The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional CultureBy John Alberti
Leaving Springfield. Reprinted with permission of Wayne State University Press.
During the spring 1987 television season, The Tracy Ullman Show, a variety series on the then new start-up “fourth network” Fox, began to run a series of brief animated shorts before and after commercial breaks. These short cartoons featured a yellow-skinned, boggle-eyed dysfunctional nuclear family named Simpson, and in the heart of the Reagan era, these films took satirical aim at the pieties of suburban American family life. "The Pagans," for example, from spring of 1988, focuses on the reluctance of the two oldest Simpson children, Bart and Lisa, to attend church services. Instead, they cast off their clothes, proclaim themselves pagans, and conduct their own nature-worshipping rituals, much to the fury of their dictatorial if inept father Homer and the consternation of their indulgent but conventional mother, Marge.[i]
The characters had been created by an alternative comics artist named Matt Groening, known for his Life in Hell comic strip which features the existential dilemmas of a one-eared rabbit named Binky. Groening was invited to create the cartoon by Tracy Ullman producer and long-time television comedy writer, director, and producer James L. Brooks. It was Brooks’s clout—along with the leeway offered by a new network willing to tolerate a certain amount of experimentation in order to attract younger viewers—that allowed Groening’s biting satire on the spiritual hollowness and mindless conformity of suburban Christianity to appear on prime-time television (on Sunday night, no less). These short films quickly led to a Christmas special in late 1989 and finally to the appearance, in early 1990, of The Simpsons, which was to become the first successful prime-time network cartoon since Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and eventually the longest running situation comedy in television history. [ii] The Simpsons has achieved iconic status, and the various members of the Simpson family are now easily recognized features of contemporary US pop culture.
From the beginning, a key attraction for many fans of the show has been the sense of “getting away with something,” a delight in the idea that a program could become one of the most popular shows on television while dealing in and even promoting the subversive and the transgressive. Rather than becoming a cult program that appeals only to viewers belonging to a demographically small subculture, The Simpsons has entered fully into the mainstream, even while apparently embracing ideas (e.g., the promotion of paganism; the critique of Christianity) that conventional wisdom would see as fatal to mass public acceptance. It is this phenomenon—the enduring popularity of The Simpsons either in spite or because of its countercultural reputation—that is the focus of Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture. In the process of exploring the subversive potential of The Simpsons, the essays collected here reveal the inventiveness, creativity, and richness of “America’s most nuclear family.”[iii]
Not surprisingly, the success of The Simpsons has proved enormously influential in shaping television programming, as evidenced by the season-long appearance on ABC in the mid-nineties of The Critic, also produced by Brooks, and the raft of prime-time animation that has appeared on cable television since then: Butt-head, Daria, Ren and Stimpy, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and, more recently, South Park and Celebrity Deathmatch. Indeed, with The Simpsons, Futurama (also created by Groening), and King of the Hill, prime-time animation has become a staple of the Fox programming strategy.
Before Who Wants to Be a Millionaire launched a retro-game show craze among the major networks in the fall of 1999, animation had become the biggest trend in prime-time television programming. Widely seen among the networks as a hedge against the increasing loss of audience-share to the expanding cable market, especially among the coveted young adult male demographic group, the incentives driving the move to prime-time animation were not hard to determine. Economically speaking, animation has never been cheaper to produce. The use of drawings and clay figures means low studio overhead—few lights, no sets, no studio audience, no three camera set-up, and no crew—and a relatively small group of voice actors can play multiple characters. Without live action to stage, rehearsal time and costs are drastically cut, as the voice parts for an entire season can be recorded all at the same time. The use of computer animation (as evidenced, for example, by Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist) as well as outsourcing to Asian studios has driven down the biggest cost factor, the labor-intensive graphic artwork.[iv]
There are creative benefits to cartoons as well, benefits that have defined the history of animation. Not bounded by the physical laws governing 3-D space, animated programs can feature casts of hundreds and take place in any geographic or historical time frame. In the case of the animated prime-time television series, this “cartoon for grown-ups” inhabits a cultural space on the border between children’s television and the prestige and adult-viewership associated with prime-time programming. This border space allows producers and writers to take advantage of the resulting uncertainty regarding generic expectations from this mixing of the childlike and the adult, the supposedly trivial and the serious. As Megan Mullen points out in her essay on the history of prime-time animation, this cultural space was first opened by the Hanna-Barbera studios in the early sixties with The Flintstones and The Jetsons, and this latest wave of prime-time animation represents a reemergence of this trend by a generation of television artists who grew up watching these earlier shows.
