The Simpsons:

An Imperfect Ideal Family

By Eliezer Van Allen

While my family disagrees about which television programs to watch on any given night, we all religiously congregate on Sunday nights to watch The Simpsons. We sit lined up on the couch, personifying the term "couch potato," our daily lives suspended to observe the antics of an animated family. My dad laughs at Homer Simpson's idiocy; my mom commiserates with Marge's troubles; my sisters criticize Bart and praise Lisa, while I do the complete opposite by cheering Bart and not caring about Lisa. After one hilarious episode, my father, in a breath of laughter, said, "What a weird family. Who comes up with this stuff?" I remember thinking, "Yes, they are weird. But they're just cartoons!" Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if the Simpson family, sitting on their couch at the beginning of every episode, was actually a mirror image of my couch-dwelling family, if not a mirror image of every American family. Were the show's writers looking at my family, or some collection of families, to get script material for their show? Could a group of two-dimensional, four-fingered television characters resemble my family, much less anyone else's?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. The Simpsons, with its ability to captivate not only my family but also many others across the country, is so popular because viewers see a new and plausible representation of the American nuclear family in the personages of Homer, Marge, and their kids. Unlike common representations of the "typical" American family seen in television shows like Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver, The Simpsons presents a family unit that is all at once unique, attainable, and lovable, unlike those presented in either of the other two shows. From the show's creators' rebellion against "traditional" family sitcoms to each of the Simpson family member's caricatures, this show satirizes, but ultimately redeems, each unit of the nuclear family (father, mother, and children) [1]. The Simpsons may actually reflect the way many families actually live, for better or worse, and is thus culturally pivotal towards guiding the American nuclear family into the future. More importantly, the show's satiric qualities can only stretch the American family so far, as shown by the family's subtle reversion to the traditional sitcom family form. In this sense, the sitcom still does not entirely destroy the stereotypically ideal nuclear family, especially in view of family gender relations and continuing male dominance in society. Viewers, although possibly disappointed with wholly traditional familial representations, may want the balance between blatant fantasy and stark realism that The Simpsons ultimately gives.

Since the show's portrayal of family is in many ways unique relative to television sitcoms of the past, one must comprehend The Simpsons's history to understand how the show's rebellious qualities emerged, and how it is still not entirely radical. Matt Groening, the show's creator, exemplifies his show's seemingly revolutionary stance against the traditional sitcom family. Groening, who grew up in Portland, Oregon during the 1960s, had an open-minded upbringing. He participated in everything from constantly doodling cartoon figures in elementary school to attempting to rewrite his high school's constitution to give him absolute power (Kaufman, 108). Throughout his childhood and early adult life, Groening knew he could not be constrained by the status quo. He once remarked, "I knew that other kids were going to get serious and go on and be professionals…I never wanted to go to an office and carry a briefcase," (Anthony, 1). This inability to "carry a briefcase" and conform to traditional values led Groening to the view that conventional avenues of creativity and success could never apply to him. He had to create a new medium to express his non-conventional nature.

Groening first manifested his rebellious style during his college life and in his early comic, Life in Hell. Groening chose Evergreen State College for its no grades and no exams policy, instantly reflecting his freethinking style. Groening traced his rebellious roots to his college years, because "you study [Kierkegaard and Nietzsche] in the winter, in a rain forest in Olympia, Washington, and you get very moody." These "moody" feelings were first translated creatively via Groening's Life in Hell comics. Centered on two "crudely drawn angst-filled characters" named Jeff and Akbar, Groening attempted an "irreverent portrayal of broken life", as he put it (Steiger, 2). He opted not to depict a wholly idealized vision of people's daily lives in his works, a trend that would reemerge in his next creative work, The Simpsons.

Like Groening, James L. Brooks, the show's producer, had distinctive qualities evident in his previous television producing jobs that foreshadowed his non-conformist work on The Simpsons. Just as the Simpson family is not comprised of hollow, stereotypical family characters, Brooks' previous sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, also lacked such one-dimensional individuals. Brooks described the show, which centered on a female reporter, as being "very human." The show chronicles her various vulnerabilities, ranging from being in a male-dominated profession to being hopelessly single in a harsh world (Himmelstein, 157). Brooks produced a show that gave a different glimpse of women's lives than was the norm on television of that period, taking women out of their passive housewife spheres. He would help do the same for families on The Simpsons several years later.

