The Simpsons - The real America?

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Abstract

The main purpose of this study has been to compare the series The Simpsons with the real America. How does for example institutions like family life and religion in the show relate to the American society’s and which similarities and differences can be discerned? Furthermore, I have tried to find out whether the characters in the series have any equivalencies in the USA. My major question during the study has been the following: Does the show reflect the American society, for better or worse?

In order of answering the question I have used a so-called comparative method, where you compare various sources with one another. The sources have mainly been found on the Internet and they have consisted of periodical articles, extracts from books and essays. All the sources I have been using are written in English. The same regards the only book I have been utilising.

By using both the sources and my own opinions I have drawn the conclusion that the show in an intelligent way reflects America and points out both the good and bad sides of its society. The family is being depicted like an institution obliged of not to giving in to a controlling government. When it comes to religion in The Simpsons, one can notice that you can turn to God and pray in times of crisis, but the show does at the same time criticise the hypocrisy in church. In addition, many characters have counterparts in real life.


Table of contents:

1. Introduction
1.1 Background
1.1.1 Matt Groening
1.1.2 The show’s creation
1.1.3 The first years of the show and its characteristics
1.2 Aim

2. Methodology

3. Results
3.1 The characters and their interaction
3.1.1 The Simpsons family members
3.1.1.1 Homer
3.1.1.2 Marge
3.1.1.3 Bart
3.1.1.4 Lisa
3.1.2 The family as an institution
3.2 Religion
3.2.1 Church’s influence on society

4. Discussion

5. Conclusion

References

Appendix



1. Introduction

1.1 Background

I have chosen to write about the cartoon TV series The Simpsons. It is a series about the Simpsons who lives in a typical American small-town. In a humoristic fashion, the show depicts the American society and the rest of the world. It centres around politics, religion and family life. The show is not only popular in the US, but all around the world. I have chosen this subject for my project work because I am very interested of the series which has given me different kinds of knowledge. I have improved my English skills for example and the show has also made me more interested of America in general. My project focuses on the things I have mentioned. It is the characters, family life and religion. More background facts about the series can be found below.

1.1.1 Matt Groening

The artist and satirist Matt Groening is the creator of The Simpsons. He was born 1954 in Portland, Oregon in Northwest America (von Busack, 2000. Search the document for: ”I had a series of lousy jobs”). He went to Evergreen College in the state of Washington before he moved to Los Angeles in 1977 in hope of becoming an author. In an interview made by Richard von Busack from 1986, Groening discusses why he moved and what it was like to come to the big-town:

I moved to Los Angeles, because it was the city in which writers were the most overpaid in the world. Finally I saw an ad in the L.A. Times: “writer/chauffeur”. I answered that ad and I got the job. I drove an 88-year-old movie director around during the day, and at night my job was to sit at his desk and ghost-write his autobiography. (von Busack)

After that absurd job, he began drawing a satirical cartoon called Life in Hell with the rabbit Binky as the main character. He then was hired by the editor of the Reader as a delivery boy. The task also included pasting of the newspapers and answering the telephone. His own cartoons did not sell that well in Los Angeles, but the books with his collected comics were successful.

1.1.2 The show’s creation

In early 1987 Groening was contacted by the producer James L. Brooks (Turner, 2005 p. 16f). Brooks was eager on meeting Groening with an offer which would give Matt the opportunity of animating his own cartoon Life in Hell and having it be a part of Brooks new TV show The Tracey Ullman Show, on the channel Fox. Chris Turner describes what happened at their meeting: Groening sat and waited outside the producer’s office and thought about his future and the ten years he had spent in Los Angeles. Could he really sell his series which would give Fox all its rights after so many years of drawing? He decided to keep the characters, he came up with something else instead.

Just minutes before the meeting, Groening started doing a rough sketch of some figures in a dysfunctional family with a dumb father, stressed mother and three disobedient kids. Because time was short, he was in a hurry to come up with a surname. Finally he thought of Simpson, which is a regular American name. He gave the characters names after his own family. Father Homer, mother Marge, sisters Lisa and Maggie and the boy Bart (an anagram of brat). James L. Brooks accepted Groening’s new idea and the show would soon premier, April 19, 1987. The first episode named Good Night was one minute and 45 seconds long, in which the parents tell the children good night stories that frightens them.

Author John Alberti, tells how The Simpsons in the beginning as one minute episodes was something new (Alberti, 2003 passage 1-2). The films took satirical aim at American family life, in the heart of the Ronald Reagan era (appendix 1). One of the short episodes focuses on the reluctance of the two oldest Simpson children, Bart and Lisa, to attend church. They proclaim themselves pagans, much to the fury of their father Homer and the conventional mother Marge. The reason this could be seen on TV on a Sunday, Alberti tells us, was that producer James L. Brooks and Fox were willing to tolerate a certain amount of experimentation in order to attract younger viewers.

