Portrait of a Heroic FamilyBy Dan Rousseve
One of the most widely recognized families in the world is not an actual living breathing human family but one that exists solely on the television screen. The family in fact is not even human for that matter but mere cartoons. The Simpsons television show that airs on the Fox network is the highest rated cartoon television program ever. In the week of October 25 through October 31 of 1999 two episodes of The Simpsons were aired and they had a combined viewership of 28 million people in the United States alone. The two episodes were the 15th and 18th most watched primetime television programs during that week of broadcasting (Bierbaum, 1999, p 10). To help celebrate its tenth season, the show was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was one of the first stars awarded in the year 2000.
"That graying revolutionary, The Simpsons, is not merely one of the premiere comedies of its TV generation; it also helped shape and define that generation" (Rosenberg, 1998, F-1). When the series premiered in the 1989-1990 season on the ailing network Fox it created a giant boon for television merchandising and, more importantly for Fox, it gave the network a television program that was strong enough to be its anchor for one the most watched television nights of the week.
The Simpsons became the ultimate send up of "family values" and paved the way for other popular cartoons. In the spring of 1999 the Fox network
premiered three additional animated sitcoms in hopes of cashing in on The Simpsons success and have an impressive showing during the May sweeps. "And while Pete Roth, president of Fox Entertainment Group. Agrees that too much of a similar genre may not be healthy for a network, he says that he is not going to argue with success" (Consoli, 1998, p12).
Other stations have found success with cartoons as well such as Ren and Stimpy on the cable station Nickelodeon, and Beavis and Butthead on MTV. The popularity of the dysfunctional Simpson family helped the cable station Comedy Central a great deal as well. Comedy Central airs the cartoons Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist and the incredibly popular South Park. South Park actually has gone on to become a full-length motion picture which received moderate success in the domestic box office. The Simpsons is the forerunner of these adult oriented cartoons.
The television program The Simpsons is a primetime cartoon about an allegedly dysfunctional family living in the suburban town of Springfield. (The actual location of Springfield has never been revealed and is one the many on-going jokes between the writers and the viewing audience.) Each episode follows the Simpsons in their daily satirical adventures as the family struggles to get along with each other and the world as a whole. The family consists of Homer, the father, the mother named Marge and their three children: Bart, Lisa, and Maggie.
Homer is very self-centered, overweight, and a klutz how lists one of his hobbies as sleeping. Next to that his other favorite past times are sitting on the couch eating potato chips and watching television or sitting on a bar stool in the local pub, Moe’s. Homer’s job itself is an irony because he is employed as a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant but in actuality there is nothing safe about Homer. It appears that Homer often has a difficulty with interacting with his family and this is often the cause for the stories’ outlandish plot lines. Homer tries to keep communication with his children to a minimum and he only willfully engages in activities with his children if he can benefit from it in some other way than just building a strong father-child relationship. For example in one episode Homer and Lisa spent every Sunday together during football season but it was revealed that Homer only spent that time with Lisa because he needed Lisa to pick the winners of the games so he can place profitable bets. Additionally, Homer often refers to Bart as "the boy" and he often completely forgets that Maggie even exists.
Given Homer’s attitude about parenting, the glue that usually holds the family together is Marge. Marge stays at home with the baby, Maggie and is the sole family member that does the household chores. Marge wants nothing more than to have "one big happy family" but that is spoiled in almost every episode by Homer’s stupidity or the trouble making by Bart. However, Marge still tries very hard to bring the family closer together by encouraging Homer to get involved with their children. Marge and Homer get involved in many disputes (she has even kicked Homer out of the house and once she left herself) and Marge is often brought to wits end by the oldest child Bart. Although Bart’s misbehaving causes great trouble for the family, Marge never forgets that Bart is her "special little guy."
Bart goes to Springfield Elementary School and has a habit of spending more time in the principal’s office than in the classroom. A popular slogan of Bart’s has been: "Underachiever and proud of it" and he has followed that slogan to the "T." Bart tries very hard to be a bad boy but he often breaks down when he is confronted by his parents (particularly Marge) about the trouble that he has gotten into. He is very successful in disrupting the classroom at school and deliberately disobeying his teacher and principal but he can only manage to disrupt his household for brief moments at a time before he is caught and then he readily gives into his mother’s wishes. On several occasions he has been almost brought to tears because of how he has made his mother feel. Bart enjoys skateboarding and watching television with his young sister Lisa when he is not in detention.