Prime-time cartoons for grown-ups also have their counterparts on television for children with the rise of cable outlets such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network (the latter itself a hybrid aimed at both young and adult fans of animation), and they along with The Simpsons thrive on this blurred distinction between programming aimed at children and that created exclusively for adults. Beginning with Sesame Street and continuing in contemporary programs such as Rug Rats, Hey Arnold, and The Power Puff Girls, characters and plot situations geared for children are combined with pop culture references and an ironic style meant to appeal to the adults watching with (or perhaps instead) of the target juvenile audience. The result of these new cultural forms for both prime-time cartoons and the latest animation for children is the potential for the representation and treatment of social issues and concerns in ways that violate the clichés of the standard television genres.[v]
Again, however, what is especially significant and surprising about the success of The Simpsons, and what is the impetus behind this collection, is not just its pioneer status in reintroducing the prime-time cartoon and the reopening of this borderline cultural space but in using this space to allow the emergence of an underground comics sensibility on network television. The chief characteristics of that sensibility are a postmodern self-referentiality and cultural/political satire from a generally leftist/liberal perspective. So The Simpsons is not just a popular sitcom and cartoon show; it also represents what may be the most daring cultural and political satire in television history, beyond even the groundbreaking Saturday Night Live. Only Roseanne comes close in recent network programming history in terms of using the traditional sitcom format to ridicule powerful cultural, social, and political institutions with anything like a coherent political vision.
While cultural politics is often the subject of television comedy, the approach taken by most sitcoms usually represents the given issue as a matter of individual lifestyle or personality (what David Marc refers to as the sitcom’s “unflappably centrist political psychology”).[vi] When feminism is broached, for example, gender relations are only taken seriously as a matter of interpersonal dynamics, usually focused on ironing out conflicts within heterosexual romantic relationships. Feminist leaders—that is, characters seen as pursuing a specific feminist political agenda as part of a social movement—are most often dismissed as shrill dogmatists. This narrow focus on the personal allows for easy jokes, usually stemming from traditionally misogynist forms of humor, but it also enables a sitcom to recognize and then work through the real gender conflicts experienced by viewers in ways that provide comfort rather than confrontation (the popular Home Improvement, for example, poked fun at the main character’s pretensions to traditional male dominance in order to suggest that all tensions resulting from gender inequality can be ameliorated within a traditional heterosexual nuclear family).
The same individualist approach can be seen in the way television comedy deals with race relations and other social issues, even in supposedly “progressive” ways, as Matthew Henry’s essay in this collection demonstrates in relation to the politics of sexuality and the recent appearance of “gay-themed” programs such as Ellen or Will and Grace. Even when actual political figures are named, the tendency in television comedy is to reflect the logic of contemporary political campaigns, where ideological and structural political differences are presented as questions of personality. Hence, Saturday Night Live, for all its irreverence, bases much of its political satire on the telling impersonation of given political personalities. Thus, Dana Carvey could perform his George Bush the Elder impersonation at the White House, since it was understood that the impersonation was more about poking fun at physical and verbal mannerisms than political critique, while Will Ferrell’s potentially devastating portrayal of George W. Bush as a simple-minded frat boy has been crucially distanced from suggesting any fundamental challenge to Bush’s legitimacy as president, particularly following September eleventh.
