Stereotyping the Simpsons

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Stereotyping the Simpsons
I hate television. I hate big media. I’ll even step over the line of decency and say that I hate culture. It is unnecessary, a prime cause of closemindedness, and a great constrictor of individuality. The great artists of the past several centuries have not been great because they followed cultural guidelines as the artists of ancient Greece, Rome and the Renaissance once were, they are great because they have defied and broken the cultural boundaries of their times, giving art greater vistas and more powerful images to work with. Creeping under all of these lofty ideas slithers an addiction completely contradictory to my philosophy: I love The Simpsons. From its outset The Simpsons was criticized as degrading and advocating disrespect to authority and parents. And as the show continued it only got worse, adopting stereotypical characters and frequently using them as main themes for episodes. Whether disturbed or greatly amused by Matt Groening’s microcosm of America, a question glares off of your television; is all of this stereotyping valid? I say it is. If there has ever been such a thing as a proper use of stereotypes, Matt Groening has found it.

Lets start with racial stereotypes, the most obvious and usually most offensive brand. Apu, from India, the owner of the local “Quikie-Mart” comes primarily to mind. Apu has been in the show from season one (that’s 13 seasons) and has only worked in the convenience store. The episode in which he lost his job at the store proved traumatic for him, he cannot live without it and so makes a trek to India where the first Quikie-Mart perches on a high mountain, inhabited by a particularly wise swami. What is Groening saying here? That the convenience store is a sort of ancient and religious part of India that no Indian can do without? Maybe, but look closer at Apu - is he a static character, molded by the constricts of his culture and what other people instantly associate with Indians? Off hand, he has been in a barbershop quartet, the navy, and has directed an independent film. Apu is without a doubt part of his culture, he is Hindi and his apartment is decorated in a typical Indian fashion, but he is not defined by his culture as he fights his mother on the issue of prearranged marriages.

This week’s episode presents a great example of a Simpsons family trip. In Blame It On Lisa the Simpson family goes to Brazil in order to track down a little boy whom Lisa sponsors. If The Simpsons is to be believed as an accurate presentation of reality then the following are true: Brazilian dancers take primary interest in creating dances that are more sexual than sex; the Brazilian government paints the slums in pretty colors in order to avoid offending tourists; Brazilian children shows involve women with large breasts rubbing against things (the worst of it was a woman wearing tassels giving a demonstration of clockwise and counter-clockwise); Brazil is crawling with unlicensed taxi drivers and they are usually kidnappers; the Brazilian police will not believe that you have a valid claim to bring to them, rather, they think that you’re interested in them sexually. On the other hand, the following is also true: children can survive (even dance) while being digested by large snakes; an eleven year old can learn Spanish in a single plane ride; nuns can fly; the average American family can survive a cable car falling into the jungle. Blame It On Lisa presents a mild example of the random improbabilities of the show, but the exaggerations make their point. Everything is exaggerated in The Simpsons, especially the stereotypes, and the exaggeration makes effective humor without being offensive. The gags snap quickly and rely on an amount of cultural knowledge from the viewer to identify with the obviously inaccurate presentation of any particular race or nation.

More powerful, and subtle than the racial stereotypes presented in The Simpsons, the attacks on American society pervade the show, starting with the Simpsons family itself. Homer gives us an example of an inept, frequently irresponsible and insensitive American male. Lisa, motivated, environmentally aware, artistic, spiritual, and usually ignored while Bart’s prankishly offensive nature takes first stage in the family. Marge performs her motherly duties as well as can be expected under such circumstances (aside from that episode when she found herself addicted to gambling), though Homer usually needs more mothering than the children do. Grandpa (Abe) Simpson easily fits the description “crazy old man” though we can reasonably suspect that his comments and antics root in a need for attention rather than senility. But however idiotic and irresponsible Homer may be, he also shows remorse and care for his family. He takes on roles such as Mr. Safety and in several other instances fights for what is right. Despite his blundering, he makes many brave sacrifices that real men of today would be hard pressed to choose. And while Lisa struggles with the loneliness of being a real thinking academic, its not as if she plays the nerdy girl in the background. She too makes courageous stances within her family and without, more than simply a geek or artsy kid, Lisa stands out as a multifaceted champion of the loner and intellectual at the very moments in youth when such people need her unique character to identify with. I’ll only defend two of the stereotypes within the Simpsons family because really each of them all comes down to the same thing. The show doesn’t pull the same gags over and over supported by common knowledge of stereotypes to get a laugh. The Simpsons family proves itself a group of individuals making choices, not single dimensional characters defined by a particular slot to be easily placed in. Bart plays the Ballerino, Marge the policewoman, and Abe dates quite frequently, they do not succumb to what they supposedly should be – the Simpsons live life.

While the Simpsons themselves might not work as a microcosm of the American family anymore (they may have during the first few seasons), the reoccurring characters certainly do. Officer Wiggam, the corrupt and lazy cop; Ned Flanders and his children, the perfect protestant Christian family; Moe, the bitter bartender; Principal Skinner, who still lives with his mother; Mayor Quimby, who builds a pool now and then with taxpayer money; Fat Tony, the local mobster; Mr. Burns, the ancient tycoon who loves no one are all fine examples of what appear as undeveloped characters who act along with the situation given to them per their station in life. And there are Lots more.

Can we simply excuse The Simpsons as a satire and assume that the writers are simply pointing out problems or foibles that have existed in our society for the past thirteen years? The examples prove the pudding. Officer Wiggam, for instance, is definitely a corrupt cop, he offers bribes frequently, uses contraband for his own purposes and the list goes on. The people of Springfield don’t pay him to let a few things slide and bend the rules, and we as taxpayers don’t pay real life policemen to do the same. Is it reasonable to believe that all policemen are just like Wiggam? Not really, Marge was an upright officer (even arresting Homer) and she condemned them for their practices. Or take a look at Mr. Burns, he has more money than he’ll ever need and nearing the end of his life, but he has no human interests whatsoever and is decidedly, directly evil. Is this to say all rich old people are in the service of Satan? If they don’t do anything useful to anyone else with what they have then sure they are; another episode in which Homer is mistaken for one of the upper crust places him in the midst of an entire mob of overly moneyed celebrities who go on a trip to save a forest. At first glance these look like stereotypes when in reality, they’re warnings and comedic stabs at what is and should not be. Over and over Groening proves that he is not judging the individuals within groups at a glance but with the same frequency exposes the foibles that usually pervade them.

I am not familiar with the majority of modern media and stereotyping probably explains it all. If I look at something, trying to discern the essential character of it, and the result is as simple as a label, I am more than glad to have nothing to do with it. The same rule follows in my choice of media as it does in my choice of friends. Sartre is right, labels are the worst possible shackles and they pervade modern society like “Hello” nametags that you have to pick up or risk having no identity. The Simpsons has been the target of attacks stating that it stereotypes or that it is morally corrupting. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In a society of bland simplistic media The Simpsons stands out as a satire containing real human characters who refuse to fall into any sort of mold. In a corrupt and difficult world they make choices and deal with them like no other characters on television.

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