"I will not expose the ignorance of the faculty"
The Simpsons as a Critique of Consumer CultureBy Sam Tingleff
The Simpsons began as a series of short cartoons on the Tracy Ullman Show in the late eighties. In 1989 the Fox Broadcasting Company signed the cartoonist Matt Groening to make 13 half-hour episodes. The show quickly became one of the network's highest rated and critically acclaimed programs despite an often scathing critique of dominant American institutions. Hypocrisy within the educational system, religious beliefs, American political structures, and even capitalism are revealed with a constant sense of humor. These ironic elements usually contradict the narrative, which usually reinforces middle class American values. The conformity of the narrative, Fox's network identity in the late eighties, and the animated format combine to allow The Simpsons to thrive within the restraining confines of prime time network television.
In the late eighties the Fox Broadcasting Company was relatively new and unestablished. The network sought to create a more youthful identity, seeking the "eighteen to thirty-four and eighteen to forty-nine-year-old middle to upper middle-class urban segments of the television audience."1 With a smaller, younger audience, Fox was willing to take risks other networks would not. With The Simpsons, the network was taking a risk, and it was identified as such:
In making The Simpsons the most memorable animated prime-time family serial since Hanna-Barbera's sixties series The Jetsons, the Fox network is taking a risk. In spite of the family's popular outings on Tracy Ullman's show, Groening is still regarded as an alternative cartoonist, definitely not mainstream. With few viewers to lose and a weak network identity, Fox was inclined to take risks on programs like Married... with Children and The Simpsons that other networks would not have made.2
While The Simpsons does contain sarcastic critique of mainstream American life, this is often done outside of narrative structure. The plot typically reaffirms middle class myths and lifestyles. This affirmation permits the subtle critique contained outside of the narrative. In one episode, Homer quits his job at the nuclear power plant to follow his dream of working at a bowling alley. This work is far more satisfying and pleasant for him, and Homer is even capable and qualified. Marge soon has another baby (Maggie), however, and monetary demands require that Homer return to work for Mr. Burns. Homer's unhappy status within capitalist hierarchy is justified with this return. He has learned the lesson: familial responsibilities necessitate and justify unpleasant work.
Another episode reveals a similar narrative conformity. Homer joins the freak show with a traveling rock concert. He has a unique talent for taking cannon ball shots in the stomach. After several shows he learns that one more blow will kill him. Homer finds it hard to abandon Bart's new found respect and his new rock and roll identity, but he quits the show and returns to the power plant. Homer's conclusion is that "being with my family is more important than being cool." Once again, Homer's return to his mundane job confirms working class subjugation. He learns that family responsibilities justify work at a thankless, unsatisfying, environmentally destructive job. In The Simpsons, cultural critique is typically contained outside of the narrative.
The various characters of The Simpsons are less characters of personalities than they are characters of ideas. They are caricatures of the ideologies they represent. Groening says that "the Simpsons are all ruled by their impulses."3 Unlike many sitcoms today, the show is not personality driven; it is about the conflict of ideas. If they were played by actors, the Simpson family would be seen as unrealistic and undeveloped. As animated characters they can be merely the ideas they represent. Lisa does not have a full personality, she is 'rationality.' As animated characters they are already 'unrealistic,' so their identities do not have to be multifaceted. In it's representation of American family life The Simpsons has residual elements - it revolves around a white, lower-middle class, seemingly 'normal' family with three kids and a dog. The text, however, is often oppositional to American middle class values.
The educational system, the legal system, the medical profession, the political structure: all are made up of fallible and forgivable human beings. But most importantly, all deserve a vigilantly critical engagement by their constituencies. Little is sacred on The Simpsons... in a world filled with generally unreliable social narratives and many outright lies. Week after week (day after day in syndication), the viewer's attitudes about religion, education, politics, and sexuality are challenged.4
One episode of The Simpsons attacks American political practices in an overtly challenging manner. In a Halloween show aliens inhabit the (campaigning) bodies of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. At first they attempt to hide their identity. When Homer shows the country their true character, they only taunt the gathered crowd: "What can you do? It's a two party system! You must vote for one of us!" The end of the episode has the family in chains, performing slave labor for the victorious alien. Homer tells Marge, "don't blame me, I voted for the other guy."
This episode challenges American politics for the two-party system and the similarity of those parties. Republicans and Democrats are portrayed as two sides of the same evil coin. They are even in accord with each other, as when the aliens (Clinton and Dole) walk the streets holding hands, "exchanging essential amino acids." The population casually excuses itself from guilt, because they "voted for the other guy." It is an explicit criticism of dominant American political parties and of the public for endorsing them.
