The Simpsons Are Sociologically Savvy: a Postmodernist Perspective
The Simpsons are Sociologically Savvy: a Postmodernist Perspective Using The Simpsons, a long-running American animated continuing series, as a case study I will analyse the links between audiences, production and text in the creation of meaning. Using a triangulated approach of close textual reading, and theoretical models of post-modernism and queer theory to question the role of agenda setting in contemporary society, I will identify particular mechanisms of agenda setting within this example.
The Simpsons, described by Paul Cantor (1999) is a “postmodern re-creation of the first generation family sit-com” (p738) which can be used effectively to illustrate innovative and radical themes and encourages critical thinking. David Arnold (2001) describes The Simpsons as “an irresponsible text, one rich in associations and connotations […] a self-parodic, self-referential pastiche of previous texts” (p264).
I will endeavour to show that despite the fact that The Simpsons is associated with cartoons, which in their very nature are assumed to be childish and frivolous, it is because of all of the above associations that the postmodern Simpsons are useful as a pedagogical tool (Hobbs, 1998) and can be used to teach adults and children various sociological issues including sexual identities and hegemony. The Simpsons lends itself to be a vehicle of a ‘media-virus’ which according to Douglas Rushkoff (1994) can carry [the] “revolutionary message conveyed in an apparently innocent, neutral package” (cited in Irwin et Al 2001 p254).
Such programmes appear to have proven to be the most acceptable and accessible spaces to show such subjects as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (glbt) identities because of their separation from reality. Arnold (2001) claims that the ridiculousness of the funny yellow looking characters who pop up on your television and look almost human, but with crazy storylines and unbelievable un-human like behaviours “increase their ability to function as satiric signifiers” (p262).
It’s because of their unfeasibility, their “lack of seriousness” that Diane Raymond (2003 cited in Dines & Humez) maintains allows programmes like The Simpsons to “…play with themes under cover of humour where those themes might be too volatile or even too didactic for another sort of audience” (p101). The Simpsons creators and writers rely on the history of other shows and they take from them all the best titbits rewarding their viewers according to
Rushkoff (2004) with “a-ha moments” or “pattern recognition” (p296). Whether it is Maggie in ‘A Streetcar Named Marge’ (1992, 9F18) attempting to rescue her dummy-tit at Springfield’s day-care centre to the theme tune of The Great Escape by Elmer Bernstein. Or when Homer arrives to pick her up some of the babies are precariously perched and watch on, which to the media literate is an obvious spoof of The Birds a classic Hitchcock movie from 1963.
The wedding scene from The Graduate is spoofed in ‘One fish, two fish, blowfish’ (1991, 7F11) where Homer bangs on the living room window and shouts “Marge” at the top of his voice. ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ (1991, SF19), is where we see yet another classic scene from the The Graduate, where the substitute teacher is seen at the front of the class through Mrs Krabappel’s leg which is hitched up on the desk and Bart’s teacher says those famous words “Mrs. Krabappel, you’re trying to seduce me. Some of the audience, children moreover adults may see the ridiculousness of the scenes as ‘funny’ but may not see the more hidden intertextual message due to their time spent viewing media texts. However David Buckingham (2001) claims that children are more active, and sophisticated users […] that they see much more television and are able to detect and decipher the “formal codes and conventions about genre and narrative, and about the production process” (cited in Barker and Petely 2001).
These pieces of intertextual fragmented texts have different connotations to different ‘readers’. For example in The Graduate the storyline, for the chief protagonist, was about the coming of age and losing his virginity and the power it gave him, this ‘revolutionary message’ would not be available in prime-time viewing unless such a vehicle as The Simpsons made it accessible through its animation. Ironically The Simpsons was created to be a ‘bridging device’ for The Tracy Ullman Show to cross from the main parts of the show into adverts (Rushkoff 2004 p295).
The Simpsons became more popular than the host show and Matt Groening the show’s creator was offered $10m and a 13 episode series at FOX Television (Ibid p295). According to Allen Larson (2004) technological advances, the availability of cable, federal deregulation and corporate consolidation were already in place from the 1980s and 90s but the media conglomerates further assisted the development of corporations like FOX Television which refined prime time sit-coms and the commodification of the audience, they “re-imagined, and re-exploited profit maximisation” (cited in Stabile & Harrison 2004 p56).
At the onset of the 90s production costs for a show like The Simpsons would have cost around $600,000 (Mallory 1996, Karlin 1993b cited in Stabile & Harrison p56) and so attention to attracting the widest demographic was crucial. Merchandising to children was the future as the cable-age children had already become consumers and so the conglomerates “turned the full force of their attention towards maximising the potential revenue streams provided by children…” (Ibid pp57-59). USA Today reported in 2009 that in the previous year “Consumers worldwide spent more than $750 million on Simpsons-related licensed merchandise […]” (Lieberman, 2009).