Lisa goes to Springfield Elementary School with Bart but unlike him, Lisa is the perfect student. Lisa is a member of the club Mensa which only accepts members if they possess a genius IQ level and she has received recognition for her ability to play the saxophone very well. Although, Lisa excels in school and is more often than not the only voice of reason in the Simpson household, she has difficulty making and keeping friends. Lisa gets into the usual brother-sister conflicts with Bart but her main problem in the family is Homer. Her being an intellectual places her directly at odds with Homer and she is often embarrassed of her father stupidity. Being understanding, Lisa repeatedly gives Homer chance after chance to be a good father, not unlike Marge’s repeated forgiveness of Bart.
The bulk of the writing done about The Simpsons comes from popular journalists. Howard Rosenberg (1998) writes that the Simpson family is the "ultimate send up of family values and a primer for bad parenting" (p. F-1). For example, Homer warns Bart not to drink alcohol by simply stating. "Now, son, you don’t want to drink beer. That’s for daddies and kids with fake IDs" (qtd in Rosenberg, 1999, p. F-1).
Although the Simpson family often is slammed for its problems, the program as a whole has been given awards many different times by several different groups in addition to the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as noted previously. The show has won a number of Emmy’s for best animated series and in 1997 it was awarded the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in television that is handed out by the University of Georgia. It was the first ever prime time television program from the Fox network to be recognized with the award.
An animated sitcom such as The Simpsons is able to "break all the rules." Animation allows the writers to explore all possible settings and more importantly, characters. The characters in animated programs are able to do whatever they want, whenever they want to with little regard for the social norms. The popularity of animated sitcoms is very large and is not ignored by the television networks. As stated previously, in 1998 the Fox network had an unprecedented five animated sitcoms airing during prime time during sweeps week.
These wildly popular programs offer characters that go to the extremes and push the envelope in regards to what is deemed appropriate and inappropriate for the viewing audience. For example, according to Howard Rosenberg, "big time boozing is back in prime time" (Rosenberg, 1999, p. F-1) via the animated sitcom. Heavy drinking is quite common in The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Family Guy, all airing on Fox. In fact Peter, the central character in Family Guy, loses his job in the premiere episode of the series due to a terrible hang over he is suffering from. The hang over is due to a party he was at the previous night where he won a game entitled "Drink the Beer" and guzzled down 37 cans of draft. His prize for such a feat? Another beer.
These extreme behaviors and actions are seldom seen in live action programs. In fact, the viewing audience has come to expect wild situations to occur in animated shows because of the freedom that the animation allows. The characters are able to participate in more outlandish activities because the audience immediately recognizes that the characters are fictional because they are drawings and their simple appearance creates a comical tone to the setting of the story.
There is a vast inconsistency between the views of the academics, the media critics, and the viewing audience about The Simpsons. In order to discover and evaluate what family communication patterns were available for viewers of television to use as models Mary Strom Larson (1993) analyzed the Simpson family as well as the Huxtable family from The Cosby Show. The study found that the family communication was in both cases affiliative rather than conflictive or argumentative. The study considered any behavior that was informative, supportive, directive, or contributive as affiliative behaviors. On the other hand, any behaviors that were considered opposing, attacking, or evading were deemed to be conflictive behaviors.
Although the study found that both families were more affiliative than conflictive, it was determined that "Communication among the Huxtables was primarily centered on parents and children, seeking and giving information, with spouses offering little direction or support. On the other hand, communication among the Simpsons was primarily centered on parents and spouses offering support and direction" (p. 349). This lead Larson to concluded that the Simpson family is not the "grungy, bickering lot reflective of the squalid underbelly of life" (p. 356) that it is often believed to be by the media because of the support and direction that is offered by the family members to each other.
Specifically, the pattern of communication followed by the Simpson family is primarily adult-centered whereas "spouses actively give support to each other and to children, and actively direct children. Therefore, these spouses can be seen as active in setting a tone for family unity and direction" (p.356).
On the other hand, the media critics take all of the family’s antics at face value and have deemed the television program to be about a dysfunctional family. True, Homer has done such things as tell Lisa that it is "proper to steal from people you don’t like" (Rosenburg, 1998, F-1) but the television audience’s around the world have embraced the program.