Turner describes how poorly animated the cartoon was in the “Ullman shorts” and it may even have been the exact skits of the figures Groening showed the producer that were being used (Turner p. 19-24). There was not really any depth in the characters at the very start either. But the first couple of episodes attended attraction from both The Washington Post and Newsday, although the journalists preferred Groening’s earlier comics. A new episode appeared almost every Sunday the coming three years with a family that did not, like other TV shows, have morals or an all-knowing father. Fox thought the series had potential and after the third season of shorts, Groening was given the chance of doing 20-minutes episodes. The first season contained 13 episodes and began on December 17, 1989.

1.1.3 The series’ first years and its characteristics

In the very first episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, the family is celebrating Christmas. Homer does not receive a bonus from the nuclear power plant where he is employed before the holiday, which gives him no other choice than taking an extra job as Santa, in order of affording Christmas presents. But when it looks more hopeless than ever, Bart and Homer adopts a forlorn and devoted dog that saves Christmas. In this episode we get acquainted with a few characters, like Homer’s heartless boss Mr. Burns, Barney the booze hound and the irritating yet perfect neighbour Ned. Something is very significant with The Simpsons according to Turner. The thing is, apart from the writers no outsider can change what is seen on the air. This relationship between the show and Fox is unusual in American television. This has made it possible for the series to make fun of religion for example.

Groening hired more voice actors after the Tracey Ullman Shorts. It was not sufficient with the few actors voicing the family, they wanted people who had experience from other programmes. During the first and second season of The Simpsons when it had become a real show, two new voice actors contributed to the cast and they have played ten different figures each up to now. Moreover, it was even more important with the writers Groening hired at the time. The Simpsons would soon be a cartoon series where the storylines were the most important thing unlike in other shows. The writers were the ones who later developed the characters and they decided the destiny of The Simpsons. Groening thought it was far better having capable writers than a stylish animator studio.

Chris Turner also explains how to make a manuscript by referring to an interview with David Owen, who was one of Simpsons writer George Meyers friends in college. The whole process takes place in a conference room at Fox Studios. The writers alter a script half a dozen of times in this room before the voice actors actually see it. During an episode’s process which takes nine months from the first draft up to it is animated, they change the script even more. Turner cites the writer Matt Selman from an interview in The New York Times where he says that “a good script is when you change 75 per cent of it and everyone goes ‘good script’”. A manuscript is written by everybody in the conference room, though it says it is done by one or two people in the beginning of an episode.

Around 370 episodes have been broadcast over the years and it is all thanks to the writers who have created so many characters in addition to the Simpsons. Author Gerd Steiger, describes what the show is about, namely everyday-life or extraordinary incidents or events occurring at locations such as the prison and the mall (Steiger, 1999 passage 16-20). But the most important “institutions” in Springfield include the local TV station, the convenient store Kwik-E-Mart, the retirement home, Moe’s Tavern etc. But Steiger highlight the overshadowing Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, short SNPP. Owned by the exploitative Mr. Burns, the SNPP is Springfield’s major employer and the centre of public life. Besides producing nuclear power, the plant also causes nuclear waste, which is rarely noted by the citizens.

Author Richard Corliss has according to Steiger stated that “The first few minutes of any episode are so packed with comic detail that the story could go in any of a dozen directions”. The series’ setting contribute to a variety of highly diverse plot lines, opening up the whole universe of storytelling the genre of animation is capable of; that is portraying both reality and the surreal in an artistic as well as dramatic manner.

1.2 Aim

The aim of this project is to compare The Simpsons with the real America. What similarities/differences can be found and so forth. How does religion and family life in the show relate to the American society? I will better understand The Simpsons humoristic depiction of USA by doing this project. It will also give me the opportunity to tell others about something I am interested of. The question I am planning to answer is the following: Does the show reflect the American society, for better or worse?

2. Methodology

I have written this paper with assistance from 10-15 sources in order of answering my question. First and foremost, I began studying these sources which gave me an idea of how I should write the paper and finally I started working. I have been using a comparative method in which you compare different sources with each other. I have only used sources from the Internet with the exception for one book. I consider the sources as reliable, because they mostly consist of newspaper articles, essays and extracts from books.

The sources have not been compared in the first heading called Introduction, this will be made later on. Some subheadings begins with a brief description of 5-10 lines about that specific subject and afterwards follows the sources opinions. An objective analyse will be included in two subjects. I will try to answer my question in the heading Conclusion with help from the method.

3. Results

3.1 The characters and their interaction

3.1.1 The Simpsons family members

Which qualities has the individuals in the Simpson family? What kind of father figure is Homer and how does Marge take care of the household? How has the children been brought up by their parents? The coming pages is an exposition of the characters in the Simpsons, except for the cat Snowball II and the dog Santa’s Little Helper, plus the one-year old baby Maggie, who is most famous for shooting Mr. Burns.