A unique episode called the "Simpsons Spin-off Showcase" critiques the compulsive behavior of consumer society. The episode shows "previews" of spin-offs from The Simpsons. One of the previews is for "The Simpson Family Smiley-Time Variety Hour." Homer, Marge, Bart, Maggie, and a replacement Lisa (older and more attractive) sing a song about candy. Marge is the only one to question candyıs value: "Well, if you won't think of society's ills, at least think of the dentist bills." At the end they all conclude that "we want candy! Candy!" Candy could be a symbol for any number of societal addictions - money, television, junk food, drugs, etc. Marge, as the good housewife, questions the wisdom of the addiction, but soon comes to her husbandıs opinion.
Lisa's absence from this sketch is necessary for the family to agree unanimously. As the voice of reason, Lisa would no doubt argue against candy's value. She would stand alone against her family and the audience and decry candy as destructive of the environment, cruel to animals, and bad for teeth. Her absence makes it clear that "candy" is not meant to be taken literally. If it was only candy she would certainly sing along. Without Lisa it is clear that rationality must be temporarily suspended for the sake of agreement. The viewer is left to fill in the blank made by "candy" and to acknowledge it's irrationality. This episode, like much of the series, uses a subtle humor to make fun of and challenge American culture.
The Simpsons, through Bart, Homer, and Grandpa Simpson, even challenges categories of male sexuality. Homer shaves his "bikini zone" for a presumed swimsuit competition in his attempt to become an astronaut. He kisses his secretary Carl (voice of Harvey Fierstein) on the lips, and later mistakingly calls his wife "Carl" in bed. His favorite song is "It's Raining Men," and he says Oliver North was "just poured into that uniform."5 In one episode Grandpa Simpson turns into a woman when he can't take his pills, later accepting flowers and a date from a male suitor. On The Simpsons, all categories of sexuality are flexible under changing contexts.6
The relationship between Mr. Burns and his assistant Smithers is the most consistent attack of male sexual norms. Smithers' loyalty comes not from monetary desires, but his quasi-sexual attraction towards Mr. Burns. In one episode Smithers has a near-erotic dream about Mr. Burns. Mr. Burns, as capitalism, maintains an asexual demeanor. He has no sexual past of any kind, because greed is his only motivation. Smithers' sexuality is presented comically, but not in a derogatory manner. The comedy comes from his attraction to an eighty-year-old man, not to men in general. The males of The Simpsons all have a flexible sexuality, but Smithers is the most obviously outside the norms.
The Simpson family and friends act as a cross section of American culture. They are never fully developed characters, but icons of belief. As the patriarch of the family, Homer Simpson is the site of dominant knowledge. He is used to show all the contradictions and cultural myths of the American consumer lifestyle. He works for the largest employer in town, he has a wife and three kids, a house in the suburbs. and a station wagon in the driveway. In his free time Homer frequents Moeıs Tavern and the bowling alley. Homer is an icon of masculine normality.
In his role as dominant discourse, Homer Simpson is often ridiculed. He is always governed by an urge for immediate self-satisfaction. He is shown to be close-minded and full of contradictions. When Bart asks him what his religion is, he answers without a trace of self-doubt; "You know, the one with all the well meaning rules that don't work out in real life. (Christianity?) Yeah, that's it." During a strike at the power plant his only duties are replaced by a brick placed on a lever.7 In ridiculing Homer The Simpsons criticizes dominant knowledge as hypocritical and self-centered.
Just as Homer brings out brings out the contradictions of the American middle class, Marge makes obvious the problems of the modern housewife. She is ignored by Homer and unappreciated by her children. She is occasionally bored with her work and frustrated by Homer's lack of concern. In one episode Homer thoughtlessly buys her a bowling ball - with his name on it - for a birthday present. Marge has never bowled before and Homer knows this. He assumes that she won't want it, but he "happens to know somebody who would like it." Throughout The Simpsons Homer acts without concern for Marge. Her needs are constantly disregarded for those of her husband and her children. This disregard is shown as American society's dismissal of women.
When Marge visits a marriage counselor she maintains that Homer is a great husband. When pressed, however, she admits that Homer "forgets birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, chews with mouth open, hangs out at a seedy bar with bums and low life's, blows his nose in the towels and puts them back in the middle, and scratches himself with his keys."8 Marge is the site of societal injustice towards women through Homerıs inconsideration.
