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January 12, 2006

The Simpsons - The perfect conservative parable?

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Recently Harry Phibbs identified Viz magazine as a potent voice of modern compassionate conservatism. Today Harry Phibbs argues that The Simpsons are the perfect conservative parable - out of chaos order is restored by the end of every episode.

Those who say the Americans have no sense of humour, or more particularly no sense of irony, will find it difficult to explain the tremendous success of the long running series, The Simpsons. Those who have not tried it on the assumption that because it is a cartoon series it is only of interest to children should reconsider.

The humour works at two levels. The main story is simple enough and usually involves lots of rowdiness. But there are plenty of sophisticated jokes woven in - the throw away lines in the dialogue or in the notices of shop signs displayed. Part of the challenge is to include such a quantity of jokes without allowing the narrative pace to slacken.

Even those who have not seen it will probably know that the Simpsons are an American family in the fictitious town of Springfield - some of the jokes rest on their wacky adventures, others on their mundane scrapes that many families, on either side of the Atlantic, could identify with. The father Homer is fat, lazy and stupid but often saves the day by being loving and, when really needed, brave. Marge is the long suffering housewife. The ten-year-old Bart gets into endless scrapes due to his addiction to mischief while his eight-year-old sister Lisa is studious and self righteous.

The creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, is a great film buff and almost every episode includes a skit of a classic film scene. In the Bart the General episode a character declares:

The key to Springfield has always been Elm Street. The Greeks knew it. The Carthaginians knew it. Now you know it.
This is a parody of Patton starring George C. Scott. In the film Patton plots an invasion of Sicily and says:
The key to Sicily has always been Siracusa. The Greeks knew it, . . .
The structure of each programme does have a main story line but also a rich variety of sub plots, guest appearances and cultural references. To give a flavour of this, here is an account of a recent episode. A stamp museum is proposed next door to the Simpsons household. The family soon whip up local opposition and residents parade with such placards as:
Make War Not Stamps.

Springfield docent like Museums.

(Docent is what Americans call curators.) Marge says:
They can't build it without asking us. Whatever happened to please and thank you?
Homer replies:
I think they killed each other. You know one of those murder suicide deals.
Marge puts a stop to it by sabotaging a digger with her hair clip:
Come home from Iraq my wife says. Beqouba's too dangerous, my wife says.
But the triumph is short lived.

Cut to Kent Brockman, TV news anchorman. He intones:

The Postal Service is sending a change of address card, to itself, the Science Museum will now be built on the site of the Springfield Cemetery. The cemetery will move right here, next to The Simpsons.
Ravens are released, "creak oil" put on the gate, new grave stones cracked all to ensure a proper authenticity. Lisa, the Simpsons daughter, looks from her room in terror.

To cheer her up she is offered a treat. She says:

A trip to the Stamp Museum could be fun.
In the car journey Homer grumbles:
I can't believe it took 40 minutes to get here. Why can't they build the stamp museum closer to our house?
Homer's friend from the nuclear power plant Lennie charges $40 for parking. Exhibits include various figures who have been portrayed in stamps. Alexander Bell says:
I invented the telephone.
Another voice pipes up on the next exhibit:
You stole it from me. I'm Elisha Gray.
Bell retorts:
Read the patent number bitch.
This is one of countless examples where irreverent humour is intertwined with surreptitious education.

Next there is the author of Land of the Wild Beasts (a thinly veiled parody of Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are.) He is asked:

What led you to the magical world of children's books?.
The author replies:
I wanted to be a children's book illustrator ever since Playboy wouldn't publish my cartoons because they were too filthy.
But Lisa's fears persist. She tells herself as shadows dart across her bedroom:
I believe in science and reality not ghosts and monsters.
She is so distraught her parents arrange counselling. They are filmed going down Psychiatry Row. The shops include 99 Cents Shrink, Quack in a Box and Sit and Weep. But in the end she cures herself by spending the night in the graveyard.

She runs in terror and bumps her head on a grave stone. As she sleeps the wild beasts come into her dreams and offer her comfort and suggest closing the blind or getting the night light. When she thanks them for their help one of them says cheerily:

We're just a concussion away.
It is difficult to sum up what message or allegiances The Simpsons represents. Superficially one could describe it as subversive, anarchic, anti-establishment, etc. But balance is always restored by the end of each episode with everything and everyone more of less where they started. A frequent theme is that leaping to adopt some worthy or popular initiative produces unintended consequences. This is a rather conservative perspective.

Montgomery Burns, the owner of the nuclear power plant, is portrayed as absurdly greedy and uncaring. But does the very absurdity of that portrayal nullify it? Does it make it an attack on rich capitalists or a means of mocking how some people portray rich capitalists?

In cultural terms there is heroic resistance to dumbing down - for example when half an episode was devoted to reciting and enacting Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven. Religion crops up quite a lot. Some have suggested The Simpsons is anti-Christian. It pokes fun at Christianity (and other faiths) but this is usually balanced by jokes and arguments and points of information taking the other side. On the whole the portrayal of the Simpsons as a family that regularly goes to church and regularly pray is rather more positive than if religion was ignored.

How long can it continue? Sensibly the Simpson family are ageless. There is also a whole team helping with jokes and story lines. The show is among the most succesful in the history of television both in being shown around the world and in spawning vast merchandising spin offs. I don't detect any deterioration in quality. I would expect it to be around for some time come.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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Actually, Americans don't call curators 'docents'. They call them 'curators'. Docents are the characters who give educational tours.

Posted by: robert at January 12, 2006 08:22 PM

what's the take on Curb your enthisiasm?

Posted by: a fan at January 13, 2006 10:33 AM

But in what way is it a conservative parable? I don't think you really say.

Posted by: VoodooRay at January 13, 2006 04:44 PM

It's a conservative parable because, in the end, the family is always left safe and sound. There are occasional sexual temptations but none are ever consummated. Nobody important takes drugs. Yes, Homer likes a beer, but beer is not a drug, or at least not a conservative drug. Everyone who should has a job. Lastly, it is conservative because it is paid for by Fox, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch who is a born-again Christian and carrier-class right-winger.

Posted by: 16words at January 15, 2006 04:10 PM

"Rupert Murdoch who is a born-again Christian"

That's a new one to me! Where is source of that information?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at January 16, 2006 08:11 PM
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