In order to understand how The Simpsons does not entirely break the traditional family mold, one must first follow its initial broadcast history relative to other shows on the Fox Network. The Simpson family made its first television appearance as an animated short on Fox's Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, the same year that another show centered around family, Married... With Children premiered on the new television network. While The Simpsons portrays a more realistic view of the American family than had previously been shown on television, when compared to Married... With Children's Bundy family, the Simpson clan retains some traditionally wholesome family images. The Bundy family, explains television critic Gerard Jones, "strips the sentiment from sitcoms and lets the bile pour out. It wins its audience over by shouting, in sitcom form, that sitcoms are a lie," (Jones, 266). Unlike in The Simpsons, there is absolutely no "sentiment" in the Bundy family, who in fact present the argument that all sitcoms, and thus all sitcom families, "are a lie." The Bundy family, with all of their "bile," stopped airing during the mid-1990s, while The Simpsons in September 1999 entered its 11th strong season as an independent show. The broadcast history and eventual popularity contrasts between the two shows indicate that the Simpson family is not completely rebellious, like the Bundy's, but instead retains enough elements of family tradition and reflects its viewers' desires for traces of familial fantasy.

Nevertheless, once Groening, Brooks, and the show's staff began creating thirty-minute episodes in 1989, The Simpsons received harsh criticisms for its portrayal of family life that continue to this day. Many critics cite shows like Father Knows Best, which aired on prime-time television from 1955 to 1963 and which depicts the Anderson family as the model social unit for American society, as appropriate material for American families to watch on television. In this show, the father is the intelligent ruler and moneymaker; the wife is her husband's "ornament" and is the person who cleans the house; while the kids are obedient and maturing (Jones, 97-102). Likewise, family members never scream at one another and problems are always solved sensibly and according to parental wisdom (Himmelstein, 125-126). The title itself, explaining that the father "knows best," summarizes the show's depiction of a traditional male-dominated familial sphere. The Simpsons critics have thus argued that such families should set the example for viewers to follow.

Conversely, to some, The Simpsons, in trying to represent the American family, is totally off the mark. When criticizing the Simpson family, many people turn to Bart, the son, as the greatest corrupter of the American familial ideal. Bart does not obey his parents, do his homework, or clean his room. His motto, "underachiever and proud of it," made its way out of the mouths and onto the shirts of kids across the country during the shows early years on television. Parents and school administrators nationwide have explained that Bart's disrespectful thoughts and actions are hardly what American children should use as a model (Jones, 267). Bart does not convey the attitudes and beliefs, from parental submission to educational dedication, which parents hope to instill in their television watching and susceptible children, thus making him a target for criticism about child raising. He is a "hell-raising" prankster, having committed crimes ranging from petty vandalism to international fraud that are used by critics to validate such a claim. Bart is "every authority figure's nightmare," and thus a seemingly terrible role model for impressionable children (Steiger, 7).

Similarly, Homer is the target of criticism for those looking for parental role models on television. People focus their attention on his idiocy and indifference as his main faults. For instance, when advising Bart about his difficulties with playing the guitar, Homer does not give supportive tips and provide a role model for his son to follow. Instead, he simply remarks, "If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing," (Aucoin, C1). Homer's attitudes are considered atypical and not ones that would normally be expected of a father, resulting in criticism of Homer and his non-respected place in the Simpson family. In fact, U.S. Congressman Joseph Pitts in 1999 blamed Homer Simpson for contributing to the decline of fatherhood in America (Anthony, 3), emphasizing that Homer is perceived as a terrible model for parents. Senator Pitts' negative comments embody Homer's status as a focus of criticism for The Simpsons.

Despite these condemnations about the Simpson family's imperfections and dysfunctional nature, their shortcomings and general realism are what actually make this family so reflective of the American family and actually radical in the wake of television families of the past. The Simpsons is initially so appealing because each segment of the family tears apart past sitcom family representations and exposes how unrealistic those representations were. First, within the sitcom structure, the most dominant figure in past sitcom families has been the father, and it is the father who has been most altered to fit into this new familial image. Families in past sitcoms have presented a relatively standard image of the traditional American father as the all knowing, respected, and moral authority. For example, Jim Anderson, the father in Father Knows Best, is the breadwinner, family decision maker, and overall leader of the family, as the show's title states (Jones, 97). More recently, Cliff Huxtable, the father in The Cosby Show program that aired from 1984 until the early 1990s, has replicated these traditional images. Television critics have described Cliff as "the impeccable father" of the family (Steiger, 4), underlying his fatherly stature. Fathers around the country are expected to view these fantasy depictions of the dad as terms of reference that are attainable and expected.