The character of Bart Simpson is often used to show the failures of public schools. Bart is the child predetermined to fail. The opening sequence of the show has Bart writing a phrase repeatedly on his class chalkboard. They are often critical of the educational system. "I WILL NOT EXPOSE THE IGNORANCE OF THE FACULTY", in one episode, "THIS PUNISHMENT IS NOT BORING AND POINTLESS,"9 in another. Bartıs punishments show the educational system to be hypocritical and uncaring. Through Bart the public school system is criticized in many ways.
Lisa Simpson, like Homer, is governed by one trait. She is the site of rationality. Lisa acts as the voice of reason, questioning the motives and behavior of other characters with a critical eye. Her intelligence, however, only makes her an outcast. The family usually ignores her advice and she has few friends at school. She is often at odds with the entire community, suggesting the dismissal of reason in American culture.
In one episode Lisa encounters the talking "Malibu Stacy" doll, who, among other things, says, "I wish they taught shopping in school." Lisa crusades against the doll's demeaning speech and markets her own doll - Lisa Lionheart. This doll tells girls, "Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything."10 The doll is an initial success, but is quickly forgotten in the large market. Lisa crusades against injustice anywhere she sees it, despite pressure from her father and the community. She is an icon of rationality in the insane world of The Simpsons.
The character of Mr. Burns is perhaps the most critical of American consumer lifestyles. As the owner of the Springfield nuclear power plant and various other business ventures, he is the most powerful person in town. Mr. Burns is driven by a singular desire for money. He is disrespectful towards his employees, the town, and his mother. He is not just a capitalist, he is capitalism.
Mr. Burns cares little for his employees, the town, the environment, even his loyal assistant Mr. Smithers. The power plant spews toxic fumes day and night. In one episode Lisa persuades him to start recycling at the plant. He uses the recycled materials to make fishing nets, killing all kinds of ocean wildlife. He hangs a sign in Homer's work area, reminding Homer of his servitude: "DON'T FORGET, YOU'RE HERE FOREVER." Through the character of Mr. Burns capitalism is shown as destructive and cruel. Homer remains in a constant state of denial about this, oblivious to his subjugation and the destructive nature of his work.
An analysis of a typical episode reveals a text both politically subversive and mainstream. In this episode, the story of Maggie's birth and early infancy is told through flashbacks. The narrative first questions, then reaffirms working class servitude. Ironic moments within the plot question American consumer society and environmental destruction. In a flashback, Homer tells Bart and Lisa about Maggie's birth. Finally out of debt, Homer quits his job at the power plant and (literally) burns his bridges. He begins work at his dream job - as a "pin monkey" at the bowling alley. Marge is soon pregnant, however, and Homer cannot support three children on his new salary. He must return to work for Mr. Burns, leaving the satisfying world of the bowling alley for the mundane nuclear power plant.
In his new job at the bowling alley Homer is competent and satisfied. It is a challenge to the hierarchies and monetary goals of capitalism. He has escaped the rat race ruled by the capitalist Mr. Burns. Homer works at the bowling alley because he enjoys it, not for the money. He does not have a domineering boss and he is not destroying the environment. Marge's pregnancy, however, necessitates his return to the plant. Homer is forced to return to his miserable job under the cruel Mr. Burns. Homer's lesson is clear - capitalism is a necessary reality of the middle class family.
In contrast to the narrative, ironic elements within the text challenge modern American consumer society. At a break in Homer's story, just before a commercial break, Bart and Lisa stand up. Bart tells Homer, "You can't expect us to sit through thirty minutes straight! I'm going to get a snack." Lisa also needs a break, "I'm going to the bathroom," she says to Homer. Just before the cut to commercials, Marge says "I'm going to think about products to purchase. (closes her eyes) Oh, I don't have that... Hey, I could use that." Bart and Lisa's comments question the effect of television on attention span. They are accustomed to television's pace and expect it in the rest of their activity. The producers suggest that television affects children in adverse ways. Marge's comment is even more subversive.
Marge's remark questions the commercial structure of television typically taken for granted. She also challenges the consumerist American culture. The reflexivity in Marge's comment makes obvious the commercials soon to come. She asks the viewer to recognize commercials for what they are; an attempt to create a need satisfied only by the product. "Oh, I don't have that," shows the creation of the need. This is soon followed by desire; "hey, I could use that." Marge makes obvious the process in an ironic manner, questioning its validity.
The Simpsons has been one of the Fox Broadcasting Company's most successful shows for nine years, "thumbing its nose at certain powers-that-be" since its inception.11 It demands that dominant social institutions and traditions not be taken for granted, that they undergo (Lisa's) constant scrutiny. Fox's network identity at the show's inception, the conformity of the narrative, and the animated format combine to allow The Simpsons to exist within prime time network television.
Published at The Simpsons Archive with author's permission.
Last updated on February 21, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)