Television programming is not only programming the viewer’s sets but the viewers themselves in order to sell them a product (Rushkoff 2004, p293) […] which would prove why “advertisers spent $314. 8 million [in 2008] on the prime-time show on Fox and reruns that local stations air…” (Lieberman, 2009). Postmodernism points toward the fact that we no longer create anything other than the texts made up from the materials which already existed and we patch them together to make fun of that which is present and now.
Furthermore there is a notion of ‘it doesn’t get any better than this’ The Simpsons uses all the good bits from the past to fill the present, history is no longer being made it could be perceived. Arnold claims that The Simpsons “…lampoon and amplifies that culture’s foibles up to and beyond the point of absurdity” (2004 p264). Jameson is in agreement (1984 and 1991) he insists that postmodernism has a “new depthlessness” and that globalised late capitalism does not allow for the text to be critically analysed but commodified and consumed.
Jameson states that “they no longer simply ‘quote,’ as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done, but incorporate into their very substance” (1991 p3). Intertextual referencing is key to how The Simpsons works as a postmodern text, although legible to the avid reader of texts, a certain amount of media literacy is required which has taken many decades to achieve, leaving the adult to appreciate the intertextuality of high culture embedded in the ‘funny animation’.
The timing with which The Simpsons emerged into mainstream television has proven to be crucial- The Simpsons could not have thrived on prime-time network television unless it was embraced by an audience so advanced in “TV literacy” that they are able to recognize and relish the signs and symbols from TV culture which the show continuously throws at them (Bj? rnsson 2006). In various episodes The Simpsons have portrayed many sociological concepts, for example; Aging and health in ‘Stark Raving Dad’ (1991, 7F24); Class and socioeconomic status in ‘Burns’ Heir’ (1994, 1F16); Crime law and criminal justice in ‘Homer the Vigilante’ (1F09).
Homer has dealt with the urge to cheat on his wife Marge ‘The Last Temptation of Homer’ and ‘Life on The Fast Lane’ (1993, IF07 & 1990, 7G11). The horror of war was tackled in ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ (1997, 4F23) and homosexuality in ‘Homer’s Phobia’ (1997, 4F11) (The Simpsons Archive, 2010). It is this last issue of other sexual identities in The Simpsons which I will be analysing using queer theory as an analytical framework. “Queer is a category in flux” according to Raymond (2003, cited in Dines & Humez p98).
Historically the term was used in a negative or derogatory manner, although most recently the term is used to identify marginalised identities such as gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender (glbt). Queer theory identifies “a body of knowledge connected to but not identical with lesbian/gay studies” (Ibid p98). According to Raymond (2003) queer theory emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and “unlike their earlier theoretical forebears like Marxism and feminism … [do not demand] exclusive theoretical allegiance or hegemony (Ibid p99). Instead it asks; what is the point in asking why someone is gay?
Or what is the function the question of causation serves in the culture and in ideology? ” Queer theorists look less at the nature/nurture argument of Charles Darwin and in addition ask that we see the term as ‘fluid’ and not ‘fixed’. ‘Homer’s Phobia’ (1997, 4F11) looks at Homer and his homophobic behaviour when he meets and befriends a gay man John who is voiced by writer and director John Waters of the critically acclaimed and very camp film ‘Hairspray’. John sells kitsch collectibles in a shopping mall and enjoys chatting to his customers.
John tries to explain to Homer what ‘camp’ means when he is showing him around the shop which Homer doesn’t understand. To explain John says that camp is “The tragically ludicrous? The ludicrously tragic? ” When Homer still doesn’t get it, he adds “…more like inflatable furniture or Last Supper TV trays” The penny finally drops as Homer has made a connection, albeit a financial one, and replies “and that kinda stuff is worth money? …Man you should come over to our place …“It’s full of valuable worthless crap”. John’s views “echoes cultural critic Andrew Ross’ argument that camp is primarily concerned with reconstituting history’s trash as reasure” (Cunningham 2003).
Ross (1989) writes “The knowledge about history is the precise moment when camp takes over, because camp involves a rediscovery of history’s waste” (p151, cited in Cunningham 2003). This piece also serves to confirm Medhurst’s claim that camp “is now absolutely everywhere” (1997 p289 cited in Sullivan, p194) and so Homer has become completely blind to it. Homer has not realised John is gay even though there have been quite a few stereotypical ‘a-ha moments’ (Rushkoff, p296) or ‘knowing nods’ to his sexual identity.