Groening, however, worries that "millions of Americans think that a good-humored, intelligent father can solve all the problems in a family," (Steiger, 4); he knows that this is not the case and such fathers do not even remotely represent reality. To counter these traditional images of the father, Groening presents us with Homer Simpson, a modern-day "Everyman" who, through his imperfections, contributes to the show's overall creation of the new American family. Homer lacks intelligence and any measurable skills, and has been depicted as an average loser. For instance, at his high school reunion, he won awards for "most weight gained", "most improved odor", "most hair lost", and "lowest-paying job", (Steiger, 4-5).

Through a close examination of a pivotal episode, entitled "A Streetcar Named Marge", Homer's imperfections truly shine. For example, after Marge discusses her plans to participate in a play, Homer chastises Bart for asking her a ridiculous question about the play. He then outdoes Bart by asking immediately afterwards, "Is there any frontal nudity?", which is an utterly idiotic first question to ask about a spouse's theatrical endeavors. More foolishly, Homer responds to Marge's plea to be supportive of her participation in the play by explaining, "I don't care…I can't fake an interest in this, and I'm an expert at faking an interest in your kooky projects." Unlike the restrained and moralistic Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best or the supportive Cliff Huxtable of The Cosby Show, Homer Simpson is an unaware hedonist, indulging in his own passions at the expense of his spouse's and kids' feelings. In fact, he blatantly admits to not caring about his wife's "kooky" activities. Homer's actions satirize the golden images of Jim Anderson and Cliff Huxtable, the all-knowing and entirely family-oriented fathers of sitcom past.

One could argue that Homer is the next father in the line of middle class unsophisticated fathers like Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners, which aired during the 1950s, and Archie Bunker of All In The Family, which aired during the 1970s. These characters are sitcom fathers of blue-collar families; they are not privileged with middle-class status, as are the Andersons and the Huxtables. As a result of their working-class lives, Kramden and Bunker are depicted, as described in a study on television families done by the National Institute of Mental Health in 1979, as fathers who "are laughed at by the rest of the world," (Gunter and Svennevig, 37). Homer too, like Kramden and Bunker before him, is mocked for his idiocy in dealing with Marge's acting dreams. Thus, in a sheer satiric sense, Homer does follow in Ralph's and Archie's paths, characters created for the audience "to cheer at [their] weekly humiliation," (Jones, 207). Homer initially supports the stereotype of the working-class father as incompetent when compared to middle or upper class father idealizations.

However, Homer is more complex than the stereotypical blue-collar bumbling idiot of a father he is portrayed as being. Despite Homer's seemingly idiotic and uncaring attitudes that fall in line with those of Ralph Kramden or Archie Bunker, ultimately he is accepted to symbolize the new American father for all classes. In the same episode, after watching Marge's play, Homer sadly commiserates with Marge's character. He laments, "The poor thing [Blanche Du Bois] gets hauled to the nuthouse when all she needed was for that big slob to show her some respect." Homer, "that big slob", ultimately recognizes his own foolishness in a surprisingly mature and endearing way, and his wife thus rewards him with a forgiving kiss. He gets into a lot of trouble on many occasions, but he is more than anything else a faithful husband and father, making him the latest figure in the evolution of the father on television: a man wholly imperfect but still ultimately loved and capable of giving love. As psychiatrist Dr. Will Miller explains, "Homer is as much of a butthead today as he was in the first episode, and millions of people can relate to that, because they too had [or are] an imperfect parent," (Aucoin, C1). He presents an image that any father can attain, rather than the impossible ideals portrayed in shows like Father Knows Best or the disrespectful attitudes displayed in shows like The Honeymooners, possibly reflecting a social desire from people for realistic characters that are not perfect but not completely hopeless.

