The construction of reality in the world of 'The Simpsons' applied to theories by Jean Baudrillard and others

Seminar Paper, 2011

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The underlying theories
2.1 Jean Baudrillard - Simulacra and Simulations
2.2 Karlheinz Stierle - Die Fiktion als Vorstellung

3. The construction of the world of The Simpsons

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“[…] the Real is not just dead […], it has purely disappeared. In our virtual world, the question of the Real, of the referent, of the subjects and its object, can no longer even be posed.” (qtd. in Baudrillard: The Vital Illusion, p. 61-62).

With this typical notion Jean Baudrillard starts his explanation of his view of the world, respectively the structure of society nowadays. According to him, the real has disappeared and everything human beings perceive all day forms

“a history that no longer consists of action, of acts, but instead culminates in a virtual acting-out; it retains a spectral air of déjà-vu.” (p. 50).

This theory of his was originally thought of as a literary theory and thus was so far mostly applied to literary texts. The aim of this paper is to try and apply this and similar postmodern approaches to the probably most popular animated TV-series The Simpsons. This seems not a far-fetched crossing of genres, because since the beginning of the modern ages there had indeed always been a clear division between work and leisure time. However, as technology developed more and more, the media as well as the institutions of education developed, too. They started influencing and commenting on each other. They approached themselves more and more and nowadays, there are many scientific publications on the market dealing with subject matters that rather go into the area of leisure time, into the area of mass media culture. This is by far no cryptic relationship, because many, if not all, of mass media or pop cultural products have their own way of dealing with serious topics or at least with topics that relate to the everyday life of their consumers. This might be an intended critique or just an accidental observation. Even if a TV series is not particularly political or does not do intended research - it might be just the depiction of e.g. the American Standard Home - it nevertheless gives us an impression of how society (in this case via the point of view of the respective producers or writers) sees itself.

Maybe more than any other show on TV, the long-running series The Simpsons qualifies for a scientific analysis. The humanoid, yellow family and all their friends and fellow Springfieldians are citizens of a semi-realistic realization of a standard American city. As this paper will try to outline later on, there are incredibly many allusions to other pieces of art integrated within most of The Simpsons episodes. This paper will look at how this is done and why it works even if the spectator does not even realize these intertextualities. Moreover, it will try to apply some thoughts of the (literary) theories of Jean Baudrillard and Karlheinz Stierle to the setup of The Simpsons and thereby outline the depiction and structure of different realities or different levels of reality within the series.

2. The underlying theories

This chapter will deal with the literary theories that this paper will try to apply to The Simpsons. It is supposed to give a brief overview over the basal theses in order to provide a basis for the following analysis. These overviews will only scratch the surface of the theories which will later on be taken up again and discussed in more detail, when they are concretely linked to The Simpsons. The short summaries will nevertheless already contain hints at the way in which the respective theories relate to the TV-series.

2.1 Jean Baudrillard - Simulacra and Simulations

In order to come to grips with the two terms introduced in the headline of Baudrillard´s text, one can say that a simulation is an active process, whereas the simulacrum is a tangible product that might emerge from the simulation. That can for example be a book that is officially labeled as written by a fictional character from a film or series, although it is available in a regular bookstore. It could also be any other occurrence from a simulated reality that has become so prominent and present in real life that it is officially integrated:

''The Simpsons, with its clever writing and satirical attacks, has not only changed the way Americans view cartoons, but also the way they speak: the Oxford English Dictionary this year even added Homer's catch phrase ''D'oh''[…]”. (qtd. in Blair, p.1).