While incorporating this life-style based approach to social satire, The Simpsons also consistently works at connecting the personal to the political, in the classic sense, by taking advantage of the creative freedoms offered by animation to place the behavior of individual characters in social and historical context. Consider “Lisa the Vegetarian,” where Lisa’s decision to forego the eating of meat is treated not just as evidence of a sentimental fondness for animals but in the light of the ideological marketing campaign staged by the meat and advertising industries. To take a longer example, in “Last Exit to Springfield,” Homer unwittingly becomes union president and leads a strike against nuclear plant owner J. Montgomery Burns. The episode shows Homer’s relationship to labor organizing as essentially rooted in personal concerns over how he can pay for Lisa’s braces (for Homer, the ethical dilemma is reduced to deciding whether to accept Burns’s offer of free beer in lieu of a dental plan). In a characteristic borrowing/parody of film technique, the episode also uses a flashback to give a brief, albeit cynical history of labor organizing. As a turn-of-the-century worker is arrested for theft, he challenges the owner of the plant, Burns’s grandfather:
You can’t treat the working man this way. One day, we’ll form a union and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve! Then we’ll go too far, and get corrupt and shiftless, and the Japanese will eat us alive.
Here we see some of the typical ways satire operates on The Simpsons. While affirming the inherent justice of the labor rights movement, the final joke about the erosion of American economic dominance seems to retreat into a conventional neo-liberal assessment that unions “went too far” and thus are equally guilty as management for the current state of US economic productivity (a wishy-washy position parodied in “The Crepes of Wrath” when Homer attempts good parenting in an effort to resolve a political argument between Lisa and an Albanian exchange student/spy: “Maybe Lisa’s right about America being the land of opportunity, and maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers”). The fact that this assessment is a kind of conventional political sound bite draws attention to the very glibness of the joke, just as the anachronistic impossibility of the worker’s farsightedness points to the media tendency towards simplistic historical generalizations.
Still, the interpretive possibility remains that the program merely intends to reinforce an utterly cynical, and therefore politically “neutral,” position towards the mock labor struggle represented in the episode. In the end, however, Burns capitulates, not as a result of Homer’s bumbling or the actions of any individual character, but because the plant workers maintain solidarity. Lisa Simpson even concludes the episode by singing, in her trademark earnest style, a labor song she has composed for the occasion. The cynicism expressed in the parodic labor history is featured in the middle verse of the song, when Lisa sings “We’ll march ‘til we drop/ the girls and the fellas/ we’ll fight ‘til the death/ or else fold like umbrellas.” This cynicism seems to vanish, however, in the final verses, which Lisa sings with heartfelt sincerity: “So we’ll march day and night/ by the big cooling tower/ They have the plant/ but we have the power.”
Corporate capitalism, organized religion, the Republican Party as political wing of the dominant economic classes, education as part of the ideological state apparatus—all have figured as targets of satire on The Simpsons. Yet the show also relies on mainstays of the sitcom—the incompetent, infantile father, a well-meaning but neurotically overprotective mother, two smart aleck kids (one a trickster, one a brain), goofy neighbors—even as The Simpsons self-consciously acknowledges and thereby parodies these clichés. While seeming to operate from sociopolitical positions subversive to mainstream US cultural practices, the show itself has become a part of mainstream American culture, which brings us again to the central questions motivating this collection: can The Simpsons be both mainstream and oppositional? How do we understand the politics of a show that consistently holds corporate capitalism and consumer culture up to ridicule at the same time that it is the flagship program of a multinational media conglomerate? Does The Simpsons make television safe for satire or vice versa, and what does this say about the possibilities for the legacy of The Simpsons in particular and the idea of oppositional mass media in general? In short, what, if anything, is The Simpsons getting away with?
The title of this collection, Leaving Springfield, relates to these questions in three main ways. In the style of The Simpsons, the title alludes to a popular culture text—Mike Figgis’s film Leaving Las Vegas—that achieved high middlebrow status, the kind of pop cultural capital that The Simpsons mocks with regularity (e.g., “22 Short Films About Springfield,” an episode playing off the title of Francois Girard’s film, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) while at the same time claiming another kind of the cultural capital that accrues from embedding such a reference in a cartoon show in the first place. After all, it’s a reference only a specific segment of the audience for The Simpsons is likely to get. This simultaneous parody/homage is indicative of the desire to both belong to and make fun of a cultural elite, to be both of and above television, an unstable relationship with intellectual culture that is also inherent in cultural studies itself.