To analyze the communication patterns of the characters of television shows, James W. Chesebro (1978) adapted a method developed by Northrop Frye that is used to analyze the central characters in works of fiction. "In Frye’s view, two variables generate and distinguish major kinds of communication systems: (1) the central character’s apparent intelligence compared to that of the audience, and (2) the central character’s ability to control circumstances compared to that of the audience" (p. 21). There are five kinds of communication systems that are created from these two variables. They are the ironic communication system, the mimetic system, the leader-centered system, the romantic system, and finally the mythical system.
The ironic communication system posses a central character that is less intelligent than the audience and also is less able to control circumstances. "The ironic character may intentionally assume a pretense of ignorance or pretend to learn from others in order to reveal the false conceptions of others" (p.26). However, the character "may unintentionally articulate and defend positions which are inconsistent with known events" (p.26). With unintentionally ironic characters, the characters are unaware that they have become ironic and only the audience is able to pick up on it.
Archie Bunker from the television show All in the Family fits into the profile of the unintentionally ironic character. The audience expects Archie to function as the ironic character because he fails to interpret events the same way most people do, he uses incorrect words, and he often incorrectly reports facts. The incident or pollution that the episodes follow are usually caused by Archie’s actions. Archie’s sins have become countless through the years of episodes. He has lied to his wife, gambled, tried to submit a fraudulent insurance claim, hurt an unlimited number of feelings, and he has said the unbelievable. The irony of Archie is that even though he is an extremely faulted individual, he is also the show’s hero. According to Chesebro, "We anticipate that the hero of the drama will be correct, not create, pollution. Yet, Archie is the breadwinner and the head of the family while simultaneously creating the pollution which generates the drama" (p.27). Archie usually has a chance at redemption but not by his own actions, but through the actions of the other characters trying to fix the problem. Also, the show often closes with Archie being reestablished as the head of the household which is made possible because of the caring of the other characters and "Archie’s basically good heart" (p.27). With Archie back in place as the hero and head of the family, he has not set the stage for the final ironic situation: he is now ready to create a whole new incident in the next episode and continue the ironic pattern.
The central character in the mimetic communication system is just like the audience. They have an equal intelligence and they are also able to control circumstances equally effectively as the audience. "In mimetic communication systems, all are perceived, believed, or treated as equals: a common set of symbolic perceptions, descriptions, and interpretations of reality are shared by individuals if they are members of a mimetic system; moreover, members of such a system face and deal with similar problems and situations with equal skill" (p. 21).
The central character in a leader-centered communication system has an intelligence greater than others but because they have special training or conditioning. Despite the character’s special abilities to deal with problems, the character still encounters the same problems that that everyone has. The leader is able to get others to take action by providing goals, delegating tasks, combine the efforts of others, and they draw interconnections between events. The leader is typically very confident in of their beliefs and values and because of this other characters may believe the opinion of the leader to be a true fact.
In the television series Maude, the title character is the leader and in one particular episode she is faced with her 15 year old grandson, Phillip, dating a girl named Diane that is 19 years old. Maude takes fully responsibility of the situation because Phillip’s mother is out of town. Maude has a dual strategy plan: first talk to Phillip and then talk to Diane. Phillip tells her that he greatly values her opinion but he does not follow her advice. While speaking with Diane, she is informed that Diane likes Phillip because he makes her feel in control. Maude then summarizes the situation and makes her interconnection that Diane only likes Phillip because he is safe to be with. Phillip over hears that he is viewed as being safe and he breaks up with Diane because of what being deemed as safe could do for his reputation. In this situation Maude showed that she was a leader because she assumed responsibility, implemented a plan, drew interconnections between events so the other characters could understand the situation, and her opinion (although not immediately respected and followed) was deemed very important by another character.
In the romantic communication system the central character is more intelligent than the audience and they are also better able to control circumstances than the audience. In this kind of communication system "the central character thus possesses a symbol system which allows him or her to account for more environmental variables in more decisive ways than others (intelligence) and to create more effective programs for action upon these environmental factors than others (control of the environment)" (p.22).
