Essays, The Simpsons

 Ay, Caramba!

The Simpsons in Our Daily Lives

(c) 2006, Allisa Rahaman

 

The Simpsons is not just another animated television show; it is the animated television show. And never has a North American cartoon had such an impact on daily living then The Simpsons. The Simpsons is now credited as the longest running American show having debuted on December 17, 1989 , with 384 episodes forming eighteen glorious seasons. In fact, 20th Century Fox has recently released a DVD box set: The Simpsons: The Complete Eighth Season which means people have the privilege to re-watch their favourite episodes repetitively from that season and even though “you can probably glimpse at least one of these episodes somewhere on basic cable once a week, this would be another ‘must own’ package for Simpsons fans.”[1] It’s longevity has not gone unnoticed either. The Simpsons has won many awards and had this year received it’s ninth Emmy Award for best animated program. The Simpsons did have competition at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles ; they had to  “beat a controversial episode of South Park , which lampooned the Church of Scientology …”[2]

Commenting on social issues is one of the most interesting aspects to The Simpsons as it comments directly on our North American society. My belief is that we as a society have become as dependent on The Simpsons as they have always been dependent on us. Without the constant rave reviews and Emmy Awards to prove it’s popularity, The Simpsons would not exist to bring humour to political and cultural icons, thus becoming an icon in itself. The characters are developed from real life people and situations, exaggerated and then are imitated by the very people who admire the show. It has become part of the very culture that it mocks. It had become it’s own popular culture – an icon.

The Simpsons as an icon can be analyzed with semiotics. They are symbolic, expressive, and represent many different ideologies, some of which will be discussed in this essay. The Simpsons as signifiers are a yellow skinned family unit with three children, a dog, a cat, and two cars and are a middle class North American family living in a small town. Their name is the Simpsons and they live in the town of Springfield , although the state where the town is located is never truly defined. In fact, the creator of the show, Matt Groening, admits that “Springfield has much in common with Portland, Oregon, the city he grew up in, and the name ‘Springfield’ was chosen because it is a common city name, appearing in more than thirty states.”[3] This makes the Simpson family more appealing to the general American public as they represent everyone and not just one type of person. They represent the average Caucasian middle class American family with each character in the show representing another symbol separately. They take from real life, put a twist on the details and then feed it back to the people so that they seem to mock and mimic the American Dream at the same time. The Simpsons family strives for the things we as a society strive for. They represent our society even though they are just fictional characters. “Despite their similarity to human beings, most of the members of the Simpson family are highly stylized drawings, really only suggestions of the human form. Nonetheless we do recognize them as representations of a certain segment of American society.”[4] In fact, what the Simpsons truly represent is the freedom of speech in America . They clearly poke fun at touchy subjects such as politics and religion but they do so in a tasteful manner that rarely offends anyone. In fact:

Social conservatives and some evangelical Christians have also pointed to the positive role model of devout Christian Ned Flanders, whose fretfulness is occasionally ridiculed but whose decency never wavers despite constant provocation from Homer. In several episodes, God actually intervenes to protect the Flanders family, invoking such Christian concepts as Divine Providence. As compared with the Simpson family, the Flanders family is relatively well-off and less dysfunctional, although they are quirky in their own way, with over-the-top devotion and their fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.[5]

The deepest signified meaning behind the Simpsons is the appeal to the average North American’s needs to be satisfied with themselves for who they are as a person; aesthetic looks, talents, ethnicity or social standing are all possessions we as North Americans struggle with daily and the Simpson’s address this is several episodes (and I will address these in a later paragraph as well.) When asked to describe his goal for The Simpsons cartoon, Matt Groening replied, “that his goal in creating the show was to ‘offer an alternative to the audience, and show them there’s something else out there than the mainstream trash that they are presented as the only thing.’”[6] What he really means to say is that The Simpsons, although humorous and light hearted, has a deeper meaning too it and is not just a mindless comedy fueled waste of time.

In fact, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, The Simpsons is a show that targets the social/belonging section of our needs. Everyone has something they wish they could change about themselves or are dissatisfied with. Many will claim they are not popular, beautiful enough, slim enough, smart enough and the list goes on. This aspect of the show makes a personal connection with the fans of the show. People loved to watch a show they believe they connect with because they see a little bit of the Simpsons in themselves. Homer Simpson himself addresses this issue in episode 7G03 called “Homer’s Odyssey” which originally aired 1/21/90 . In this episode, Homer accidentally causes the nuclear plant to shut down after he crashes into a radio active pipe while driving, “You can’t depend on me all your lives. You have to learn that there’s a little Homer Simpsons in all of us.”[7] And he would be right. We all have days where we crash and burn and have to remember that it’s not the end of the world. Homer’s daughter Lisa Simpson goes through a similar situation where she becomes depressed. Seeing that Lisa had shut herself away from her classmates, Marge her mother, takes this opportunity to give her daughter sound advice. In episode 7G06 called “Moaning Lisa” aired originally 2/11/90 , Marge Simpson says:

Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you….and happiness will follow.[8]

Cheered by her mother’s words, Lisa realizes that to fit in with the crowd, all you need to do is be yourself. This episode appeals to everyone but I believe that children benefited from this episode the most as they are often overwhelmed with the need to belong. People feel for the Simpsons characters because they themselves feel the need to belong to a group. On another note completely, The Simpsons also created the need to belong as people will go to school or work and ask “So, did you see that Simpsons episode yesterday?” and expect that everyone else watches the show as they do. Obviously no one wants to be left out of the conversation, because then they would be shut out completely. That is one of the messages that the Simpson characters portray.