Taken as metaphor, Leaving Springfield questions the relationship between the fictional, almost mythic town of Springfield and the US culture that The Simpsons both makes fun and is now an integral part of, a relationship the show consistently highlights through episodes devoted to the self-referential treatment of its own status as prime-time sitcom. The main vehicle for this self-referential quality of The Simpsons may be the cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy & Scratchy show (itself discussed in many of the essays in this collection), a Tom and Jerry/Roadrunner parody that consistently features titles involving clever plays on pop culture texts (e.g., “My Dinner with Itchy,” “Four Funerals and a Wedding,” “Foster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”) and ultra-violent plots. The Simpsons has used Itchy & Scratchy to focus on various aspects of the cultural work of television programs, from the debates about the effects of media violence on children (the subject of William Savage’s essay) to the corporate decision-making processes that go into the development of a television program, to the continuing viability of The Simpsons itself as contemporary satire (the focus of Rob Sloane’s analysis in this collection).
Finally, Leaving Springfield raises the question of what, if any, utopian gesture is involved in The Simpsons as social satire, a question that goes to the heart of the problematic nature of The Simpsons’s status as “subversive” mainstream media. As Fredric Jameson has pointed out, “the effectively ideological is also, at the same time, necessarily Utopian,” suggesting that if The Simpsons is subversive, then we should have a sense of where we might be going if we leave Springfield.[vii] Do we understand The Simpsons, finally, as being about leaving Springfield, or is The Simpsons the latest version yet of the co-optation of the subversive, where a critical point-of-view is turned from being the basis for political action to a kind of attitude, coping mechanism, and ultimately consumer profile?
At this point, we may be tempted to ask if this is not too much cultural significance to bring to bear on what is, after all, a cartoon show. It is a question, of course, that betrays its own cultural bias. In a sense, to pose the question is to answer it. If the case needs to be made that The Simpsons deserves the kind of close reading it will receive in these pages, the essays included all testify to the richly allusive quality of the show, its multifaceted construction, and the sheer density of the cultural references that make a VCR an essential piece of viewing equipment for many fans of the show. (In fact, the writers of the show deliberately include gags and jokes only available by using the “pause” button.) Indeed, it is probably the case that no television program has ever been more about television—its history, formal conventions, and social impact—than The Simpsons, nor has any program made such extensive, detailed, and meticulous use of the visual field.
The main purpose of this collection, however, is not simply to make the claim that The Simpsons is worthy of serious appreciation as conventionally understood; that is, that The Simpsons is “better” than most television and therefore rises above the generally mediocre fare that defines the medium. The point is not that The Simpsons is “not like other television,” for this argument reproduces the standard hierarchical construction of contemporary culture, an issue addressed by both Kurt Koenigsberger and David Arnold in this collection. One of the premises informing this collection is not, therefore, to see how The Simpsons is unlike television but to understand The Simpsons as television, and highly influential television as well. As has been noted, one of the remarkable features of The Simpsons as opposed to other “cult” television shows (such as the various incarnations of Star Trek, Twin Peaks, or The X-Files) is its very popularity across a wide spectrum of viewers, and it is this very popularity as a mass media text that makes The Simpsons especially significant. From this perspective, the postmodern self-referentiality of The Simpsons can be taken not just a marker of the “intelligence” of the show and thereby of the viewer discerning enough to appreciate this aspect of the program, but as an act of cultural intervention, the potentially utopian gesture referred to above. In other words, the very popularity of The Simpsons raises the stakes of the social satire that is the hallmark of the show from a series of “in-jokes” for the cognoscenti to a potential kind of political action itself. It is this uneasy boundary between The Simpsons as television entertainment and The Simpsons as political intervention that invites scholarly attention and study.