The mythical communication system possesses a central character that is superior to others in both intelligence and in their ability to control circumstances. The power that the character possesses comes from a power or source that is "mythical" in nature, such as Superman and the Six Million-Dollar Man. The central character is placed on a quest (usually a long and difficult journey) to retrieve a very important object and they must use there superhuman abilities to be successful, thus creating a myth or fantasy.
Frye and Chesebro’s method for studying television genres is actually quite limiting and is insufficient for analyzing many of the current popular programs, specifically, The Simpsons. The method is designed around the presence of a single hero character, not multiple heroes or families. The dominant genres in television at this time feature ensemble casts or are focused around a family or group and not oriented toward an individual hero. The Simpsons represents the heroic family with at least two different heroic communication systems in operation simultaneously. So, The Simpsons reflects the view that systems compensate for one another or compliment one another to produce constructive moral messages about how a family should act.
All of the major family members (with the exception of baby Maggie) fit into the roles of the various hero types throughout the episodes. The program creatively follows the interaction of the communication systems and a positive change is brought to the family by the episode’s end due to the resolution caused by integrating of the systems. The most commonly used systems in The Simpsons are the ironic communication system and the leader-centered communication.
Homer and Bart usually follow the ironic communication system while Marge and Lisa usually follow the pattern of the leader-centered communication system. Homer, just like Archie Bunker, is the breadwinner of the family but is also unintentionally the ironic hero of the show. While Bart on the other hand, with his "underachiever and proud of it" attitude is intentionally a minor ironic hero of the show. Homer routinely lies to Marge, drinks obsessively, and would rather spend an entire weekend gambling on football games than spend it with his children. However, Homer has shown on several occasions that he deep down is very sensitive and has good intentions but he has, in the words of Marge, "a misguided way of showing love."
Being the major leader-centered heroine of the show, Marge is constantly devising ways to get the family out of trouble. She often implements strategies that include direct communication with the characters involved in the problem. The unique knowledge that Marge has that allows her to be superior at handling problems is that she is in the position to see how the problems that the family encounters (almost always caused by Homer or Bart) affect the entire family. Lisa’s straight forward advice that she gives and the automatic control over situations that she takes, along with her genius IQ level allows her to be classified as the heroine in a leader-center system.
To demonstrate how the different communication systems in The Simpsons interact to produce positive messages, several episodes that highlight the working together of the two systems will be summarized and then examined.
Both Homer and Bart got off to quick starts in the first season of the show in an episode entitled, "Homer’s Night Out." Homer went to a bachelor party and danced on a table with a belly dancer. Bart sneaked into the room and took Homer’s picture on the table. The picture was developed and soon the entire city of Springfield had a copy, including Marge. Marge’s strategy to deal with the problem was to kick Homer out of the house and then let Homer know of how he can win back her trust by introducing Bart to the belly dancer to show Bart that she is a real person and that women are not objects. Inspired by Marge, not only does Homer succeed in his task he also delivers a passionate speech to the patrons of the strip club at which he and Bart find the belly dancer. Homer states that women are merely not objects but members of family and his speech brings several of the patrons to tears and causes them all to reach out to their female loved ones. Marge heard the speech heard the speech as well and she lets Homer know that she is proud of him for denouncing the objectification of women and proving that he cares about his family.
"The War of the Simpsons" in the second season epitomized Homer’s inner struggle with being a good spouse. The episode opens with Homer getting very drunk at a party the Simpsons hosted. By the end of the night Homer has yelled at guests, worn a lampshade on his head, and looked down his neighbor’s dress. The next day Marge signs them up for a marriage retreat at Catfish Lake. While on the retreat Homer learns of a legendary fish named General Sherman in the lake that no one has been able to catch. Of course, Marge opposes to Homer going fishing in the middle of a retreat that is needed to save their marriage. Despite Marge’s misgivings about it, Homer sneaks out and goes fishing. He catches the elusive General Sherman and as he pulls up to the dock to celebrate his victory over the fish Marge appears. An argument ensues and she tells Homer that the fish represents his selfishness and that he does not care for their marriage or their children. In maddening rage, Homer throws the giant fish back into the water. After a moment of silence Homer realizes that he just threw away what could have been his only opportunity for fame all for his marriage. Marge acknowledges that their marriage is indeed more important to Homer than anything. And once again, Homer makes a change for the good of his marriage and family.
