The Simpsons: Watching Ourselves3 May 2018
The world of The Simpsons is very much the one we live in: corrupt politicians, dysfunctional family, crass jokes galore. When we turn on the TV and find the residents of Springfield beating the mayor to a pulp with a baseball bat, we don’t feel like we’re watching some remote yellow lifeforms prancing around. Instead, we feel as if we’re watching ourselves. But what is it about this ‘90s toon exactly that makes us feel this way?
For starters, The Simpsons is an antidote to our capitalism-induced misery. Working class servitude is tolerated, but at the same time, mocked. The exchanges portrayed between the worker, Homer Simpson, and his employer, Mr. Burns, all hammer home the realisation that we’re all Homer Simpson. Just like Homer, we too are subject to the whims of a capitalist figurehead—and most of us are just as oblivious to it as Homer himself. Furthermore, in the context of the show, Mr. Burns isn’t simply an ode to capitalism—he is capitalism at its very core. He treats Homer like crap, his power plant pumps chemical fumes into the town air, and the only time he even tries to be environmentally conscious, he ends up destroying a good portion of the ocean wildlife. Yet, for all its daring mockery of American capitalism, The Simpsons concedes this worker misery as a necessary reality for the American middle-class. Indeed, upon realising that his job as a pin monkey at the bowling alley isn’t going to support his family, Homer returns to his job at the power plant. Homer is confronted with the reality of sustaining his middle-class lifestyle, and is forced to recognise the unhappiness in his job as necessary. Homer is thus a character we can grasp and empathise with—for better or for worse.
Next, Homer Simpson’s obsession with temporary pleasure speaks to our subconscious desire for instant gratification. Apart from his family, the main things that matter to Homer are the short-lived enjoyments of a cold beer, and the complementary doughnuts at the power plant where he works. He gets to feed the desires we viewers must ignore in order to be (somewhat) functional members of society—Homer’s lazy, gluttonous and self-indulgent to an extent that would probably get you sacked in real life. Although most of us aren’t completely controlled by the urge for instant gratification like Homer, we also aren’t totally free of the temptations of a vanilla—frosted doughnut. There’s something oddly satisfying about watching a garishly yellow cartoon carry out our own slothly desires. Watching Homer slouching in front of the television, ignoring a ready-to-burst trash bag on the kitchen floor that’s just begging to be carried out—it’s a moment of I-really-can’t-be-bothered-moving-from-this-spot that we can all relate to. He represents the part of us that would rather take the trash out later—the part that would happily scoff yet another doughnut. Watching The Simpsons is like having your mindless, hedonist fantasies played out in front of you—it’s all the fun, without any of the consequences.
Finally, the sitcom portrays the doubts most of us have had about the public education system—in particular, the mob mentality it preaches. The character of Bart Simpson is a protest against an institution that envisions the American youth to be “less of an individual and more a faceless slug”. His attention deficit disorder makes it impossible for him to thrive in a system that doesn’t accommodate for people who learn differently. Viewers have perhaps had the same realisation watching classmates—or even themselves—fledge hopelessly in a cold, inflexible education system. Yet, perhaps it is a fleeting triumph when Bart makes an offhand reference to George Washington and the Lost Battle of 1754. It’s something of a hurrah moment during an otherwise dismal slump in the show for Bart. It’s a moment where he displays his intelligence in his own, unconventional manner, where even his teacher, Edna the unbudging anthropomorphism of American public school ideology—demonstrates respect. This aspect of The Simpsons makes one feel they are observing a system fraught with issues from the outside, whilst also being able to tangibly identify with on a personal level.
Sitting down for an episode of The Simpsons makes one feel as if they are seeing themselves at a distance. It is not only because our own thoughts and opinions often appear in the dialogue, but also because the characters themselves mirror the political and social systems in our own lives. Because of this, it’s clear that this family of bright yellow lifeforms will always be relevant.