Marshall McLuhan would say that The Simpsons contradicts itself repeatedly while actually attempting to tackle the public service announcement genre, but such is the strategy of the Simpsons. The Simpsons is an icon in popular culture, it has influence, it has the public’s attention. If you have something important to say, why not say it when the whole world is watching? This is the case with the Simpsons, although they have yellow skin, it is that very same unrealistic quality that helps us to concentrate on the message the Simpsons convey, and not how or who is saying it at the time. “Comments on Marge’s blue hair or the family’s yellow skin remind us regularly that the characters aren’t real, and this enhances our reception of them as signifiers: their capacity to represent things is never clouded by the impression that they might also be real people.”[9] In the episode 7G05 called “Bart the General” where Bart leads an army of bullied kids against the bullies, Bart delivers an almost out-of-character speech on war:

Contrary to what you’ve just seen, war is not glamorous nor fun. There are no winners; only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars Trilogy. If you’d like to learn more about war, there’s lots of books at your local library, many of them with cool gory pictures.[10]

In this quote Bart contradicts himself by saying that war is not glamorous yet he thinks “gory pictures” are “cool”. But once again, he is encouraging children to learn about history by visiting the library, something Bart himself wouldn’t consider because it’s learning. This is one of the messages within the medium of The Simpsons. And it is this kind of cleverly disguised message that people perceive that proves that the show is not just a comedy clip. This makes the Simpsons an extension of the human heart and mind; it urges people to think about real world issues, to look around and familiarize yourself with the world so that you can take a stand and have an opinion of your own.   

That said, how everyone perceives the messages in the Simpsons is individualistic. Even more so, the Simpsons airs internationally around the world. Many things must be changed or cut out in when certain cultures deem it unfit to view. An example of this is in “Arabic-speaking countries are an example of this, in which they cut out or modify references to alcohol, pork and non-Muslim religions. The animation in The Simpsons makes the show more frequently dubbed in foreign countries rather than subtitled.”[11] There is also two sides to the coin. Some North Americans believe The Simpsons to be a witty and intellectual show, because you need to have a general knowledge in everything from movies, music, games, politics, entertainment, and literature from past decades (even centuries) to fully understand the jokes; “Even a generation or two later the references a contemporary audience would have immediately recognized can become opaque.”[12] This is the argument that people could actually stand to learn from the Simpsons on their wacky adventures and explorations of stereotypes in different cultures, providing they get the joke. The characters themselves can be represented in both a good light and bad light. Homer Simpson is a perfect example. Most people think he’s a fat, bald, beer-chugging moron, yet there are people who claim otherwise:

Homer’s love of life is nevertheless a highly admirable trait…for many people are tempted to see in Homer nothing but buffoonery and immorality. Moreover, Homer’s love of life stands out as an important quality especially in our age, an age in which political correctness, over-politeness, lack of willingness to judge other’s, inflated obsession with physical health, and pessimism about what is good and enjoyable about life reign more or less supreme. [13]

When analyzed from this perspective, Homer seems to have the right idea about enjoying life to the fullest no matter who’s watching you pick your nose. Homer is another contradiction in the show. He represents that lazy part of us who couldn’t careless if we forgot to take out the trash. We’ll take it out later. Yet he also represents the part of us who strives to please his wife and kids even though he makes mistake after mistake. Homer in a way has become his own brand, a consumer product (and he really does in several episodes of the show).

The Simpsons has become a consumer item in pop culture. They are on everything from clothing to bedspreads, figurines, music, board games, video games and the list goes on. They are a marketable item desirable by all who adore Baby Maggie or are inspired by mischievous Bart yet in the beginning:

‘Bart’ is an anagram of “brat….It sparked controversy, as Bart Simpson was portrayed as a rebel who caused trouble and got away with it. Parents’ groups and conservative spokespersons felt that a character like Bart provided a poor role model for children. George H. W. Bush railed, “We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” The Simpsons t-shirts – among others, one featuring Bart with the legend “Underachiever (‘And proud of it, man!’)” And other merchandise were banned from some public schools in several areas of the United States .[14]

Despite the ban on merchandise, The Simpsons received about $2 billion worldwide and they are still going strong. Much anticipated, this merchandise is the new full length feature film. That’s right, after eighteen years of fame, the Simpsons are finally getting their own movie. Simply called The Simpsons Movie, it is set to be released July 27, 2007 . A teaser trailer is available on YouTube currently; “In 2007, leaping his way onto the silver screen, the greatest hero in American History….” The scene then cuts to Homer Simpson sitting on his couch in his underway and a too-small Superman shirt. But once again, the Simpsons is not just selling merchandise with their images, their selling merchandise in the form of ideas, opinions and messages. Everything from a sloppy yet admirable Homer trying to find his lost daughter or a shocked Marge who tries to ban violent cartoons from children’s programming, The Simpsons is all about society…our society. They are generating a revenue from the reviews we as a society give them. The Simpsons is only as popular as we make it but we can’t help but admire the way it mimics, mocks and manipulates the issues in today’s world while having fun.

