Monday, May 16, 2005

Donuts of Doubt

A few weekends ago Emma and I watched episodes of THE SIMPSONS. I introduced her to THE SIMPSONS, and she's only ever watched 'em with me. The first time, we watched several episodes, and she concluded it was sexist and she wasn't interested. For some reason, two weekends ago she was interested, and we watched two more (the first set from Season Four, the second set from Season Two). She still thinks it's sexist, quoth she, but she likes it anyway.

Certainly, I can see where one comes up with that. The show does, in the end, praise a very stereotypical suburban nuclear family--with heavy-duty senses of irony and cynicism (not necessarily in that order), yes, but nevertheless the Simpsons ultimately are loving, ultimately feel the pull of family life and family honor that we as Americans are supposed to feel. Even in these later seasons, it isn't just Marge--the father-daughter bond is continually extolled even in the face of Homer and Lisa's difference. It's a show that does, in the end, love its characters. But I think there's little narrative art worth watching that doesn't love its characters. The question is the degree to which it enforces its love of its characters upon us, and how prescriptive it is as a television show.

Are we supposed to aspire to be *like* these people? No, we are not--they're fucking animated, and Groening is well aware of this fact. However, it is a dominant cultural phenomenon for younger children to aim to be cartoon characters, and perhaps it's for this reason that so many parents object to their young children watching THE SIMPSONS, for fear of the malign influence entering their homes. When I was in fourth grade, I used to believe that could happen, too, and for that reason I wouldn't watch THE SIMPSONS, though my mother watched it and had never said anything of the kind. I think one of the crucial differences in THE SIMPSONS is that it has adult characters. In most children's shows, either very little distinction is made between youth and adult--viewers sympathize with a character who lives independently, (sometimes) has some form of employment, and behaves exactly as they the viewers would themselves--or adults exist on the periphery, legs or voices, with one or two lines of dialogue as a nod to the caregiver who might be watching. THE SIMPSONS is intended for all ages, and each character within the family is fully developed, for all the stereotypes they embody. THE SIMPSONS is about developing stereotypes, and that's where an important artistic concept comes into play: you can't honestly develop *any* concept, no matter how stereotypical it may be, without going beyond the stereotypes and surfaces. And the characters on THE SIMPSONS--the central figures, 'tleast; I'm not going to go into Burns or Flanders just yet, though there is a lot to be said about the secondary cast--are developed. Even in the painfully contrived and absurd plots that have sprung up in the last few seasons, for the most part not even character-driven, we continue because we're invested in the journeys of these characters, even the journeys that only last half an hour and arise from situations that don't make a lot of sense. But because it's for adult viewers as well, it seems a reasonable expectation that children and adults will watch it together, which will temper the younger viewers' desires to emulate the characters' exact behavior. (THE SIMPSONS is also smart enough to have addressed this particular aspect of the issue head-on--see "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge," where Marge launches a nationwide protest against cartoon violence.) And the fact that kids take things literally doesn't mean that shows shouldn't be on the air or shouldn't present things with a certain sense of irony, it means that parents should be on hand to explain. I'm aware that one is a little simplistic as an explanation, but I think the final outcome is the same in spite of that fact.

Next question: does THE SIMPSONS endorse the sexism it demonstrates? I mean, no matter what, you can't make a feminist icon of Marge Simpson. She's a homemaker not by choice, but by default and by feeling that's her position; when we watch "The Way We Was," an episode detailing how Marge and Homer first met and fell in love in high school, we see Marge as an extremely active, intelligent, forward-moving person, and though she occasionally demonstrates both her intelligence and her political know-how in further episodes and seasons, I think we're meant to be a little saddened by the fact that she didn't realize any of her other ambitions or ideas. THE SIMPSONS is a satire of everyday life as it sees it--a little less so of late, but I think the character development still does go along these lines--and it sees sexism in everyday life. It doesn't endorse it, but because it loves its characters, tries to respect at least at some level their thoughts and their choices, it doesn't offhandedly reject it either. And then there's the presentation of Lisa and the generation gap at play regarding her--Lisa isn't mocked by her peers because she's a *girl* dork in particular. Gender comes up, but Lisa doesn't exist in a paradigm where girls especially are not supposed to be smart. *Kids* aren't supposed to be smart--the treatment Martin Prince gets is very similar to Lisa's, differing only occasionally, and realistically, in questions like, "Lisa, are you going to marry a carrot?" ("Yes. I'm going to marry a carrot." "SHE ADMITTED IT! She's gonna marry a carrot, she's gonna marry a carrot . . .") Lisa *is* a feminist, and has taken on substantive crusades (see "Lisa v. Malibu Stacy," where she wages a campaign against the female-deprecating talking Malibu Stacy doll), and when her gender does come into play in her day-to-day life there are a lot of positive outcomes (see "Separate Vocations," in which Bart and Lisa take standardized tests that will determine their future careers--Bart gets "police officer" and Lisa gets "homemaker." Bart's thrilled, but Lisa's devastated, and eventually, Bart rebels once more against law and order to prove that the test did not determine his future and therefore will not determine Lisa's either). The show started in the '80s, which was about when the children of feminists would notice that their kids had been raised in a society that had feminist consciousness--and that the same was true even of the peers that were raised by homemakers. Which didn't, and doesn't, mean that sexism was not still rampant, but its form and therefore its content were in many ways different.

In other words, THE SIMPSONS presents a sexist universe, and loves the characters that live in its sexist universe, and by living in this sexist universe said characters sometimes conform to its sexist ideals. Does this mean that the show itself is sexist or encourages you to adopt the attitudes its characters exhibit regarding gender? No, but nor does it not do so, because--y'all ain't ready for this--it's not an answer show, it's a question show. It unequivocally makes fun of everybody who crosses its path, and as such we see a lot of aspects, both positive and negative, of the behavior of all of its characters. However, it has a nucleus (yes, that nucleus is a nuclear family) of characters it loves even as it mocks them, and so it shows them ultimately being content to live a life that has incredibly sexist aspects. And as far as I'm concerned, that's the case for all of us that are basically happy.


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