2. The Genealogy of The Simpsons
2.1. Literary Forebears
2.2. Television Forerunners and Descendents
2.3. Typology of The Simpsons
3. Political and Social Satire in The Simpsons
3.1. Methods of Satire and Form of Presentation
3.2. The Polis of Springfield: Satire in a Local Environment
3.2.1. A Nuclear Family
3.2.2. The Local Media
3.2.3. Political Authorities?
3.2.4. A Local Business Tyrant
From its first full episode on December 17th 1989, The Simpsons has been one of the most popular animated sitcoms on U.S. television. By the year 1990, The Simpsons had become “a breakaway ratings hit, industry trendsetter, cultural template, and a viewing experience verging on the religious for its most fanatical followers” (Waters, p. 58, in: Henry 2007, p. 272). In February 1997, it surpassed The Flintstones as the longest-running primetime cartoon and is now the longest-running situation comedy in the history of U.S. television (Henry 2007, p. 273). Today in its 17th season, it still attracts a large audience in Britain and other English-speaking countries, and it has been dubbed into over twenty languages. It is particularly popular in Western Europe. However, it also has many viewers in countries like Argentina, Thailand and post-communist Russia (Turner 2005, p. 10). Turner (ibid., p. 5) compares The Simpsons to a “climate change: it built incrementally, week by week, episode by episode, weaving itself into the cultural landscape slowly but surely until it became a permanent feature”. In essence, The Simpsons is one of the most important symbols of U.S.-American popular culture and is a huge cultural phenomenon worldwide.
The Simpsons has dealt with an enormous variety of themes: environmentalism, immigration, gay rights, women in the military, and so on. Its script-writers mock the hypocrisy of modern psychology, corporate greed, consumerism, as well as the potential dangers of fundamentalism, the threatened rights of minorities and sexism (Henry 2007, p. 273). The creators of The Simpsons convey their messages through satire1 that has a long literary tradition – above all – in the English-speaking countries and has incorporated various elements (s. chapter 2.) from diverse U.S. television programmes (Considine 2006, p. 3).
The following essay will explore political and social satire in The Simpsons. This essay will prove Homer Simpson wrong saying in the episode “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington”: “...cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They are just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh”. In this essay it will be argued that The Simpsons provides us with an in-depth satirical reflection on U.S. society and, to a certain degree, on Western societies in general. Furthermore, this essay will examine the view of creator Matt Groening and the other writers of The Simpsons that the programme skilfully incorporates the subtext that “[t]he people in power don’t always have your best interest in mind” (Cantor 1999, p. 745). Armstrong (2005a, p. 11) emphasises in his article about “Satire as Critical Pedagogy” that satire is a vehicle through which political literacy will be developed and underlines that it is an important part of political education. Thus, the analysis of satire is a vital part of cultural studies and is accordingly examined in this essay.
Following this introductory chapter, I will provide an overview of the genealogy of the programme (in literature and television) and classify its format. In analysing political and social satire in the programme, the methods and form of presentation will firstly be discussed. On account of the shortness of the essay and the relevance of these topics, this analysis will focus on satire in relation to the media, politics and big business seen through the eyes of the title family. 2 The analysis of sample episodes will illustrate political and social satire in the programme and the messages that the creators and scriptwriters sought to put forward. The penultimate chapter will highlight the limitations of The Simpsons and its medium of presentation through television. Finally, as a conclusion to this analysis, I will discuss The Simpsons as a political and social satire and note possible further areas of research.
2. The Genealogy of The Simpsons
2.1. Literary Forebears
The Simpsons offers “a philosophical perspective on government” (Considine 2006, p. 3), which is based on a distrust of authorities. The methods used by the creators of The Simpsons are humour and satire which simplify and bend human reality. In this way, the programme follows in the literary tradition of Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. Furthermore, the character of Bart Simpson can be seen as a modern mix of Mark Twains Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (Cantor 1999, p. 738).
The creators of The Simpsons and its script-writers use a method of satire that is very close to the one used by Swift and Orwell (Matheson 2004, in: Considine 2006, p. 9). Above all, the blending of allusions resembles the method of satire in “Gulliver’s Travels” (Swift) and “Animal Farm” (Orwell).3 Furthermore, the allusions used by all three of them are asymmetric, meaning those who understand the allusion appreciate the satire even more (Considine2006, p. 9).
However, the most important aspect of this similarity is that the conveyed messages are so similar. As mentioned above, Groening’s subtext for The Simpsons is that “[t]he people in power don’t always have your best interests in mind” (Cantor 1999, p. 745). Instead of presenting a better alternative, Groening continues to use The Simpsons to ridicule the state of society like Swift and Orwell. It is shown that the replacement of people in power do not make things better for the common people. This is classically illustrated in the episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain”. In this episode the citizens quickly remove the “Mensa group” (a group of intellectuals) from power when they realise that reason also fails due to self-interest (also s. chapter 3.2.3). This episode can be compared to Swift’s analysis of reason (Considine 2006, p. 9).