John has knowledge of female Hollywood actresses and gossip, an appreciation of Marge’s hair John even answers in a ‘camp’ manner with “my heart is palpitating, hoo hoo”. Marge conversely has determined John’s sexual identity and later, at home, informs Homer of it (much to his disgust). This may signal that the producers are aware of how different people have different ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu, 1977) or that Marge and women for that matter are more adept at reading the signals in media-represented images of sexual identities and can see the signifiers due to the time spent watching television.
It may also signify the ways in which gay men have been ‘reduced’ to the status of women i. e. engaging in tittle-tattle and pointing out good hair-dos. According to Gross (1995) misinformation and gay stereotyping in the media is due to “lack of first-hand knowledge of gays and lesbians” (cited in Raymond 2003). Media texts are ‘polysemic’, meaning they have many meanings to many people, although Stuart Hall (1980) states the texts do not have an infinite number of interpretations as they “remain structured in dominance”. Nicholas Abercrombie (1996) claims that “audiences are not blank pieces of paper…” (p140 cited in Hanes 2000).
Reception Studies agree that the meaning is not inherent within the text itself and that the audience create the meanings using their own cultural capital. Morley’s reception study ‘Nationwide’ in 1980 will attest to this fact. In 1992 Morley revisited his ‘Nationwide’ study and found that there were “totally contradictory readings of the same programme item […]”. There are many criticisms of reception theories, Morley himself states that “it shows an understanding of the micro-process of consumption…and without reference to the broader cultural question… [which is then] of only limited value” (1992, p272).
Signs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (glbt) identities are clearly shown in The Simpsons; in ‘Homer’s Phobia’ (1997, 4F11) Roscoe and his fellow workers at the ‘Springfield Steel Mill’ are openly gay and host ‘gay discos’ after working hours. The scene in the mill looks like a ‘guerrilla attack’ where hundreds of gay men have descended on the unsuspecting Simpsons to make them feel like the minority in the ‘queered space’. ‘Guerrilla tactics’ like ‘queering’ are seen in America where glbt people gather in an unsuspecting venue.
The venue would commonly be frequented by mainly heterosexuals, the dominant sexual identity. With a flood of glbt patrons the glbt have changed their position to a dominant one within that space. This encourages the audience to see what it must feel like to be in the minority, but also highlights that there are other sexual identities, that heterosexuality is not superior and that gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people live in your street, work in your factories, they have worthwhile jobs contributing to society just like heterosexual people.
Queering’ extends to texts too as shown above and also in ‘Three Gays of the Condo’ (2003, EABF12) where Homer shared a room with Grady and Julio who were both openly gay. Glbt identities are also hidden, for example Judge Constance Harm is transgender in ‘The Parent Rap’ (2001, CABF22) the judge refers to ‘once being a man’. There are also the characters such as Waylon Smithers and Dewey Largo who are still in the closet and all of these stories offer viewers a little ‘queer pleasure’.
In ‘My Fair Laddy’ Brunella Pommelhorst the gym teacher at Bart’s school tells her students she will return in the next semester as Mr Pommelhorst the new shop teacher (2006, HABF05). Marge’s sister Patty who ‘comes out’ to her in when Springfield became a same-sex-marriage tolerant town to bring in much needed revenue (after Bart brings it into disrepute). Agenda setting in the media is made accessible in The Simpsons and can be seen especially in ‘There’s Something about Marrying’ (2005, 16E10). Mayor Quimby in a speech says he is “happy to legalise gay money… I mean ah gay marriage”.
This may be in response to an article reported by Catherine Donaldson-Evans (2004) written for FOXNEWS. com that states “Recognizing same-sex couples and families as an emerging market, large corporations have begun targeting the demographic in their ads” […] [the ads are] focused on the micro-lifestyles of the consumers, and same-sex families are a micro-lifestyle. ” This clearly shows the emergent culture of commodification of sexual identity.
‘There’s Something About Marrying’ (2005 16E10) which is a clear intertextual reference to the film There’s something about Mary which itself may also be pointing out through the use of intertextuality the name given to Gay men i. e. ‘Marys’ or ‘little-Marys’) was it seems written in response to the controversy in America over gay marriages which was “a particularly hot topic in the US [at the moment] during election campaigning” (BBC 2004). In February 2004 “President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, saying he wants to stop activist judges from changing the definition of the “most enduring human institution” (Huus, 2004). This makes for a difficult position to be in as a queer viewer.
Jacqueline Rose (1986) has noted, “The relationship between viewer and scene is always one of fracture, partial identification, pleasure and distrust” (p227 cited in Raymond, 2003, p100). The Simpsons are not subversive or anti-family, in fact they are probably quite conservative Homer attempts to vote for Democrat Barack Obama in ‘Treehouse of Horror XIX’ (S20E04, 2008) however the machine would not allow him and instead registered his vote for John McCain a Republican “in a humorous take on the allegations of voter fraud that [had] occurred in prior elections” (Stelter, 2008).