3.1.1.1 Homer

Gerd Steiger describes Homer as follows: As the patriarch of the Simpson family and worker drone/safety inspector at the SNPP, a “dead-ending blue-collar job”, the overweight Homer is the average loser (Steiger, chapter ”Homer J. Simpson”). At age 36, Homer holds the plant record for “most years worked at an entry-level position” and, at his high school reunion, has won the awards for “most weight gained”, “most improved odour”, “most hair lost”, “oldest car”, and “lowest-paying job”. Homer holds the promises his outward appearance suggests: Not only is he fat, lazy and incompetent, he is also slow-witted.

Homer’s favourite pastimes include sitting on the couch while watching TV and drinking beer and going bowling and drinking beer. Homer’s trademark utterances are “D’oh!”, when things don’t work the way he thinks they should be working, and “Mmm...”, when being tempted. While not always being the perfect husband and father, he is always faithful to his wife and willing to do anything for his kids. His dramatic function is that of basically being a test subject at the mercy of the manipulating forces of the modern world: entertainment, commercials, even politics. Homer unawarely internalises what the various components of pop culture try to suggest: that violence is not that bad, mass-consumption of anything is a must and that nuclear power is the safest form of energy.

The character of Homer is a powerful dramatic tool, an awareness factor. By being so completely naive towards any influence of manipulation, he shakes the viewer, pointing precisely on the very manipulating influences relevant in our capitalistic popular culture.

According to professor Paul A. Cantor at Virginia University, the show has been criticised for depicting the father as stupid, uneducated, weak in character and without morals (Cantor, 1998 p. 5f). Homer is all those things, but at least he is there. He fulfils the bare minimum of a father: he is present for his wife and above all his children. To be sure, he lacks many of the qualities we would like to see in the ideal father. He is selfish, often putting his own interest above that of his family. But at the same time Homer is willing to work to support his family, even in the dangerous job of nuclear power plant safety supervisor, a job made all the more dangerous by the fact that he is the one doing it.

Take away all the qualities that make for a genuinely good father - wisdom, compassion, even temper, selflessness - and what you have left is Homer Simpson with his pure, mindless, dogged devotion to his family. That is why for all his stupidity, bigotry, and self-centred quality, we cannot hate Homer. He continually fails at being a good father, but he never gives up.

3.1.1.2 Marge

Author Bastian Vogl has this to say about Marge: Marge Simpson, 34, is an easily satisfied housewife that is proud of her family and content with the life she leads, although she sometimes tries to escape from her boring situation (Vogl, 2000 chapter ”1.1.2 Marjorie Bouvier-Simpson”). For instance, she fights against the lavish monorail Springfield decides to buy from the fine Mr. Burns has to pay for illegal disposal of nuclear waste. The fact that she does not succeed in avoiding its construction summarises that her tries to play an important role in society also fail, although her reservations were justified, as the monorail almost causes a disaster because of malfunction.

Marge is the central part of the family, who, unlike Homer, really cares for her children, for instance by giving them advice that helps them solve their problems. One example would be the episode The Boy Who Knew Too Much, where Bart plays truant and witnesses a waiter being knocked down, which the mayor''''s nephew is wrongly accused of. Bart, who could clear him by admitting that he skipped class, for which he himself would be punished, finally asks his mother what to do. She understands her son’s problem and tells him, “Honey, you should listen to your heart, and not the voices in your head”, which makes Bart do the right thing in the end: he tells the truth. This also shows the relatively big influence Marge has on her children, because her relationship to them is, compared to her husband’s.

Gerd Steiger who was cited in the headline above gives the following description Marge: In her threefold role as loving wife, nurturing mother and busy homemaker, Marge partly fulfils the cliché of the typical, easily satisfied housewife (Steiger, chapter ”Marjorie Simpson”). She takes pride in her family, her home-sweet-home and in Marge’s case, in her long blue hair, dye #56. Marge, whose slightly rough voice displays a certain calmness and affection, without a doubt is the stabilising element, the thread that holds the Simpson family together. She is the centre and the anchor, in short: she is the family’s very own Mom. Marge does not always immediately know the right answers, as when she told Lisa always to smile even though Lisa was really unhappy, but in the end, she always manages to do or say the right thing.

She is being held back by her overwhelming love towards her family, Marge finds herself caught in her threefold role. Marge''''s yearning for a more comfortable and stimulating life turns into some sort of activism, which often results from a desire to protect her children from any negative influence. Out of this background, Marge has, for instance, been trying to close down the local burlesque house and to ban the violent “Itchy & Scratchy Show” from television. Marge is very aware of Homer’s endless list of flaws and failures, a fact which can be observed again and again, still, she is not even close to shove a bottle in his face. Her motherly love is infinite, but at the same time a millstone round her neck, holding her back on her way to self-realisation.

3.1.1.3 Bart

On The Simpsons official web-site it says that Bart is the most misunderstood Simpson (Fox.com, click Q-S, then Simpson, Bart). He is constantly frustrated over the narrow-minded citizens of Springfield who judge him only for his thoughts and actions. At heart he is just a good kid with a few bad ideas, a couple of really bad ones and one or two that are still reviewed by attorneys. Basically, Bart is no different from any ordinary fourth grader. He enjoys skateboarding and drinking Squishee from the Kwik-E-Mart (app. 2). Labelled an “underachiever” by authority figures, Bart rides an academic roller coaster, his grades running the loop-the-loop from F to D-minus, and back again.

