By Zach Smith
Since 1989, viewers have tuned into The Simpsons to appreciate its humor and drama. The show is famous for its signature catchphrases like Homer’s “D’oh!,” Bart’s “ay, caramba!,” and baby Maggie’s pacifier sucking noise. Even though the iconic longstanding show is a beloved comedic hit, it has a history of relying on representational tropes, stereotypes, and derogatory statements that marginalize non-dominant groups. In this article, I analyze the many stereotypes and plot lines that The Simpsons have depicted throughout its duration of its time on the air. I will begin by discussing how Fox Broadcasting, which owns rights to The Simpsons, has used such tropes over the course of its programming along with its impact over time. Next, I analyze the categories of class, work ethic, disability, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and politics to discuss the ways certain characters and organizations get represented under these roles. I then assess how audiences might interpret these roles and find some content offensive. I conclude by examining how The Simpsons impacts society through its programmatic representations and biases, along with recommendations for the changes the writers should adopt to make the show less offensive to viewers.
On October 9, 1986, the Fox Broadcasting Company launched to compete against the Big Three networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC). Three years later, on December 17, 1989, The Simpsons made its series premiere on Fox from the production of creator Matt Groening and producers James L. Brooks and Sam Simon. The show made the Fox network extremely successful over the years. Throughout its long history on the air, Groening’s team has competed against one particular show that strikes a dramatic resemblance to The Simpsons, nameley Family Guy. Created by Seth MacFarlane, Family Guy debuted on January 31, 1999, featuring a nearly identical set of characters to Groening’s in The Simpsons. Both shows have middle-class families, fathers that are overweight, lazy and heavy drinkers, stay-at-home mothers, and a son, daughter, and baby. Additionally, each program pokes fun while accusing each other of stealing material from their respective shows. For example, on an episode of The Simpsons (“The Italian Bob,” 2005), Peter Griffin is seen in a book of criminals with “plagiarismo” written underneath his picture. A few years later, on Family Guy (“Guy, Robot,” 2015), Peter admits drunkenly that Family Guy takes a lot of material from The Simpsons. Since both shows use different representations of their leading families, it points to the general assumption of a middle-class family consisting of a mother who stays at home to clean the house and take care of the children, and a father who would rather drink with his buddies than spend time at home with his family. The striking resemblance between both shows underscores the underlying normative constructs of the nuclear family on Fox. Since the programs’ writers offer a narrow traditional view of behavioral roles according to stereotypes, I’ll argue that Fox should work with the writers of The Simpsons to help ensure that the depictions of the family and its community aren’t too derogatory, offensive, or marginalizing.
Masculinity & Middle-Class Misfits
The Simpsons are your average TV sitcom middle-class American family. Parents Homer and Marge lead the family, and have three children: Bart, Lisa, and baby Maggie. The Simpsons live in the fictional town of Springfield. Homer works as a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, and Marge is a stay-at-home mom. TV critics will tell you that, over its 30 year history, Homer is not a great father compared to the rest of the dads seen on other sitcoms, animated or not. As media critic Paul Cantor contends, “Homer is the distillation of pure fatherhood. Take away all the qualities that make for a genuinely good father: wisdom, compassion, even temper, selflessness; and what you have left is Homer Simpsons with his pure, mindless, dogged devotion to his family” (Woodcock, 2008). Throughout the series, Homer is sometimes depicted as a friend rather than a father to his children, such as when he and Lisa bond over NFL game betting (“Lisa the Greek,” 1992), and he and Bart trash the house while Marge is in the hospital recovering from breaking her leg (“Little Big Mom,” 2000). As for discipline, when Bart irritates Homer to a certain degree, Homer will exclaim, “Why, you little!” while strangling him. Despite his behaviors and relationship with his kids, Homer loves his family. In contract, while Homer is not depicted through a traditional fatherly role model, Marge is the classic stay-at-home mother who cleans the house, looks after the kids, and takes care of Homer. For critics, it appears that Marge’s main job is “to understand, love, and clean up after her man” (Woodcock, 2008). During many episodes of the series, Marge is seen confronting Homer for the many escapades he’s involved in while cleaning up his messes from his wild and sometimes drunk shenanigans. Despite all the craziness that goes on in the day-to-day lives of the Simpson family, Homer and Marge each love each other, and do all they can to support their children under any circumstance.