Even so, Homer does ultimately revert to the traditional fatherly role as the domineering husband, emphasizing how the show's satire of fatherly figures can only partially succeed in shattering old father images. The fact that Marge ultimately redeems Homer, besides validating the notion of an imperfect husband and father, also reflects how Homer continually regains the family's respect and dominates the family environment. Like Cliff and Jim before him, Homer is the patriarch even if he does not have their other "impeccable" traits. Homer, and not any other character in the Simpson family, is "who drives the show," and thus the show's family (MacGregor, 27). Since Homer is such a "big slob," one might conclude that the show is actually satirizing the patriarchal system. However, by not providing any attainable alternative family structure, The Simpsons still reinforces this male-dominated environment and thus reverts to traditional familial visions.

Marge too, like Homer, does not fit the mold of the traditional female housewife as has been portrayed in the past on television, but still partially retains aspects of the traditional submissive wife. First, women traditionally have been depicted as solely concerned with household tasks: cooking, cleaning and raising children, relegating most authority to their male counterpart (Gunter and Svennevig, 35). This representation is evident in many shows, most notably in Leave It To Beaver, which originally aired from 1957 until 1963, and this show's housewife, June Cleaver. For instance, while talking with her husband about her day, June explains, "Well, I started to read the paper. I found that sewing was much more restful," (Himmelstein, 131). Comments such as these results in a collective portrayal of women like June as kitchen-dwelling intellectual outcasts, since June would rather sew than deal with the mentally exhausting newspaper.

Through different devices, Marge mostly shatters this traditional image of women as shown on television, representing a new role of the American housewife within the nuclear family structure. First, through the use of satire, Marge destroys the passive housewife symbolized by June Cleaver. In the opening scene of the "A Streetcar Named Marge" episode, Marge explains to Homer, "…I spend all day home with Maggie. Sometimes it's like I don't even exist," to which Homer, eyes fixed on the television, robotically responds with, "Sounds interesting." This satiric view of Marge as the non-existent child caretaker, complete with a complaining wife and an indifferent husband, promotes the absurdity of the invisible housewife reflected in Leave It To Beaver and other shows. Through this sarcastic scene, the show indicates that a real housewife should be respected and not ignored. Similarly, in a moment of irony during play rehearsal, Marge comments, "I just don't see why Blanche should shove a broken bottle in Stanley's face. Couldn't she just take his abuse with gentle good humor?" Marge is satirizing her own submissive position in the family relative to Homer, her husband, by trying to take the abuse of a controlling male figure with "gentle good humor," an action in line with the traditional wives of TV past. She cannot comprehend the thought of repelling the male "abuse" with significant and lasting action, represented by shoving "a broken bottle" in the male's face. Again, the satire of Marge's passivity in this situation allows viewers to realize the absurdity of such stereotypically submissive housewives.

Moreover, as evidenced in a close reading of "Bart Sells His Soul", another episode, Marge undermines the mothering typical among television moms. Before a nervous Bart can fully confess to his mom that he sold his soul, Marge interrupts him and explains, "A mother can always tell [what the problem is]…Hmm. It's not fear of nuclear war…It's not swim-test anxiety. It almost feels like you're missing something… something important." When Bart mentions his soul as a possible answer to her question, Marge chuckles, "Aw, honey, you're not a monster." Marge tries to use her motherly instincts, a trait propagated by the likes of June Cleaver, to help her son. She not only fails to let Bart express his inner fears, but she also unknowingly calls him a "monster," making Bart feel even more hideous because of his actions. Her failure to help Bart satirizes the image of an all-purpose mom, propagated by the likes of June Cleaver, who can understand and help her children at all times no matter what issue is at hand. Unlike the old representations of mothers as one-dimensional and perpetually cheery, Marge is, as Groening explained in an interview, "long-suffering" as an imperfect housewife (Mason, B7). Marge's "suffering" under the shadow of such all-purpose moms may reflect society's faulty treatment of women and mothers, since no woman can attain the level of perfection upheld by June Cleaver and other television moms.