But he can be clever when the chips are down – as long as his cleverness is never used in school. He even learned portions of the Jewish book Talmud to help reunite his idol, Krusty the Clown, with his father Rabbi Krustofsky. Perhaps more than anything else, Bart’s first words as a baby provide a window of his character: ”Aye Carumba!” – as true today as they were when first it was uttered.

Bastian Vogl who was cited in the last chapter about Marge, writes that Bart, the oldest child of the Simpsons, may be called the black sheep of the family, as the list of his pranks is very long (Vogl, chapter ”1.1.3 The Children - Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson”). His entertaining role that becomes obvious by the calls to Moe’s Tavern is no less important than his function as a child making his first experiences in life, as Bart’s adventures are always didactic. For example, Bart exchanges an IQ test at school with the one of his highly intelligent classmate and finally receives 216 points, which is the double of the average result. For this reason, he is, on recommendation of a psychiatrist, sent to a school for the gifted, where there are no rules, no homework, nothing to prevent intellectual creativity.

When he hears this, Bart’s eyes open wide and he eagerly accepts the offer, although his excitement does not last long, as his new classmates realise immediately that he is certainly not almost as intelligent as them. Therefore Bart becomes an outsider, who is rejected by his former friends when he tries to join them. Soon, he cannot stand the situation anymore, and thus decides to confess everything. This episode clearly figures out, by means of the didactic boy, that cheating is not the desirable way of getting ahead in life, as the situation can easily get out of control and turn against oneself.

Tim Southwell published an article where Matt Groening gave his comments on Bart (Southwell, august 1996. Search the document for: ”Within months”). The journalist tells that Americans a few months after The Simpsons premiered, walked around with T-shirts that boasted slogans made famous by 10-year-old Bart, for example ”Underachiever And Proud Of It!” and ”Eat My Shorts”. Groening said the following on how the series had been criticised for the shirts:

There’s the old charge that we’re encouraging kids to be insolent and disobey their teachers and more specifically to be proud to be underachievers. The political point I was trying to make with those T-shirts is that no kid calls themselves an underachiever, that’s a label applied by grown-ups and that if you’re labelled an underachiever you might as well be proud of it. (Southwell, search the doc. for: ”old charge”)

3.1.1.4 Lisa

On a web-site devoted to the Simpsons, Shannon Vieira writes the following in the biography of Lisa: Lisa Simpson is the middle-child in the Simpsons family and is without a doubt, the most ethical and intelligent member of her family. (Vieira, the whole text) Lisa is in the second grade at Springfield elementary school where she excels in all subject areas. A truly gifted child, Lisa not only receives the top grades but is also a talented saxophone player. Her mentor is the now deceased “Bleeding Gums Murphy” whom she had met and jammed with on several occasions.

Lisa is the perfect child and that often creates many problems for her. Big brother Bart constantly teases her for getting top grades, Homer can''''t understand why Lisa is a vegetarian, the kids at school think she’s a nerdy “brainiac” and Marge is always telling her to smile despite her sadness. Yet despite all of these obstacles and the lack of attention she receives, Lisa is a great success. Some of her accomplishments have included winning the regional Reader''''s Digest essay contest, coming in as runner-up in the Miss Springfield Pageant, invented the doll “Lisa Lionheart”, helped Mr. Burns recover from bankruptcy and was the first female to pass the second grade at Rommelwood Military Academy

The Simpsons website says that Lisa takes after both her parents: she has Marge’s common sense, hard work ethic and sympathy for others and Homer’s last name (Fox.com, click Q-S, then Simpson, Lisa). Lisa’s enormous intelligence and moral authority place her in a unique position in the Simpson family and, for that matter, Springfield at large. Each parents’ night at Springfield Elementary, Homer and Marge fight to meet with Lisa’s teachers rather than Bart’s on the theory that being offered cookies as thanks is less upsetting and costly, than reviewing property damage assessments for melted playground equipment. This second grader is a devoted vegetarian who also plays the saxophone with the virtuosity, if not the stubble, of Springfield’s late blues great, ”Bleeding Gums Murphy”.

For the record, Lisa says she watches TV only for The MacNeil-Lehrer Report (app. 3) – especially since it expanded to an hour – and Masterpiece Theatre, (app. 4) in case new serialisations of wordy British novels has come out. However, she is always willing to interrupt a fascinating MacNeil-Lehrer roundtable whenever her beloved ”Itchy & Scratchy” are on TV. Her love for cartoon characters proves that, no matter how precocious she may be, Lisa still is a Simpson.

3.1.2 The family as an institution

How does the characters in the Simpson family interact? In which way is the family compounded and does it reflect a virtual? Author Gerd Steiger starts with a quote from Matt Groening: The family is “good-hearted, but at the mercy of their extremely volatile emotions - rage, self-pity, disdain” (Steiger, chapter ”The Family Unit”).