When Homer works at the power plant, he is very lazy, falls asleep on the job, and often his laziness leads to the plant exploding and causing interruptions in the general workday. Homer’s boss, Mr. Burns, is a multi-billion dollar tyrant who is evil and very self-centered in regards to his wealth. Homer’s co-workers are also lazy and wasting time on the job. Carl Rhodes says, “the way the power plant gets portrayed can be read like a television carnival, mocking and parodying the culture of organizations just as the carnival did of religious and feudal culture” (Rhodes, 2001). The incompetence of all the employees is shown through a series of safety violations that are occur throughout the plant. These violations include the infestation of rats that run around the plant, leaking radioactive waste, a cracked cooling tower being held together by chewing gum and skeletons in the plant’s basement. Along with these safety violations, in one episode (“Last Exit to Springfield,” 1993), Mr. Burns gives up the plant’s employee dental plan and offers free beer to all of his employees compensate. Despite his initial excitement over free beer, Lisa discovers that she needs to braces, with the Simpsons left to pay out-of-pocket. Ultimately, for Lisa’s cause, Homer fights Mr. Burns to reinstate the dental plan and is victorious.
Another incompetent Springfield worker who holds down an important job is attorney Lionel Hutz. Despite his professional appearance, Hutz lacks proper expertise. His office is located in a mall, he drinks on the job, and is he is rude to doctors by calling them “idiots.” His professionalism is poorly reflected when he is not wearing pants in the courtroom during the middle of a trial (“Marge in Chains,” 1993), and he leaves a trial after telling the court that a contract is “unbreakable” (“Treehouse of Horror IV,” 1993). In an attempt to try to earn extra wealth, Hutz makes absurd promises to his clients. His legal profession is depicted “as obsessed with status, income, and notions of expertise, yet he also paints a picture of individual professionals struggling to cope with contemporary market forces” (Ellis, 2008). Hutz is one of the many male characters that doesn’t have a strong background in his field, leading to trouble amongst his clients and during the events that take place during trials.
Dr. Nick Riviera also holds the title of being one of Springfield’s most unintelligent workers. Like Hutz, Dr. Nick has the appearance of a professional, but not the knowledge or expertise of a what a doctor should be. Two clear instances of Dr. Nick’s incompetence comes when the medical board accuses him a using a knife and fork from a seafood restaurant for a surgical operatation (“22 Short Films About Springfield,” 1996) and he is shown fiddling with gas before performing surgery on Bart (“‘Round Springfield,” 1995). Before performing a coronary quadruple bypass on Homer, Dr. Nick watches a “how-to” video for the operation and gets grossed out by the blood. As such, although Dr. Nick’s medical school allowed him to graduate, the school “may have contributed to his misguided self-belief that he is a ‘proper’ doctor” (Ellis, 2008). Dr. Nick also gives bad advice to his patients when they have an issue or want their opinion. For example, when Homer wants to get up to 300 pounds to go on disability from work, Dr. Nick encourages him to use Pop-Tarts instead of bread for sandwiches and to chew bacon instead of gum (“King-Size Homer,” 1995). Given the amount of unprofessionalism and poor work ethics depicted in the city, Springfield’s town residents frequently endure catastrophic events.