Each of the two episodes out lined went through three stages leading up to the resolution. Right off the bat, the problem was created by the ironic hero, Homer because he was misbehaving and not realizing the impact that his actions have on his family. He perceived the bachelor party as an opportunity to forget his family and act how most people would consider inappropriate. In the other episode, Homer not only disgraced Marge at the party at their house he also specifically went against her wishes during the marriage retreat and went fishing.
In the next stage of the episodes the leader-centered hero intervenes with the behaviors of the ironic hero by attempting to create a line of communication that will assist the ironic hero in his redemption. In "Homer’s Night Out" Marge’s plan was not only to discuss the problem with Homer but she also assumed the leader role and gave
Homer very specific directions on how he can be forgiven and remedy the situation. One of the characteristics of a leader-centered communication system is that the leader’s opinions and beliefs are greatly valued by the other characters and are almost viewed as facts. This situation is a perfect example of that because Homer believes that he must strictly follow Marge’s orders because they are the only thing that will get him back into the house.
In "The War of the Simpsons" Marge again assumes responsibility for fixing the problem and she signs she and Homer up for a marriage retreat. She believes that the communication facilitated by the retreat will assist them in creating a more successful marriage. When Marge discovers that Homer has gone fishing against her wishes she confronts him about it immediately.
In the final stage of these two examples, the characters end up having a very frank, open, and highly successful dialogue about the problem which is demonstrating to the audience a very effective behavior pattern for families. As previously noted, in "Homer’s Night Out" the dialogue produced came as a result of the plan that Marge creates so Homer can resolve the problem. Marge’s plan provided an opportunity for Homer and Marge to discuss their feelings about the problem, how the problem can be fixed, and in turn the way in which Homer must change to become a better father to Bart. In this situation the conversation that led to the healing was of a direct result of leader-centered heroine. When she took charge and notified Homer of how he can fix the problem the healing process immediately began because Homer then knew how he could improve.
On the other hand, in "The War of the Simpsons" it is the ironic hero’s final ironic act of the episode that forces the dialogue that leads to change. When Marge confronts Homer while he is in the boat with General Sherman he ends up throwing the fish into the water just because he is so upset. This is not what a normal, rational person would do but the ironic hero does not have the same ability to deal with problems as a regular person would. In discussing the humorous act of throwing away what he just fought so hard for and risked his marriage for with Marge, Homer realizes that he just gave up his only chance for fame and that his marriage is the most important thing to him.
In "Homer’s Night Out" and in "The War of the Simpsons" the producers of The Simpsons demonstrate the importance of trust in a family and the effectiveness of an affiiative dialogue and in the seventh season of the television series, they show the viewers that family members need to be supportive and provide assistance to one another when needed. Bart is rescued from the problems that he created himself by Lisa in episodes entitles "Bart Sells His Soul" and "Bart on the Road."
"Bart Sells His Soul" opens with Bart and his friend Milhouse getting in trouble during Sunday school. Milhouse tells Bart that he does not want to misbehave for fear of what would happen to his soul if he acts up in Sunday school. Bart tells Milhouse that there is no such thing as one’s soul and to prove his point he agrees to sell his soul (a piece of paper with "Bart’s Soul" written on it) for $5 because he is convinced that it will not matter.
Soon after the transaction takes place things begin to change. Bart goes to the local convenience store, the Kwik-E-Mart and he walks right into the automatic door because it did not open for him, as it should have. After another failed attempt to getting inside the Kwik-E-Mart, he runs into the store while the door is still open from another person going through it. A few of Bart’s classmates are at the store as well and they are writing things in the condensation created on the window after they breathe directly on to the window. Bart sees one of them write, "Bite Me" and he knows that he can top that so he decides to give it a try. When Bart breathes onto the glass to his dismay nothing happens. When he returns home he tries to enjoy his favorite television show but he does not even chuckle at the antics of "Itchy and Scratchy."
When he tells Lisa about what has been happening she advises him on the meaningfulness that the soul represents and she urges him to recover his soul from Milhouse. At Lisa suggestion Bart approaches Milhouse to give him a full refund for the merchandise but Milhouse says that the price of the soul has increased from $5 to $50. After the unsuccessful recovery, Bart dreams that night of all of his classmates playing together with their souls and he awakens knowing that he has to get his soul back. He approaches Milhouse for second time but he is too late because Milhouse already sold his soul to the owner of the town’s comic book store. Bart goes to the comic book store only to discover that he is once again too late and that someone has already purchased his soul. Bart begs, but the owner refuses to give the identity of the person that made the purchase.