While each family member is a well-rounded, three dimensional character with certain dramatic functions, the Simpson family as a whole builds up to a highly complex weave of internal relationships, displaying more realism than traditional TV families such as the Cosbys (app. 5) or the Waltons (app. 6). Of course, there can be no denying the fact, that any “functional” family should primarily teach generosity and love, - values which also the Simpsons are yearning for.

Steiger then quotes Time Magazine’s Barbara Ehrenreich who have said that, ”even in the ostensibly ‘functional’, non-violent family, where no one is killed or maimed, feelings are routinely bruised and often twisted out of shape”. And precisely that is the reason why the Simpsons can under no circumstances be seen as an irresponsibly dysfunctional family, an accusation carried forward by numerous critics mainly in the series’ early years. The Simpsons are the satirical portrayal of a 90s real-life pop-culture family. The values they transmit are nothing new. They have been prevailing for a long time! The British anthropologist Edmund Leach once stated that, ”far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all discontents”.

Groening must have realised that family life also includes “deep, impacted tensions and longings”, that it is “so complicated, so full of inarticulated desires and fears, that it can never be reduced to a mere collection of wisecracks” (the quotations are what Ehrenreich has stated). Seen from that angle, Groening must even be seen as a pioneer: never before has a family sitcom been as realistic. The use of the word revolutionary is clearly justified.

Paul A. Cantor has his own opinion of how the family functions (Cantor, p. 7f ). He writes: Exploring the question of whether the Simpson family really is dysfunctional, the foster parent episode offers two alternatives to it (more information about the episode can be found in the analysis). On one hand, the old-style moral/religious family; on the other, the nanny state (app. 7). Who is best able to raise the Simpson children? The civil authorities intervene, claiming that Homer and Marge are unfit as parents. They must be reeducated and are sent off to a “family skills class” based on the premise that experts know better how to raise children. Child rearing is a matter of a certain kind of expertise, which can be taught. This is the modern answer: the family is inadequate as an institution and hence the state must intervene to make it function.

But the answer the show offers is that the Simpson children are better off with their real parents - not because they are more intelligent or learned in child rearing, and not because they are superior in morality or piety, but simply because Homer and Marge are the people most genuinely attached to Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, since the children are their own offspring. The episode works particularly well to show the horror of the supposedly all-knowing state, intruding in every aspect of family life. When Homer desperately tries to call up Bart and Lisa, he hears the official message: “The number you have dialed can no longer be reached from this phone, you negligent monster”. In the end, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are joyously reunited with Homer and Marge. Despite charges of being dysfunctional, the Simpson family functions quite well because the children are attached to their parents and vice versa.

The family knows best. Even as the show rejects the idea of a simple return to the traditional moral/religious idea of the family, it refuses to accept contemporary statist attempts to subvert the family completely and reasserts the enduring value of the family as an institution.

Analysis
This analysis is going to compare Paul A. Cantor and Gerd Steiger’s view of the family and how it corresponds to a family in reality.

Steiger begins with saying that the Simpsons is more realistic than families like the Cosbys and the Waltons. Cantor does not really say the exact same words as Steiger, but he thinks the family is well-functioning, though being accused as dysfunctional. The main point in Cantor’s description of the family is its struggle against the authorities. He thinks the government push their way through too much. Cantor supports his theory by mentioning an episode where the social welfare takes the kids away from Homer and Marge. The kids are taken into custody by the neighbouring family Flanders, something the authorities are responsible of. The Simpson parents are forced to learn more of family life before they are allowed to get their kids back. The Flanders family finds out that the Simpson children are not baptised at the end of the episode. But Marge and Homer gets a hold of the kids moments before Ned Flanders is about to baptise Bart and the Simpsons are reunited again.

Steiger stresses out that a normal family experience difficulties in everyday-life, which would prove that the Simpsons is functional and not a dysfunctional family as some critics have meant. A comparison between these two authors radiates a feeling of unanimity . Though they have different approaches on the family, there are similarities between their thoughts. Steiger thinks a family should “teach generosity and love” which the Simpson family members strive for. Simultaneously, professor Cantor believes that the Simpsons works better without interaction from social welfare, because the family members are so incredibly ”attached” to each other. Both authors think love is present in the Simpson household and they both talk about family composition in the real America.

Cantor thinks that the state controls the family in Springfield and other families’ privacy in the US, while Steiger means that the Simpsons is the satirical portrayal of the modern family.

3.2 Religion

Religion plays a major part in everyday-life for the citizens of Springfield. They go to church every Sunday, say Grace at dinner and pray at times of crisis. Religion is present in almost every episode. Author John Sohn claims that other American TV shows avoids religion (Sohn, 2000 the tenth passage). He thereafter refer to what the creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, has said in an interview. Groening thinks that right-wingers complain there is no God on TV, whereupon he mentions that everything concerning Him can be seen in his series. Below follows more thoughts on how the show treats religion according to a few people.