Marginalizing Others Through Difference
As incompetent as the men are shown to be on The Simpsons, the show reminds its viewers that the Simpsons represent the norm. Groups outside this norm are demarcated as different or as targets. Take for instance those with disabilities. Although there are no serious mockeries of disabilities on the show, two episodes come to mind. In the 1995 episode, “King-Size Homer,” Homer finds out that if he can weigh 300 pounds, he can go on disability and work from home. After the careless advice from Dr. Nick, Homer becomes obese. When Homer wants to go to the movies and gets told that the seats “don’t support a man of his carriage,” a customer says to him, “Hey, Fatty! I’ve got a movie for you: A Fridge Too Far.” In spite of the show’s satirical comedy, the customer’s remarks to Homer are offensive to overweight people by poking fun at their eating habits. What’s more, Homer is shown in oversized dresses, incurring rude remarks directed at his appearance. Throughout the show’s history, Homer is generally depicted as overweight because “he lives up to the stereotype of the lazy, incompetent, television-watching ‘fat guy’ he is after all” (Fink, 2013). Throughout the series, Homer’s character mocks overweight people, which makes him a weak role model at most levels.
The second event marking difference through mockery occurs in the 1992 episode, “Homer’s Triple Bypass.” The epidosde depicts a fictional TV show called People Who Look Like Things which pokes fun at the resemblances between people and everyday items. The five people on the show are likened to a cash register, tree, pumpkin and broom. Although the man who resembles a pumpkin tells the host that he and the program guests want to be treated with dignity and respect, the host dismissively asks him if he’ll need a new candle every once in a while. Such humor emphasizes laughing at the targets of the joke because it mocks the appearance of people who are represented as different or “other.” People Who Look Like Things “exposes ‘us’ to be a spectacular society hungry for the abnormal, absurd, abominable, or unseen, and the media apparatus as machinery, that piece by piece, feeds our insatiable appetite” (Fink, 2013).
Gendered Tropes & Tokenism
As with many established media stereotypes, gendered tropes on the Simpsons are related to the occupations that the characters hold. According to Pete Woodcock, “Springfield is depicted as being an overwhelming male society; with all principal positions of social advantage in the city being occupied by men” (Woodcock, 2008). Many of Springfield’s high authority jobs belong to many of the male characters including Principal Seymour Skinner, Superintendent Gary Chalmers, Police Chief Clancy Wiggum, and Mayor Joe Quimby. Meanwhile, many female characters hold jobs that are seen as more traditional roles for women based on decades of stereotypes. These women include Marge as a stay-at-home mom, Bart’s teacher Mrs. Edna Krabappel, Lisa’s teacher Miss Elizabeth Hoover, and Marge’s sisters Patty and Selma Bouvier who both work as clerks at the Springfield DMV. Out of all the female characters on the show, the only one that stands as a quality role model is Lisa Simpson. Depicted as one of the most intelligent characters on the show, Lisa is a straight-A student who plays the saxophone, tackles many political and social issues in Springfield, and is independent from her family and the rest of society. Lisa’s high moral-ethical values include taking a stand against Homer pirating cable by calling it “stealing” (“Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment,” 1991), exposing political corruption in Washington in an essay contest (“Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” 1991), and exposing the sexist traits of Malibu Stacy dolls (“Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” 1994). Lisa also gets goes to college as an 8-year old (“Little Girl in the Big Ten,” 2002), is predicted to go to college and get married (“Lisa’s Wedding,” 1995), and become president of the United States (“Bart to the Future,” 2000). With everything she does at every level, Lisa serves as a role model for the female characters. Yet she is also tokenized as one of the few high achieving females who maintains a strong work ethic and commitment to solving Springfield’s ongoing corruption.
Ethnicity & Sexuality as ‘Other’
For one recurring Springfield character, ethnicity serves as the mark of difference. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is the operator of the Kwik-E-Mart, a convenience store spin-off of 7-Eleven. Apu comes from a background of Indian ethnicity and is repeatedly marked as ‘Other’ through worn out stereotypes. When he speaks, Apu has a very thick Indian accent, which gives away his Indian heritage. Apu also gets portrayed in the role of a South Asian shopkeeper due to the assumption of Indians and other Asian ethnicities operating convenience or grocery stores. Likewise, when Apu and his wife, Manjula, gave birth to eight babies (“Eight Misbehavin’,” 1999), the trope reflects the overpopulation that India is facing. According to Pierre Gottschlich, “Apu embodies classic ‘model minority’ stereotypes: he is very well educated, in fact, extremely overqualified for his job” (Gottschlich, 2011). Although Apu has a Ph.D from Springfield Heights Institute of Technology and is one of the smartest characters on the show, he is mostly shown at the Kwik-E-Mart as if he lives there, working nearly 24 hours at a time.