Despite Marge's satire of the cheery woman in the true shackles of the housewife role, complementary to the situation with Homer, she also ultimately redeems the image of the mother relative to the American nuclear family. While past television moms do not venture far from the kitchen, Marge is socially active outside the house. In the "A Streetcar Named Marge" episode, Marge emerges from the doldrums of housework and childcare to take the leading role in a musical rendition of the play, "A Streetcar Named Desire". As social critic Richard Corliss explains, Marge has "achieved quite a bit," specifically mentioning her role in the play, despite her seemingly stagnant position as housewife (Corliss, 77). Rather than simply putting down June Cleaver's housewife image, Marge outlines a new model for women in similar positions on how to live their lives: they may be caretakers, but they can and should expand their horizons through social activity. Marge represents a shift for the housewife position in the familial structure to that of an intelligent and active woman who would rather read the paper than sew.

Even so, as with Homer, Marge cannot completely stretch the housewife role to that of an independent, freethinking woman, but instead still retains certain domesticating aspects that leave her in line with June Cleaver. Again, in "A Streetcar Named Marge," Marge initially condemns Homer for his indifferent and hurtful attitude towards her social endeavor, but faithfully returns to the "big slob" with a loving and forgiving kiss. Her satiric condemnation of Homer's "abuse" ultimately collapses as she faithfully returns to his side. In this sense, Marge reverts authority to the family patriarch, following the same pattern as June Cleaver. Her behavior demonstrates that the show's depiction of the housewife does not entirely break prior sitcoms' traditionally defined submissive role, even if Marge is not the one-dimensional June Cleaver. Similarly, her eventual expression of love for Homer propagates the television family stereotype of perpetual love among family members. Marge is never furious with Homer for a long time, showing how her actions falls in line with those of older television families like the Andersons, who have continual and "palpable affection for one another," (Jones, 98). By eventually reverting to a traditional female role, Marge supports the notion that viewers, although desiring more real familial representations, still long for some semblance of tradition in family television characters that reinforce their society's older ideals.

Just as The Simpsons portrays the new American parents in comparison to those of the past, it also conveys attitudes about children that replace those from older programs. Since the most publicized and controversial Simpson child is Bart, it would be appropriate to begin a discussion of the children by focusing upon the standard male child in the sitcom family. According to a study of families on prime-time television done by Thomas Skill and Samuel Wallace of the University of Dayton , boys "in all family settings [are] most likely to escalate conflict. Denying argument validity, attacking the motives of another, and disparaging [other people] were the most frequent strategies used by them," (Bryant, 160). Bud, the son in Father Knows Best, exemplifies this description and even expands beyond these. For instance, he runs away from his family in one episode, creating the typical conflict in the family. However, through the efforts of his father, Bud happily returns home and, notably, never runs away again (Jones, 99). His problems are perfectly solved, and the fleetingly defiant son joyfully returns to his home.

For Bart Simpson, the son in the Simpson family, rebellion is a primary character trait, but his multi-dimensional aspects are what make him a metaphor for the new American family's male child. As demonstrated by the criticism over Bart's actions, he is rebellious, spouting out phrases like "Eat my shorts!" and "Don't have a cow, man!" to authority figures ranging from his school principal to his parents (Steiger, 7). Furthermore, in the "Bart Sells His Soul" episode, Bart raises rebellion to a new degree first by distributing sacrilegious rock and roll music in lieu of an opening hymn at church. He then sells his soul by writing "Bart Simpson's Soul" on a piece of paper and handing it to a friend for five dollars. Bart is blatantly rebelling against the Church, a prominent social institution in his town, and demonstrating how his initial actions fall in line with conflict-creating sons of sitcom past.

Bart definitely is more than a one-dimensional sitcom child. He is, as Richard Corliss explains, "a complex weave of grace, attitude and personality, deplorable and adorable," (Steiger, 7). Bart, while rebellious, is still as insecure as many children are in real life, making him both "deplorable and adorable." In the same episode, after having doubts about his soul, Bart becomes terribly worried about his life and soul, and desperately seeks their return. At his bedside and crying, Bart whimpers to God, "…I'm… afraid. I'm afraid some weirdo's got my soul and I don't know what they're doing to it…I hope you can hear this." His admission of being "afraid" is hardly what one would expect from a seemingly defiant and "hell-raising" boy. Bart exhibits a wide range of emotions, from rebellion and annoyance to fear and loneliness, thus making him more "real" than the one-dimensional son, Bud Anderson. Bart is, therefore, a representation of the new American child, an individual always striving for independence but perpetually insecure.