3.2.1 Church’s influence on society

How important is the church and Christian beliefs among the people in Springfield and the whole population in the USA? In the 23rd edition of World Magazine, written by Gene Edward Veith, David Dark is quoted. Dark is a journalist of Christian left magazine Prism (Veith, 2005 the whole text). He thinks that The Simpsons is “the most pro-family, God-preoccupied, home-based program on television”. More from Veith’s article comes next, followed by other sources’ opinions.

Veith tells that for many Christians, The Simpsons is at best a guilty pleasure. It is on many families’ lists of shows children are absolutely not allowed to watch. They consider the show a travesty and a mockery, displaying nothing but bad role models and irreverent attitude. Now in its 15th year as a television series and having passed its landmark 350th episode, the show inspires both rabid fans and rabid detractors. And both sides have a point. Veith believes that the depiction of religion is mostly sympathetic, but sometimes The Simpsons walks - or trips over - the line between comic insight and sacrilege. The Word of God is holy, but Simpsons characters spout garbled and made-up Bible verses from non-existent books like “First Thessaleezians”. The show’s shameless attitude is sometimes aimed at God, as when Bart says this meal-time prayer: “Dear God, we paid for all of this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing”. The sacrilege is never justifiable, but the nature of comedy leads its creators to live dangerously.

According to Aristotle, tragedy presents human beings as better than they really are, while comedy presents them as worse. We might want to imitate the noble heroes and heroines of a tragedy, but never the characters in a comedy. The classical thinkers believed that comedy was among the most moral of art forms because it ridicules vice, making us look down upon bad behaviour. In other words, comedy gives us reverse role models, presenting characters that we want to avoid imitating. Anyone who watches Bart and wants to be a smart-mouthed underachiever is too young to understand the show. No one wants to emulate Homer, who sleeps on the job when he is supposed to be monitoring the safety of the nuclear plant, who spends all the family Christmas money on a silly gadget for himself. Homer also believes that if God wanted us to worship Him for an hour every week, He would have made the week an hour longer. The humorous spectacle of Homer is supposed to make us want to be a better person - more responsible, more sensitive, and a lot smarter.

But what about ridiculing religion? “Some things are too serious, solemn, or sacred to be turned into ridicule”, observed the great satirist Jonathan Swift, “yet the abuses of them are certainly not”. Sometimes The Simpsons transgresses here, falling into irreverence and bad taste. But sometimes the religious satire hits a deserving target. Author Mark Pinsky says to the magazine who published this article that, "God and sincere faith are not mocked. Practice, yes. Unrealistic expectations, yes. Institutional failings, yes”. Then Veith describes Reverend Lovejoy who is surrounded by a vast parking lot and who talks with droning rhythms of the stereotyped Southern preacher. He preaches incomprehensible sermons that put everyone to sleep. Still, he tries (way too hard) to be relevant.

Pinsky, who is Jewish, tells the same magazine that the theology satirised in The Simpsons is usually the good-people-go-to-heaven and bad-people-go-to-hell variety. If evangelicals (app.8), Catholics, the Bible, and Christian symbols take their hits, the religion satirised on The Simpsons is often not Christianity at all, but the common cultural counterfeit of generic religion, with its non-specific deity, salvation by works, and social respectability. Where Christianity is most present is in the lives of some of the people who work to produce the show, especially the artists and animators. Mr. Groening refuses to talk about his religious beliefs, but the writing of each episode is a collaborative process. Mr. Pinsky describes the script-writing as a free-for-all, with dozens of people - atheists, Jews, Catholics, Protestants - throwing out their ideas.

The goal is always to be funny and entertaining, stressed those World Magazine spoke to who work for The Simpsons. Spiritual or moral issues in the show arise naturally from the characters. “I definitely see it as a very, very funny and entertaining show”, said artist Chris Bolden. “It ventures into the moral and spiritual because like any show that has gone over 350 episodes, those subjects are just going to come up”. Citing the dearth of Christian writers, he said, “I believe the themes just emerge - they emerge out of hearts that are dark”. Nevertheless, “overall, it is good work”. Background artist Lance Wilder have said, “I try to incorporate Bible verses and the fish symbol into the visuals of the show whenever possible and wherever appropriate”. That accounts for the sign at the Springfield science fair that read, “Evolution: Theory Taught as Fact”.

So is working on a satirical and frequently irreverent TV show a valuable calling for a Christian? “I just continue to ask myself, ‘Why am I here?’” said Mr. Bolden. “To me, it’s not about the animation and storylines. It’s about the people I work with. Am I sharing the love of Christ? Are they receiving something from me that they don’t see or receive from anyone else?” Mr. Bolden said that some Christians have given him a hard time for working on The Simpsons, asking, “How could you work on a show like that? It’s so sacrilegious”. But “if all the Christians that work on that show quit, the show would continue on strong, yet there would be no beacons of light to point people towards Christ Jesus”. Mr. Bolden sees his work as his God-given calling and he hopes that He will continue to open doors for him.