Stereotypical representations of sexuality also get used on the show. In the 2005 episode, “There’s Something About Marrying,” Patty Bouvier, Marge’s sister, comes out as a lesbian and plans to marry another woman named Veronica. Since Patty’s coming out is a huge surprise for Marge, it gets seen as a fish out of water moment, another marker of difference for the normative straight character dealing with her sister’s non-conforming sexuality. Since the episode’s theme is around gay marriage, there are a lot of stereotypes towards gays. As Edward Fink explains, “the stereotyped characters often appear quickly, with the incongruity stemming from their juxtaposition with other story elements” (Fink, 2013). One of these moments occurs when the Simpsons see an ad about gay marriage where a gay couple is skipping and holding hands. There is also a moment where there is a flashback to Patty’s childhood depicting her in construction clothes, making out with another woman at the movies, and having a poster of Miss Hathaway from Beverly Hillbillies in her room. Before Patty is about to marry Veronica, she finds out that she’s a man. Upon learning of Veronica’s true sexuality, Patty decides not to marry Veronica and chooses to stay true to her lesbian character. Marge’s acceptance towards Patty is the redeeming element to the episode’s questionable representations of gays,
Using Political Humor to Defy Conventions
When it comes to politics, The Simpsons have offered some form of balance, “…in making fun of both [American] parties and both the Right and the Left” (Woodcock, 2008). For instance, the show makes fun of both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, respectively when Clinton calls himself a “lousy president” (“Saddlesore Galactica,” 2000) and Bush goes to a fast-food restaurant to inquire about the stew of the day (“Two Bad Neighbors,” 1996). The show’s producers are also not afraid to poke fun at Fox News. In the 2010 episode, “The Fool Monty,” a Fox News helicopter flies around with the slogan: “Not racist, but #1 with racists.” As the helicopter crashes, the pilot exclaims, “We’re unbalanced! It’s not fair!” In the 2003 episode, “Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington,” the Simpsons are watching Fox News with a screen ticker banner provoking, “do Democrats cause cancer? Find out a foxnews.com.” In the same episode, the Democratic candidate for Springfield’s 24th Congressional District appears on Fox News without mention of his name and the devil is drawn on him.
For many years to come, The Simpsons will continue to bring humor to millions of viewers during its time on the air. As a whole, those who watch the show find humor in the characteristics of the cast, and their varied episodic antics. However, the show would benefit by offering more favorable representations of its characters and themes. In particular, the representations of disability, ethnicity, sexuality, and politics should not be used as convenient devices to mark difference through derogatory stereotypes and offensive jokes. What’s more, by providing male characters with stronger work ethics, and women in leadership positions, the show would avoid tropes that cut across most televised programming in corporate media.
Student Author: Zach Smith, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University
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Fink, E. (2013). Writing The Simpsons: A Case Study of Comic Theory. Journal of Film and Video. 65(1/2), 43-55.
Fink, M. (2013). People Who Look Like Things: Representations of Disability in The Simpsons. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 7(3), 255-270. doi:10.3828/jlcds.2013.23
Gottschlich, P. (2011). Apu, Neela, and Amita: Stereotypes of Indian Americans in Mainstream TV shows in the United States. Internationales Asien Forum, 42(3-4), 279-298. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
Rhodes, C. (2001). D’Oh: The Simpsons Popular Culture and the Organizational Carnival. Journal of Management Inquiry, 10(4), 374-383. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
Woodcock, P. (2008). Gender, Politicians and Public Health: Using The Simpsons to Teach Politics. European Political Science, 7(2), 153-164. doi:10.1057/esp.2008.5