Lisa Simpson too, like Bart, promotes a different aspect of the multi-dimensional nature of children not seen in past television families. She partially follows the traditional daughter role, but also expresses insecurities and doubts that make her, an animated figure, more real than daughters of television past. Again, within the context of Father Knows Best, the daughter, Princess, becomes the forerunner for representations of daughters on television. Princess, whose name even sparks images of passivity and one-dimensionality, many times tries to break out of feeling ordinary. For her, becoming non-ordinary means performing generally superficial actions that are commonly associated with her looks or personality. For instance, during an "ordinary" moment, Princess enters and wins a movie star look-alike contest, only to abuse her looks and impersonate the real star. Despite committing what television critic Gerard Jones calls "the family sitcom sin of sins: pretending to be what she is not," Princess is always lovingly recovered by her family (Jones, 98-99). Princess reflects the common representation of daughters on television as shallow and one-sided beings, usually de-emphasized to highlight other characters on family shows.

Rather than follow this mold, Lisa shatters such images of the daughter within the nuclear family and replaces them with an intelligent, but insecure image of what a daughter can be. Described by many sources as "the overachiever" and "bookish", Lisa supposedly reflects the "superego" of the American child, suggesting her portrayal as the ideal child (MacGregor, 27). From one angle, she is like television daughters from the past: by making use of her intelligence, she is trying to avoid the supposed stigma of normalcy. In the "Bart Sells His Soul" episode, Lisa deceptively mocks Bart when asking for mercy for everyone's soul and excluding Bart in the process. Besides merely annoying Bart, Lisa is attempting to overshadow his presence with her wit about his sensitive side, thus transcending any commonness she might be feeling.

In spite of her apparent attempts at superiority, Lisa moves away from the common representations of the daughter ultimately by helping fellow family members with her intelligence and displaying her own insecurities. Unlike Princess or other television daughters, Lisa is first of all actually demonstrating intelligence. Her use of her intellect shatters the image of the prissy, non-intellectual television schoolgirl destined to follow in June Cleaver's footsteps. Similarly, Lisa ultimately uses her intelligence to support her less sophisticated, but loved, family. Princess, on the other hand, uses her family to support her individual superficial emotions. With her own money, Lisa buys back Bart's soul, the piece of paper Bart wrote on, for him to have once again, an act both kind and real.

In another shift from the Princess' of the past, Lisa also uses her ingenuity to become a socially and politically active young woman, hardly the quiet and submissive daughter that has commonly been portrayed in the past. For instance, after winning a contest, Lisa in one episode is supposed to give a patriotic speech about the American government. First, by simply entering and winning contests based on social and political awareness, Lisa immediately contrasts herself with older, more passive daughter representations. Furthermore, upon discovering political corruption, Lisa does not quietly revert to her safe and positive speech, but instead draws upon her intelligence and principles to make a more effective presentation. She hollers, "The city of Washington was built on a stagnant swamp some 200 years ago and very little has changed; it stank then and it stinks now. Only today, it is the fetid stench of corruption that hangs in the air," (Steiger, 8). Lisa demands an end to the "fetid stench of corruption" in the middle of an optimist speech competition, an act of defiance and intellectual activism not seen in Princess, who will forever be too concerned with superficial details to reach this level of social maturity.

Moreover, Lisa is the "new daughter" because, besides displaying her intelligence and political activism, Lisa expresses sincere insecurities not seen in television representations of female children in the past. Despite her superb brainpower, Lisa is referred to as "the unrecognized talent" by her family, and as "the saddest kid in grade number two," (Steiger, 8). Not only does her family ignore her exceptional talents, she is a social outcast and knows it. Her self-consciousness makes Lisa a "real" child, one that children across the country can relate to since many children have experienced similar insecurities. As Yeardley Smith, who supplies Lisa's voice, explains, "I can relate better to Lisa Simpson than to my character on 'Herman's Head' even though Lisa's a cartoon," (Richmond, 2). Smith sees Lisa as more real than the live action character she portrays, exemplifying Lisa's status as the American family's real daughter.