I will admit that I, too, enjoy watching The Simpsons, since I do enjoy the feeling of recognizing where they have pulled some of their ideas from (whether it’s guest stars from popular culture music, movies and shows or literature.) I enjoy the humour they bring to the situations they are put in, but I also admire the way they have survived from 1989 to now. They have gone against politics and survived and they have stared the competition in the face ( South Park and Family Guy, both vulgar impersonations of The Simpsons ideal, in my opinion). Clearly The Simpsons appeals to a wider group of people, who, like me, enjoy the witty humour of the show while recognizing the hidden messages for what they are.

All in all, The Simpsons have such a strong influence on us that it is hard to see how anyone in this world could remain ignorant of the fact they exist. The Simpsons depend on society to accept them and their exaggerated humour while we depend on them for both entertainment and comfort. Weird as that sounds, The Simpsons does attract us by offering advice, by opening our eyes to the cultures of the world, by letting us know it’s okay if we’re not smart or if we’re fat.  The characters are developed from real life people and situations, exaggerated and then are imitated by the very people who admire the show. It has become part of the very culture that it mocks. It had become it’s own popular culture – an icon.

Citations     

[1] McGinnis, Rick. “Metro File DVD Web Extras: Rome , Rohmer and Homer.” Metro Toronto Newspaper 15 Aug. 2006 .  

[2] Metro Toronto News Servic. “Metro File: the Simpsons Nab Emmy.” Metro Toronto Newspaper 21 Aug. 2006 . 23 Nov. 2006 http://www.metronews.ca/story.aspx?&searchtype=1&fragment=False 

[3] “The Simpsons.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 23 Nov. 2006 . Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Nov. 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Simpsons

[4] Irwin, William, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble. The Simpsons and Philosophy, the D’Oh of Homer. Chicago : Carus Company, 2001. 262.

[5] “The Simpsons.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 23 Nov. 2006 . Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Nov. 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Simpsons

[6] “The Simpsons.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 23 Nov. 2006 . Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Nov. 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Simpsons

[7] Groening, Matt, and Ray Richmond. The Simpsons: a Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family, Seasons 1 – 8. 1st ed. New York : Matt Groening Productions Inc., 1997. 19

[8] Groening, Matt, and Ray Richmond. The Simpsons: a Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family, Seasons 1 – 8. 1st ed. New York : Matt Groening Productions Inc., 1997. 22

[9] Irwin, William, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble. The Simpsons and Philosophy, the D’Oh of Homer. Chicago : Carus Company, 2001. 263.

[10] Groening, Matt, and Ray Richmond. The Simpsons: a Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family, Seasons 1 – 8. 1st ed. New York : Matt Groening Productions Inc., 1997. 21

[11] “The Simpsons.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 23 Nov. 2006 . Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Nov. 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Simpsons

[12] Irwin, William, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble. The Simpsons and Philosophy, the D’Oh of Homer. Chicago : Carus Company, 2001. 96.

[13] Irwin, William, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble. The Simpsons and Philosophy, the D’Oh of Homer. Chicago : Carus Company, 2001. 22-23.

[14] “The Simpsons.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 23 Nov. 2006 . Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Nov. 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Simpsons

Bibliography

  1. McGinnis, Rick. “Metro File DVD Web Extras: Rome , Rohmer and Homer.” Metro Toronto Newspaper 15 Aug. 2006 . (pg #?)
  2. Metro Toronto News Servic. “Metro File: the Simpsons Nab Emmy.” Metro Toronto Newspaper 21 Aug. 2006 . 23 Nov. 2006 http://www.metronews.ca/story.aspx? &searchtype=1&fragment=False
  3. “The Simpsons.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 23 Nov. 2006 . Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Nov. 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Simpsons
  4. Irwin, William, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble. The Simpsons and Philosophy, the D’Oh of Homer. Chicago : Carus Company, 2001. 262.
  5. Groening, Matt, and Ray Richmond. The Simpsons: a Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family, Seasons 1 – 8. 1st ed. New York : Matt Groening Productions Inc., 1997. 19

6. Simpsons publicity photo. artist: Matt Groening (fair use, for scholarship). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Image:C-SimpFamily.png General publicity photo issued. Such publicity photos are given out freely without restriction to all media outlets).

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