If The Simpsons is an act of cultural intervention, then what is the nature of this intervention? What is The Simpsons saying about US culture and society, and to what ends? The essays in this collection are meant to provide the context and some starting points for the exploration of these questions. Roughly speaking, these starting points can be broken down into a series of primary areas of concern related to the nature of a postmodern satirical animated television program: the problematics of "postmodern" satire; the relation of the cultural specificity inherent in satire to the global distribution network of contemporary mass media; the semiotics of television comedy; and the complexities of viewer reception and interaction with the program. These areas of concern can also be read in terms of John Fiske’s classic definition of the foci of television studies: “the formal qualities of television programs and their flow; the intertextual relations of television within itself, with other media, and with conversation; and the study of socially situated readers and the processes of reading.” [viii]
The "postmodern" status of The Simpsons troubles both the ideas of cultural oppositionality and cultural satire. As critics from Lyotard to Jameson have famously noted, the fragmented, self-conscious nature of postmodern culture tends to undermine, often deliberately, the idea of a sustained, coherent, and activist political worldview or critique informing any cultural text. Definitions of the "postmodern" are of course legion, but for our purposes we can locate the postmodernity of The Simpsons in the program's relentless self-referentiality, a consistent foregrounding of itself as a television program and media construct that functions as an operative principle and satirical target of the show, not just an occasional rhetorical gesture. Thus, The Simpsons uses satire not only to undermine the pretensions to cultural significance of various texts from both "high" and "low" culture, it includes itself as part of that mockery, potentially undercutting the cultural critique in which the program seems to be engaged. Such a cultural stance that operates through the destabilizing of the concepts of positionality, identity, and referentiality creates perhaps insurmountable problems when we try to determine the focus, direction, and purpose of its satirical operation.
As Jane Feuer points out, "Television presents a further problem for theorists of the postmodern . . . in that TV is not 'post'-anything. There was no modernist TV.”[ix] In other words, whether discussing the self-referentiality or pastiche-quality of television, we can not do so in relation to some earlier, precapitalist or pretechnological formation of television about which we can construct a nostalgic model of plenitude, referentiality, or sincerity, as has been the case in literary, art, and music criticism. Instead, television has been a quintessential "postmodern" medium from the very beginning. Like film and radio, television was developed as a mass medium in an industrially-based, capitalist mass society. Like all broadcast media, television can therefore be understood as a "corporate" art form in two senses.
From the perspective of economic structure, television is a product of the corporation as economic entity (as opposed to, say, the novel, the development of which predated the emergence of corporate capitalism). As a result, we can understand the artistic production of television programs as a thoroughly "corporate" activity, with a creative process that takes place within and is directed by corporate management structures (like film, television production involves just as many vice-presidents as it does writers, directors, and actors). The idea of the artistic text as commodity is not a manifestation of changing modes of production in relation to television; it is instead definitive of the form, as most early television programs did not just sell advertising time within the shows but were in fact produced by the sponsoring corporations. Thus, in the case of US television the concept of the auteur is an even shakier idea than in film. When auteur theory is used in television, as Vincent Brook points out in his essay in this collection, the attention significantly is paid more to producers (Norman Lear, Aaron Spelling, Steven Bochco) than to directors and writers. [x]
Prime-time animation in general and The Simpsons in particular are significant in that they seem to buck this corporate trend, in part because the drawing style that defines each animated show acts as a visible signifier of an identifiable artist, thus suggesting a personal vision that does in fact hearken back to "modernist" constructions of culture, with their Romantic insistence on the importance of the unique consciousness and style of the individual artist. As a consequence, television animation has seen the rise of the artist as cultural celebrity and video auteur, whether Matt Groening in the case of The Simpsons and Futurama, Mike Judge (Beavis & Butt-Head, King of the Hill), or Matt Parker and Trey Stevens (South Park). Television journalists regularly identify The Simpsons as Groening's show, although he has only written or co-written a handful of episodes once the program became a series. Clearly, in his role as executive producer Groening is an important part of the creative team, but it is probably safe to say that the identification with Groening is most strongly maintained by the visual look of the program, a style that extends to the level of orthography, as it is even possible to install a Simpsons/Groening font on word processing programs.