As with Marge, Lisa also reflects certain female domesticating realities that she cannot escape from. While Lisa redeems Bart by buying back his soul and helping him through his crisis, she is also, in doing so, demonstrating just how much she must always care for him. In that respect, she reflects the male-dominated family and the female role as the passive supporter to the ruling male figure. Like Marge, she also reflects the traditional view that family members always thoroughly love one another. She is never too angry with Bart to eventually retain and manifest her love for him. Similarly, with all of Bart's antics, Lisa's status as an "unrecognized talent" takes on a new meaning because she is many times ignored not simply to bring out her insecurities but also because others, from family members to townsfolk, focus on the louder and more rambunctious Bart. By being ignored, Lisa could possibly be demonstrating how the show cannot totally escape the image of the female as a person in the background and as less significant than the male family leaders. Thus, Lisa's representation of both rebellion and tradition in the female role denotes viewers' desires for a balance between realism and fantasy in a television family's depiction, suggesting why The Simpsons remains such a popular program among TV viewers.

When studied separately, Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa each exhibit characteristics not seen by past familial units in other shows, thus propagating new and attainable models for viewers on how to live their lives. When studied as a family unit, the Simpsons pull the traits of each character into a coherent whole that families across the country can appreciate and believe in. As James L. Brooks once said, the Simpson family represents "the normal American family in all its beauty and horror," (Kaufman, 108). The Simpson's may have some horrible individual traits, from Homer's idiocy to Bart's rebelliousness, but their imperfections make them beautiful because no family can truly function as ideally as the Andersons or the Cleavers. The Simpsons, despite all their faults, still retain the truly great qualities of family. As outlined by Richard Corliss, "they stick with one another through thick and thin," and "they have heart that reveal[s] the bedrock fondness, desperation and loyalty that bond this or any other frazzled clan," (Corliss, 77). Their cohesiveness, demonstrated by how Marge remains true to Homer despite his foolishness in "A Streetcar Named Marge," and their love, exemplified by Lisa's caring for Bart in "Bart Sells His Soul," are the defining characteristics of this family.

This cohesiveness also seals the show's fate as ultimately reverting to traditional sitcom representations of family. The Simpson family cannot completely escape the stereotypes defined by shows like Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver. Every character must struggle in the male-dominated family structure, a family trademark that can be traced back to the older, more traditional shows. Marge always redeems Homer despite his idiocy; Lisa always comes through to help Bart after he commits a transgression. The family members perpetually love one another and never experience anger towards another for a significant amount of time. By retaining some elements of older family sitcoms, The Simpsons presents a more balanced view of what an American family can be, while still keeping some idealized visions of what a nuclear family should strive to become.

This balance between idealism and rebellion demonstrates the show's final presentation of the American nuclear family. As Corliss states, it is the Simpsons "fondness, desperation, and loyalty" that also bonds any other family, which explains why so many families, including my own, are so drawn to the show. After all, many studies have underlined the overall unreality of the television family and viewer dissatisfaction with such representations (Stewart, 57). Besides appealing to viewers with individual realism, like Homer's dual characteristics of idiocy and caring, The Simpsons appeals to viewers because, as Dr. Will Miller explains, they see "a cracked-mirror version of their own families in the Simpsons," (Aucoin, C1). People like those in my family watch the Simpson family functioning and can identify with many of their daily troubles while concurrently laugh at them. The Simpson family is not perfect and makes no pretense at being perfect. Each family member's imperfections, and the family's collective imperfections, make the Simpson's an ideal television family that everyone can emulate, love, and understand. Likewise, through their reversions to sitcom family tradition, the Simpson's reflect how a television show cannot completely distance itself from established familial images; family satire can only go so far until the voice of tradition steps in to retain certain qualities that have not been dismissed from society. Nevertheless, The Simpson's are, despite their two-dimensional, four-fingered existences, the present and hopeful American nuclear family, "a cracked-mirror version" of our own imperfect but lovable selves. D'oh!


[1] Maggie, the youngest child in the family, will not be covered because she plays a complementary role to the other family characters and does not present different angles on the family that other characters cannot reflect.


"A Streetcar Named Marge." Writ. Jeff Martin. The Simpsons. Fox. 1 Oct. 1992.

Anthony, Ted. "No Sacred Cows for Groening." Associated Press. 24 Apr. 1999.

Aucoin, Don. "200 'Simpsons'? D'oh! Cartoon clan has put fun back in dysfunctional." Boston Globe 25 April 1998: C1.

"Bart Sells His Soul." Writ. Greg Daniels. The Simpsons. Fox. 8 Oct. 1995.

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© Eliezer Van Allen, Stanford University, March 12, 2000.

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