Back at home, Bart prays out loud for God help him get his soul back and miraculously the piece of paper comes floating down from above. Bart turns around to see that Lisa purchased his soul from the owner of the comic book store so that she could return it to Bart and rescue him from his folly.
In the episode entitled "Bart on the Road," Bart is forced to go to work at the Department of Motor Vehicles with his aunts Patty and Selma because of a school program. To kill some time he makes himself a fake driver’s license that says that he is 25 years old. Later that day he meets up with the neighborhood kids Milhouse, Nelson, and Martin and they discover that Martin earned $600 when he went to work with his father at a stock brokerage. The foursome decided to take the money and Bart’s fake ID and rent a car and go on a road trip. As an alibi for their trip, Bart Milhouse, and Martin tell their parents that they are going to the National Grammar Rodeo on Canada for a week. However, Nelson simple states that he is leaving for a week with no explanation at all as he walks out of his house.
The four children check an AAA guidebook and decide to go to the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. As Bart drives the rented convertible down the highway they stop at each of the kids request. The stop and get ice cream, the weigh the car at a weigh station, they pick up a hitchhiker, then they stop for more ice cream (on the hitchhikers request), and they stop in Branson, Missouri because Nelson wants to see an Andy Williams concert. When they finally arrive at the World’s Fair they find it to be total desert except for a wig store and they discover that the AAA guidebook that they used was 14 years out of date. A building ends up falling on their car, completely crushing it and they have run out of money (the spent the last of it on wigs). Bart thinks to call the only person that he knows that he can rely on for help: his sister.
As always, Lisa is very helpful and is able to offer Bart several different options and ideas about how he could solve his problem of being stranded with no money and no car in Knoxville. Thanks to Lisa’s suggestion (and his fake ID) Bart gets a job as a courier because they travel for free in hopes that he will be asked to deliver something to his hometown of Springfield. After several assignments, Bart has no luck at all so Lisa takes the situation over and formulates a plan to get Bart and the others home. She spent time with Homer at his job at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and she knew that Homer needed to get a new control panel for his computer. She asks Homer to order the needed part from a facility in Knoxville and sure enough, Bart is able to provide the courier service and he and the others are able to fly back to Springfield.
In both of these episodes Bart is an intentionally ironic hero because he is well aware of the risks that he is taking and he still acts irrationally. He is warned by both the Reverend and by Milhouse about the state of his soul and he still tempts fate and carelessly sells his soul off- loosing it temporarily. He is also knowledgeable of the dangers of going on an out of state road trip when you are still in grade school but characteristically of Bart, he throws caution to the wind purposely violates common sense.
When Lisa is called on for assistance by Bart she is always surprisingly well prepared and resourceful for a second grader. Lisa shows that she is a leader in these examples mainly by creating a plan of action to resolve the problem. She not only gives Bart sound advice when is turns to her for help but she takes it another step further. As soon as she recognizes that Bart needs more help that just advice she takes that initiative and devises a plan that she is able to follow through with herself. When Bart had not recovered his soul Lisa went out, tracked it down, and purchased it for Bart so that it could be returned. When Bart was stuck in Knoxville, Tennessee she not only suggested to Bart that he become a courier, she also talked Homer into ordering an item from Knoxville so that Bart could return home to Springfield.
The Simpsons makes use of a multiple number of heroic communication systems at once to give the audience positive messages about how a family should interact. In "Bart Sells His Soul" and in "Bart on the Road" the ironic communication system is placed opposite the leader-centered communication system, revealing the good-natured caring and help that family members should strive to provide to each other just as Lisa provided for Bart.
Through the course of each episode of the hit television series The Simpsons, at least two heroic communication systems are present and they work together to create a resolution to a problem that therefor creates a constructive message about how a family should act. This is done by the communication systems compensating for one another or complimenting one another to solve a problem and producing a message to the viewers.