Groening himself actively promotes the connection of the show with himself not just in terms of artistic style but general political outlook as well. His on-going comic strip Life in Hell makes occasional reference to Groening's work on The Simpsons. In a cartoon from 1994, for example, Groening depicts himself at his laptop logging onto the alt.tv.Simpsons listerv to distract him from a vague depression. He comes across (and reprints in the cartoon) a right-wing diatribe occasioned by the airing of "Sideshow Bob Roberts," a Simpsons episode that takes specific aim at the Republican party, whose local Springfield brain trust is depicted as praying to Satan and whose candidate, the former children's television personality and ex-con Sideshow Bob, threatens Bart and Lisa with the imprecation,” No children ever meddled with the Republican party and lived to tell about it." The listerv contributor urges his fellow viewers not to “let the sleaziest, least ethical elements of the left wing in television get away with slandering the Republican party” and fantasizes about “seeing Groening writhing in pain as he dangled by a section of his intestine from a tree.” Throughout the cartoon Groening is pictured staring impassively at the screen before looking up in the final panel and asking, “Why do I feel so suddenly refreshed?”[xi] (Of course, the fact that The Simpsons’s viewership includes the politically conservative previews the complexities of understanding the reception dynamics of the program).
Still, if The Simpsons can be seen as Groening's show it is just as obviously a product of Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, a relationship the program does not try to hide. On the contrary, in good postmodern fashion the program regularly foregrounds its status as Fox corporate product, often while denigrating the Fox network and its corporate holdings, to the point even of suggesting viewers turn to other networks as soon as The Simpsons is over. One obvious reading of this strategy is to resist or at least dilute the perception that The Simpsons has been co-opted by the corporate media empire of which it is a lucrative part. These mocking references to Fox can function at the same time as signifiers of both the independence of The Simpsons and the supposed hipness of Fox, meanings that can work together in the marketing of the show as "alternative" oppositional television and the marketing of Fox as a "renegade" network. This complicated relationship between The Simpsons and Fox encapsulates the potentially circular logic plaguing the idea of "oppositional" mass media: are Groening et al using Fox, or is Fox using them?
[i] Both a complete chronological listing of all episodes of The Simpsons as well as an alphabetical listing of those episodes referred to in this collection, along with production code numbers, original airdates, and credits for writers and directors, can be found in the appendix.
[ii] Stephen Bochco’s abortive Fish Police notwithstanding.
[iii] Caption from Simpsons postcard.
[iv] The current drive among the broadcast networks to lower production costs while holding onto a shrinking share of the viewing public links the re-emergence of prime time animation to both the post-Millionaire game show trend and the Survivor-influenced proliferation of so-called “reality” programming, both of which represent substantial production savings in terms of writing, on-air talent, and other costs associated with conventional sitcoms and dramas.
[v] Not coincidentally, one of the leading producers of cable television animation, Klasky-Csupo studios (Rug Rats, The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power), was also the home of The Simpsons from its beginning on The Tracy Ullman Show to the end of the third season.
[vi] David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 20.
[vii] Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative As A Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 286.
[viii] John Fiske, Television Culture (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), 16.
[ix] Jane Feuer, Seeing Through The Eighties: Television And Reaganism (Durham: Duke UP, 1995), 6.
[x] This situation is somewhat different in countries with large government-subsidized networks, such as the BBC, where television series are sometimes identified as the work of a particular writer. The advent of cable television may suggest a similar development in US television, where so-called "premium" channels such as HBO will sponsor a series featuring the work of a particular writer or performer (e.g., Gary Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show, Tom Fontana's Oz, David Chase’s The Sopranos, or Allan Ball’s Six Feet Under).
[xi] Matt Groening, “Life in Hell,” cartoon, Acme Features Syndicate, October 28, 1994.
© 2003 John Alberti
An excerpt from Leaving Springfield:
The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture by John Alberti (editor).
Last updated on November 29, 2003 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)