins to fear that John's sexuality is influencing Bart. Homer's syntax illustrates the ignorance of his stereotypical masculine response to homosexuality: "He didn't give you gay, did he?" Nevertheless, by the end of the episode, our paradigms of masculinity have been discounted. Homer must relent his masculine homophobia in the face of John's courage. John notes, "Well, Homer, I won your respect and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you'd be set." Against sit-com format, Homer's last words in the episode give us hope: "You know, Bart, maybe it's just the concussion talking, but any way you choose to live your life is OK with me."
Although Homer is the character who undergoes a change in this episode, we must note that true to Grote's assertions, we do not meet either Ashley Grant or John again. Although Homer is never again confronted with a sexual harassment charge, those aspects of his character which code him as our masculine, blue-collar hero remain present. He's insensitive, patriarchal, unenlightened, neglectful of his family, and enamored with domestic beer. Although we don't encounter John again, we do see Homer challenged with a situation that tests his level of bigotry. In an episode from this season, he catches Bart and Bart's friend, Milhouse, playing dress-up in Marge's closet: "What's going on? And I want a non-gay explanation!" Homer is relieved when Milhouse lies and says they were drunk ("Grift of the Magi"). Homer's change of heart must have indeed been the concussion.
1 Ellen Amy Cohen, for example, in her essay, "Homer Simpson: Classic Clown" cites George Santayana's portrait of the classic clown: "'The clown is the primitive comedian. Sometimes in the exuberance of animal life a spirit of riot and frolic comes over a man; he leaps, he dances, he tumbles head over heels, he grins, shouts, or leers, possibly he pretends to go to pieces suddenly, and blubbers like a child. A moment later he may look up wreathed in smiles, and hugely pleased about nothing. All this he does hysterically, without any reason, by a sort of mad inspiration and irresistible impulse . . . . He is not at all amused intellectually; he is not rendered wiser or tenderer by knowing the predicaments into which people inevitably fall; he is merely excited, flushed, and challenged by an absurd spectacle'" (1). Using this definition, Cohen successfully argues that Homer can be seen as a modern-day Falstaff. She neglects Homer's prominent position in the sit-com, however, which indicates that despite his obvious clownish qualities, he must be considered as the hero of the narratives.
2 Grote makes a distinction between the active hero of the comic tradition and the activities of the sit-com hero: "The comic novel heroes are active; they go places and do things. The sit-com people sit at home or around the job and wait for things to happen to them" (65). Grote preempts examples of sit-com characters taking on tasks that might be construed as active rather than passive by reminding us that these actions are always taken in order to restore the original equilibrium. These actions, while not entirely passive, would best be considered defensive rather than indicative of an active hero.
3 Barry Hodge, for example, discussing the ideology of The Simpsons as predominantly patriarchal, with the subversive undertones of Matt Groening's liberal views: "As stated before, the presence of the dominant ideology in the show's reality (as well as Groening's views ingrained into it) are to ensure the show's popularity. Set in television's role of making social changes, the show is "a contradictory mix of confirming and contending identities"—it's based around the ideology of patriarchy, but there's more than a hint of feminist issue in it, issues which are important and should be discussed on television. The Simpsons (and the rest of the '90s breed of programming) doesn't constitute an 'out-an-out' feminist text, but one of a feminine culture asserting its values within and against patriarchy. We are able to cope with this radicalism because, in social circumstances (unlike viewers in the '40s and '50s) have been subject to some form of feminist power in our lives" (8). Not surprisingly, Groening doesn't identify himself as a feminist, or even a liberal: "I like to think of myself as middle of the road, but the rest of our culture would define me as loony left" (qtd. in Tucker 48). Some of the views presented on the show and in his studio ("I don't want any women on the show who look like they were drawn by horny animators' (Groening qtd. in Ostrow G1)) might lead one to agree with Hodge that "[t]he show is trying, like the US and Western World in general, to create a cultural shift towards total sexual/ethnic emancipation" (8), however successful we might find that enterprise to be.
Borchard, Kurt. "Simpsons as Subculture: Multiple Technologies, Group Identity and Authorship." The Image of Technology in Literature, Media, and Society. Ed. Will Wright and Steven Kaplan. Pueblo: Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, 1994. 314-321.
Bowler, Gerry. "God and the Simpsons: The Religious Life of an Animated Sitcom." Symposium on The Media and Family Values, Canadian Nazarene College October 1996. 27 Dec. 1999 <http://www.cnaz.ab.ca/Simpsons.htm>.
Bruns, Bill. "The Simpsons Rate TV: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." TV Guide 38.11 17 Mar. 1990.
Cohen, Ellen Amy. "Homer Simpson: Classic Clown." The Simpsons Archive. Ed. Jouni Paakkinen. 13 Oct. 1999. 27 Dec. 1999 <http://www.snpp.com/other/papers/eac.paper.html>.
Corliss, Richard. '"Simpsons' Forever!" Time 2 May 1994: 77.
Fiske, John. Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
"Grift of the Magi." The Simpsons. Fox. 19 Dec. 1999.
Grote, David. The End of Comedy: The Sit-Com and the Comic Tradition. Hamden: Archon Books, 1983.
Hall, Donald E. Introduction: Queer Works." College Literature 24.1 (1997): 2-10.
Herron, Jerry. "Homer Simpson's Eyes and the Culture of Late Nostalgia." Representations 43, (1993): 1-26.
Hodge, Barry. "King Size Homer: Ideology and Representation." The Simpsons Archive. Ed. Jouni Paakkinen. 23 July 1999. 21 Dec. 1999 <http://www.snpp.com/other/papers/bh.paper.html>.
"Homer Badman." The Simpsons. Fox. 27 Nov. 1994.
"Homer's Phobia." The Simpsons. Fox. 16 Feb. 1997.
Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Genealogies. Trans. Gilliam C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Ostrow, Joanne. "Mind Behind 'Simpsons' the Toughest Critic of All." Denver Post 14Jan. 1998: G1.
"Saturdays of Thunder." The Simpsons. Fox. 14 Nov. 1991.
"Some Enchanted Evening." The Simpsons. Fox. 13 May 1990.
Tucker, Ken. "The Simpsons Put Other Comedies to Shame." Entertainment Weekly 12 March 1993: 48.
"War of the Simpsons." The Simpsons. Fox. 2 May 1991.
Waters, Harry F. "Family Feuds." Newsweek: 23 April 1990: 58-62.
© Karma Waltonen (email@example.com), University of California, Davis, 2000.
Presented at the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference in Buffalo, April 2000.
Last updated on September 16, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)