Apparently even the zany universe of Springfield, whether its denizens and creators fully realise it or not, is under the sovereignty of God.

John Sohn writes that with popularity comes controversy and many people have taken offence to The Simpsons (Sohn, the whole text). Comments and jokes made on different social institutions are received as insulting. Much of the conflict surrounds the issue of religion. The Simpsons has received negative criticism throughout the nation from the church’s pulpit, denouncing the series as immoral, sacrilegious, and damaging to traditional family values. Former President George Bush stated in 1992, “We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons” (app. 9). As evidence, protestors cite excerpts from the show. In one scene, Homer Simpson is praying to God:

Dear Lord, the gods have been good to me and I am thankful. For the first time in my life everything is absolutely perfect the way it is. So here’s the deal: you freeze everything as it is and I won’t ask for anything more. If that is okay, please give me absolutely no sign. (pause) Okay, deal. In gratitude, I present to you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, please give me no sign. (pause) Thy will be done. (Sohn)

In a more severe case, lines made on an episode caused a complaint from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. With pressure from the network officials, The Simpsons producers altered the line when later airing on reruns.

Others defend that the show uses religion merely as a satirical element, with no harm intended. Reverend Lovejoy, the devout pastor of the First Church of Springfield, is often used to depict the hypocrisy of Christianity. While he preaches against “Gambling: the Eighth Deadly Sin”, the church holds Bingo, Reno, and Monte Carlo nights. Some have claimed that the series is actually the most religious, non-evangelical, show on television. The Simpsons “takes religion’s place in society seriously enough to do it the honour of making fun of it”. Religion is plentiful on The Simpsons. The Simpson family is actively Christian, attending the First Church of Springfield every Sunday and praying at mealtimes. While Homer may sometimes listen to football at church and Bart’s prayers consist only of “Rub a dub, dub, thanks for the grub”, God is present, showing that this is a family where God has a place at the table now and again.

John Sohn consider the most sincere moments in the programme to be when the characters are praying to God. When Bart has sold his soul to Milhouse and tries to gain it back, he finds that his friend has traded it for pogs. Bart, desperate, looks toward God. “Are you there, God? It’s me, Bart Simpson. I know I never paid too much attention in church but I could really use some of that good stuff right now. I’m afraid some weirdo’s got my soul and I don’t know what he’s going to do with it”. The Simpsons are a family searching for moral and theological ideals. Each member has a separate approach to religion. Homer, who was described as a “loveable oaf” by creator Matt Groening, wants a take-my-order kind of God. Homer is lazy, fat, and incompetent. His temptations are numerous, all prompted with a savouring “Mmm”.

Bart, like Homer, knows God exists, but cannot defy his impulses of mischief. Bart is the classic underachiever, rebelling against the society to which he cannot conform. He is excited by the topic of hell, makes prank calls to the local bartender, and is constantly plotting a defiant scheme. The most faithful of the Simpson family is Marge. She represents the foundation on which Homer and the children depend on for love and comfort. Her affection for her family is expressed in comments such as “Oh, Homie, I like your in-your-face humanity. I like the way Lisa speaks her mind. I like Bart’s …I like Bart”. Although she is capable of accomplishing higher goals in life, Marge sacrifices her ambitions in devotion to the family. She acts as the stable moral consciousness of the household.

Lisa is clearly the most intelligent person in the Simpson household. At the age of eight, she is a scholarly honour student and an accomplished saxophone musician. A genius unrecognised, Lisa shows the maturity of an adult, yet still has the childhood affections of ponies and Malibu Stacy dolls. Like her mother, she possesses strong ethical virtues. Although Marge has accepted the lesser sins as part of society, Lisa advocates morality in any situation. With her honest principles, Lisa is disillusioned by corruption in society, often making her the saddest kid in grade number two. Although The Simpsons may seem to make fun of moral standards, it often upholds those standards in a back-handed way. Each show ends on an uplifting note or moral integrity. Good always triumphs over evil.

Some members of society have complained over the show’s reaffirming morality. Atheists have voiced that the series “is more of a Sunday school program than ever”. They feel it preaches “that the only good people are religious and that those who are not are immoral”. Whether it is blasphemous or uplifting, people’s honest attitudes about religion are depicted on The Simpsons. The fact remains that religion is more evident on The Simpsons than any other television show. Watching Homer misquote a Bible verse as “Thou shalt not take…moochers into thy…hut” might be offensive, but watching Homer work day and night to buy Lisa a pony can be considered noble. The decision is for the viewer to choose. Regardless of the critics, The Simpsons has made a mark on television and social history that is ever-growing in distinction, and may never fade.

Analysis
The following analysis will compare what Gene Edward Veith and John Sohn thinks about the church’s influence on the American society.