The main thesis of Baudrillard´s theory is that the border between fiction and the real world has become very blurry these days. Pilots for example are educated in flight-simulators before they get to navigate a real plane. Baudrillard goes one step further and states that simulation even seems to gradually replace reality. When maps are drawn as a perfectly correct representation of an area, they only stay as correct as long as the area exists exactly like that, as well. When the area itself changes, e.g. when an Empire decays, the map survives the territory but “has nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra” (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, p. 264). If one transfers the problem of the map into our present time, there is not even always a concept on which the concrete realization goes back to. “It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (ibid.). Baudrillard names four different “phases of the image”, which describe the development of the perception of reality over the course of time: The reflection of basic reality dates back to the pre-modern times, when copying was technically hard to accomplish and pieces of art, e.g. paintings, represented reality as exact as possible. The industrial age brought the masking or perversion of reality. Images became distorted and did not even pretend to copy reality. They were still connected to reality in a way, but massively changed. The modern times brought the possibility to make an unlimited number of copies. The difference between original and the mass-produced copy was being watered away. The masking of the absence of reality is the post-modern development. Reality TV-shows are masked as reality although it is actually absent and everything is really simulated. The fourth phase has no connection to reality and is pure simulation (cf. Baudrillard, 266). The essence one can deduct from that is that the capability of simulations has improved a lot. In our times, simulation often precedes reality, as in the example of the pilots. In this context, the post-modern perspective is the decisive one, although there are two sides to it: On the one hand, it is pretty obvious that an animated series showing humanoid yellow creatures is not trying to provide the consumer with a perfectly realistic copy of their own reality. Still, there are many features such as the integration of real historical events and the guest-appearances of real human beings that establish a clear connection to what we call reality. The question that arises is whether and where a TV-series like The Simpsons can be integrated into the theory of Baudrillard.

2.2 Karlheinz Stierle - Die Fiktion als Vorstellung

In the real world we do always refer to events (Sachverhalte) and emplotment (Sachlage). The emplotment always goes back to the event and is highly dependent on it. In fiction, however, there is no event to refer back to:

“Konnte die Vorstellung des Sachverhalts beim referentiellen Diskurs prinzipiell auf den Sachverhalt zurückgeführt und an ihm gemessen, gegebenenfalls auch verändert werden, so ist diese Rückbezüglichkeit bei jener Vorstellung nicht möglich, die durch Fiktion ausgelöst wurde. Die Fiktion selbst ist hier der Boden ihrer Vorstellung, diese kann prinzipiell nicht überschritten werden. Das bedeutet zugleich, daß die durch die Fiktion gesteuerte Vorstellung ihren Verifikationsboden immer nur in der Fiktion selbst haben kann und daher kein Sachverhalt denkbar ist, im Hinblick auf den eine Korrektur der durch die Fiktion erfolgten Vorstellung möglich ware. Die reine Vorstellung ist also das Äquivalent der Fiktion.” (qtd. in Stierle, p. 174).

The reader of a text has to fill the gap of the missing event by the help of his own imagination. In a real-life situation, the person absent from the event can always retrospectically get information on the event by equivalents. Those can be eye- witness reports, artifacts like videos or written texts about the event. The equivalent is always embedded in a particular emplotment, which might be changed by the recipient, who has a different horizon through which he reflects on the event. The fictitious event is a non-event, the equivalent of nothing. The imagination is always active during the process of reading, always trying to re-construct the event. When the reader gets more information from the text, he has to alter and actualize his previous image of the event. Transferring this reading-scheme onto a TV-series like The Simpsons, the gaps that have to be filled refer to the whole microcosm in which the family is included. The background of America today is always present in the back of the viewer’s minds, but as the world of The Simpsons is an aligned world (Anschlußwelt), things are radically changed in comparison to our world. So the viewer has to use his knowledge of the world of The Simpsons and combine it with every new piece of information he gets as well as what he knows from his own world and use them to fit them in with the simulated world - the latter happens quite naturally and subconscious.

According to Stierle, this aligned world is radically changed in order to help us to differentiate that what we see from ourselves. This world is not radically different or totally other, because such a world would only have a frightening effect on the reader, respectively viewer:

“Imaginäre Welt bedeutet eine Welt, die entweder von der unseren sich radikal abhebt, oder diese in spezifischer Weise durchdringt und in ihrem Gefüge lockert. Doch ist überhaupt eine imaginäre Welt denkbar, die von der unseren sich radikal unterscheidet? Jede “andere” Welt ist dennoch eine Welt und als Welt der unseren vergleichbar. Die imaginäre Welt ist weder eine radikal andere Welt noch eine solche, die mit der unseren völlig kongruiert. Sie ist gleichsam eine Anschlußwelt, die unsere Welt in je spezifischer Weise ins Imaginäre fortführt, doch so, daß die Übergänglichkeit selbst erkennbar ist.” (Stierle, p. 176).


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The construction of reality in the world of 'The Simpsons' applied to theories by Jean Baudrillard and others
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Department of Anglophone Studies)
Literary and Cultural Theories
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Simpsons, Postmodern, Baudrillard, Stierle, Theory
Quote paper
B.A. Martin Reinhart (Author), 2011, The construction of reality in the world of 'The Simpsons' applied to theories by Jean Baudrillard and others, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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