This analysis shows that the cartoon phenomena of The Simpsons has quite an important message to convey to its viewers each week. The idea that such a message be delivered by animated drawings may be easily dismissed by the audience but in fact the animation plays a role in the effectiveness of the message. The audience is immediately brought into an artificial cartoon world which makes it difficult to take anything that the characters do at face value which in turn allows that viewer to be open to the social statements and criticisms offered by the show. The animation also allows for outlandish situations and plots that seem implausible but the solution is always a well-grounded real life possibility.
The effects of The Simpsons in the short-term have been very positive as seen by the immense popularity of the program. The show has ridden its wave of success into its tenth season and has earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The show has become so popular that it now has its own World Wide Web address that provides free Internet access to anyone.
In the first few seasons of the program Bart was the most talked about and popular character but as the series has gone on, Homer has become the overwhelmingly favorite character in part because he is an ironic hero. The audience has taken a liking to Homer because they can identify with the fallen hero of the show because he "lacks both the scope and the appropriate kinds of interpretive concepts and categories for assessing reality as well as the skill necessary to mobilize or to generate the support required for concerted agreements and actions; a situation that all of us have faced at one time or another" (Chesebro, 1978, p21). Essentially, Homer is human and all of the imperfections that go along with being human are epitomized by Homer and the audience can relate to his errors on one level or another.
There to always faithfully save Homer are Marge and Lisa. The gender differences in The Simpsons are apparent in almost every episode because it is most common for Marge and Lisa to be bailing out Homer and Bart due to their latest mischievous behavior. In fact, the producers of the show addressed this gender differences issue in an episode entitled "Lisa the Simpson" during the ninth season. Lisa is scared that she is going to lose her brilliant mind when she gets to a particular age because her Grandfather says that is happens to all Simpsons. She dreads the thought of the supposed "Simpson gene" kicking in and making her as stupid as her father and brother. She later discovers that the gene only affects the males in the family and that she is safe for the devastating affects. In fact, most of the Simpson women that she meets are highly intelligent and successful.
Although the females are primarily the only voices of sanity in the Simpson family, on the rare occasion that they do misbehave look out! Marge has "flown off the handle" and been wanted by the law quite a few times and Lisa usually stirs up trouble by trying to duplicate Bart. When it’s their turn, they pull stunts that are far beyond Homer’s and Bart’s and they really go to the extremes (especially for their characters). For example, in the episode "Screaming Yellow Honkers," Marge drive the family’s new vehicle, an incredibly large sport utility vehicle called the Canyonero. When she gets behind the wheel she becomes queen of the road rage. She drives through an open field sending frightened wildlife scattering in every direction all in order to get out of traffic and get home sooner, even though she was within site of her house. She constantly screams and yells at other drivers and when she gets stuck behind a funeral procession she belts out, "Get the corpse off the road. The streets are for the living!" She soon gets pulled over by the police and sent to traffic school.
Another time Marge was on the wrong side of the law was in "Marge on the Lam." In a "Thelma and Louise" style story Marge is out with her friend Ruth in Ruth’s car when the police try to pull her over (because her taillights are too close together) and she refuse to stop because the car is stolen. Ruth gives Marge the chance to get out of the car so she won’t get in trouble but Marge rejects the offer and a high-speed chase ensues. They are able to evade the police for the day but they have become the two of the most wanted people in America. The police find them the next day and the chase comes to an end when they turn off of the road to escape the police but unknowingly drive towards the Grand Chasm. Homer, who is in the lead chase car, thinks that they are going to kill themselves by driving into the chasm so he uses a bullhorn to let Marge know how much he cares about her and begs her not to drive into the chasm. As soon as Ruth and Marge learn they are driving towards the chasm Ruth brings the car to a screeching halt at the very edge of the chasm, narrowly escaping death. Homer and Police Chief Wigum are not so luck as their car goes sailing past Ruth and Marge and into the chasm. However, because the Grand Chasm was made into a landfill, their car lands safely on a large tower of garbage.
The Fox television show The Simpsons gives its audience messages each week on how a family should act and resolves problems together. In order to due so, the audience is brought into a zany cartoon world with outlandish stories that feature a heroic family that operates with more than one communication system at a time. Due to the interaction of the systems a resolution to the conflict that would hold water in reality is made. The family is meant to appear dysfunctional so the viewers can walk away thinking, "If a bunch of messed up losers like that can get along, then we can too."
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© Dan Rousseve 2001
Last updated on March 31, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)