Nevertheless, in one important aspect Groening’s satire differs from that of both Swift and Orwell – it is notably less nihilistic in its view of society (ibid.). Taking into consideration the character of Homer and his development through life, Groening’s more positive outlook on society becomes clear. Cantor generalizes this issue in his statement that “when The Simpsons satirises something, it acknowledges its importance” (1999, p. 742).
2.2. Television Forerunners and Descendents
FOX Broadcasting Company (FBC) was founded in 1986 and is part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation4. One of the first shows to be broadcasted on FOX was a sketch comedy programme called The Tracy Ullman Show. Its producer, James L. Brooks, invited the cartoonist Matt Groening to write a spin-off for The Tracy Ullman Show (Gordon 2004, p. 44). Alberti explains the beginning of The Simpsons (2004, p. xii): “It was Brooks’ clout – along with the leeway offered by a new network willing to tolerate a certain amount of experimentation in order to attract younger viewers – that allowed Groening’s biting satire on spiritual hollowness and mindless conformity to appear on prime-time television. These shorts quickly led to a Christmas special in late 1989 and finally to the appearance in early 1990 of The Simpsons.” In the beginning, FOX mainly tried to attract young viewers by producing new formats. The founders, therefore, gave the creators of shows like The Tracy Ullman Show and similarly, The Simpsons creative freedom. This made it possible for the producers to create a revolutionary programme which blended elements of various types of previous programmes in order to provide a better social critique of their society (ibid., p. 45).
Matt Groening and the script-writers of The Simpsons reorganised the sitcom genre for their own purposes: principally, to challenge societal views, which were conveyed in previous sitcoms (Gordon 2004, p. 47). Mullen (2004, in: ibid.) clarifies that “[The Simpsons] certainly surprised audiences but clearly did not alienate them...Audiences were becoming used to the notion of live-action sitcoms challenging the status quo...[The Simpson] use[d] animation to surpass the narrative capabilities of any of these live-action programmes and thus, to make some radical observations about the status quo.” In other words, the format made it possible to develop a deeper and more realistic critique of society (ibid.). However, as in previous sitcoms, The Simpsons has a (nuclear) family as its focal point. It is through their eyes that the viewer gets to explore the animated world and thereby receive a satirical reflection of society (s. chapter 3.2.1 for more details).
Besides using sitcom principles, the creators of The Simpsons incorporated ideas and methods of socially conscious sitcoms like M*A*S*H and All in the family, as well as variety shows, which are particularly notable for their satirical content, parody and catchphrases, such as Saturday Night Live and Laugh-In. In addition to this, it adopted some aspects of hyper-irony of late-night shows like Late Night with David Letterman. Another influence in the development of The Simpsons is, of course, cartoons. Turner (2004, p. 46) names as inspirational cartoons various Warner Brothers cartoons (e.g. Bugs Bunny, 1930s to 1950s), Rocky & Bullwinkle (1950s to 1960s) and the second-longest running cartoon The Flintstones (1960-66).
In addition, the incorporation of elements of variety shows led to the idea of including culturally important guests in The Simpsons5. The influence of variety shows on the programme was admitted by the creators when they dedicated a whole episode to forerunners like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In, and Saturday Night Live in the episode “The Simpsons Family Smile-Time Variety Hour”.
1 In this essay I will use the terms ‘satire’, ‘irony’ and ‘parody’ are used synonymously and the will be on critical as opposed to cynical or sarcastic types of satire (s. Armstrong 2005a, p. 8).
2 For a detailed discussion of other themes such as religious satire, see “The Simpsons as a Religious Satire” by Satkin (2001) or more generally “Religion in The Simpsons” by Shalda (2000) and on feminism see “Feminism, Female Identity, and The Simpsons” by Henry (2007).
3 For a more detailed discussion on the method and message of satire used by Swift and Orwell, see Considine 2006, p. 4-8.
4 James Murdoch, 34, the son of Rupert Murdoch, will stand down as chief executive of BSkyB and take control of News Corporation's media operations in the UK, Europe and Asia. Gibson and Clark of “The Guardian” state that “[t]his makes the 34-year-old arguably the most powerful individual in British media and marks him out as the heir apparent to his mogul father.” (The Guardian, December 7th 2007).
5 It can be noted that a relatively high number of writers for variety shows like Saturday Night Live and also for The Simpsons are from Canada (Turner 2005, p. 49-51).