Veith writes how the series is seen as a mockery displaying ”bad role models”, though sometimes the satire “hits a deserving target”. He also mentions that the comedy surrounding the characters can make us try to be better people, because nobody wants to sleep on the job like Homer does. In addition, Veith tells about the people working on the show and thereby having an interview with one of the series Christian artist. John Sohn writes about controversies between The Simpsons and religion. But he also illustrates Christianity’s interaction with the characters in the town of Springfield and their attitudes towards God. Sohn thereafter goes through how the Simpson family’s individuals handles with religion in different ways. He also cast on light on how the satire is being used against religion.

By comparing these authors’ opinions I have reached the conclusion that both Sohn and Veith tells about how the Simpsons lives side by side with religion. The things which differ between them is that Sohn gives a more detailed description on the family members’ relationship with God, while Veith only says a little something about Homer and Bart. He thereby leave out how Lisa always does the right thing for example. However, both Veith and Sohn discusses how the satire hits right on target when it comes to a Christian figure, Rev. Lovejoy. The authors’ last similarity are that they depict different opinions of the show.

4. Discussion

The main purpose with my project work was to better understand the humour in The Simpsons by comparing the virtual American society with the series’. On the basis of my comparison, I planned to found the disparities and likeness between these universes. The consistently question during my project has been: How does religion and family life in the show relate to the American society? The answer will of course be subjective, because the sources give their own views on the show and the USA. The mission I have tried to solve was to find a reasonable middle course between their opinions. Now I am going to describe how the show reflects religion and family life. I will also investigate if the characters in The Simpsons have any counterparts in today’s America. At the very same time, I am going to balance the sources’ opinions against my own. The plan is to answer my question.

According to the sources I used on the Simpsons, they see it as the 90’s version of the typical family. I agree that earlier American shows have tried to describe the family as a flawless institution. The Simpsons may well have been groundbreaking. The cartoon showed that there is no perfect family and that it face times of crisis and family tiffs . But that does not mean that American families are less good. As Paul A. Cantor pointed out, the family is actually fighting against the authorities. This rather shows that an American family is striving for generosity and love, if though Homer at some moments gets tired of the kids and the other way around. I can go as long to say that the depiction of the family is what reflect the American society in a positive way. But the show describes the state in a negative way.

A lot of people (especially Christian groups in the USA according to John Sohn) thinks that The Simpsons undermines the family, something I do not agree on. It just satirises its qualities and flaws, which a comedy show must do to attract viewers. Furthermore, I believe that The Simpsons is a more realistic reflection of the modern family and that the Cosbys is a little too ”functional”. This expression can not be used actually, because every household do meet rough situations sooner or later, some they can not barely handle. Or maybe all families can be described as functional, it is an individual choice. A family in America, or in any other country in the world, must meet hard times according to myself.

And now to the characters. The sources say that Homer is supposed to represent a, in many cases lazy father, although he does everything for his family. Gerd Steiger describes Homer in a well-formulated fashion, of how he is at the mercy of society’s manipulating forces. To see how easily influenced he is, will make us learn to think critical in the future. I feel sorry for Homer. His insufficient intelligence can not make him realise that newspapers and TV adverts lures him to believe that mass-consumption is necessary. Marge is clearly the stereotype of a classical American housewife who takes care of everything. Gerd Steiger says that she, along with other women in US, longs for a more exciting life. She is trapped in her monotonous role, but she knows that the family could not survive if she stopped answering the hard questions and cooked dinner.

There is more to say about Bart. He is described as a kid with a few bad ideas and his list of pranks is long. But we can learn from his actions which often turns against himself. He is also described by one of the sources that he is misunderstood and that he actually is a regular kid. Matt Groening does not understand why his show is being accused for encouraging students to underachieve in school by selling T-shirts with the words ”Underachiever And Proud Of It”. He says it was a political point. If you are marked as a bad student, you can as well be proud of it. I myself agrees with the American sources’ depiction of Bart. I have the opinion that some of the pupils in the USA who turns out to be criminals were outcasts in school. A perfect example is the youths at Columbine high school who shot students and teachers.

Lisa is the extremely intelligent child who is neglected by her parents. Homer and Marge mostly focuses on Bart with his pranks and that is why they forget her. Lisa is also a character who gets rejected because of her intelligence. But she is still the smartest person in Springfield even though some characters do not acknowledge it. Lisa has many good qualities as common sense, ethics and compassion. Moreover, is she a vegetarian and an animal lover. She was described a couple of years ago as the show’s counterpart to Jesus Christ in a report on Kobra, a Swedish TV programme. That is because she is like a prophet who always does what is for the best. That is true in certain circumstances, but she is also a kid who likes cartoons according to the sources. Their opinions on Lisa is similar to mine.

Now lets analyse religion in the show. The sources discusses the difference between atheists’ and Christians’ view on The Simpsons jokes about religion. I think it is interesting how the atheists claim that the show is like Sunday school, while Christians say it is immoral and insulting. I see church as part of the American living and then it is not that odd that the Simpsons is on church service every Sunday. The series shows the church’s problems as an institution and that pr...

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Inactive member [2006-06-26]   The Simpsons - The real America?
Mimers Brunn [Online]. https://mimersbrunn.se/article?id=6603 [2019-10-21]

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