The Simpsons not just for the kids

Humour is one of the most effective ways to communicate profound truths about life. The cartoon The Simpsons perfectly proves the point.

This longest-running cartoon series on American prime-time network television since 1989 recounts the animated adventures of Homer Simpson and his lower-middle class family who live in the city of Springfield. The father, Homer, is a lazy, unintelligent, beer-drinking safety inspector for the local nuclear power plant at the fictional city of Springfield. Marge, his wife, is a somewhat spacey woman with a huge beehive hairstyle and Bart, their ten-year old son, is a borderline juvenile delinquent. Lisa, the middle child, is a gifted, sensitive and perceptive saxophone player. Maggie is the voiceless toddler, observing all while sucking her pacifier. In addition there are other equally dysfunctional members of the community.

Though the program first appeals to children because the cartoons are immensely funny, like Dean Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels it is a biting satire on reality. One of the program’s writers comments: “We’re really writing a show that has some of the most esoteric references in television…We’re writing it for adults and intelligent adults at that.”

Thus, it is richly laced with satire, sarcasm, irony, and caricature as the authors seek to expose reality as it is, namely chaotic and violent. Hypocrisy, the incompetence of pop psychology, modern child-rearing, commercialism, consumerism, fundamentalism in religion, environmental abuse, corporate greed and deceits of American education are all uncovered in stark and often parodied ways. Homer tells his daughter Lisa that it is quite alright to steal things “from people you don’t like.” Reverend Lovejoy lies to Lisa about the contents of the Bible to succeed in an argument. There are plenty of disreputable characters in Springfield, but the most loathsome is Mr Burns, the owner of a nuclear power-plant and a cruel example of the worst form of contemporary neo-capitalism. Speaking to a group of school children he said: “Family, religion, friendship: these are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.”

The spectacular emphasis on violence is especially evident in the television show that Lisa and Bart regularly enjoy, namely “The Itchy and Scratchy Show”. The interaction between a cat and mouse is not confined to slapstick mixed with a little violence, but the violence goes to extremes of stark gruesomeness.

The creators of The Simpsons get away with it because it is in the form of a cartoon and, more particularly, because viewers condone violence in many areas of contemporary life. The writers know this and are focused on mirroring back to their audiences what society has come to accept as normal, namely that violence is condoned even for children provided it does not affect the interests of individual viewers. Bart says to Lisa at one point, when she is becoming squeamish about the violence they see on television: “If you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitised to it.” The show appears to condone in comedic form pervasive and blatant violence, such as bullying in all its ghastly forms, but in fact it is morally critiquing the social, capitalistic and physical brutality that American (and others) people accept as normal. Yet, unlike much contemporary literature and films, this series, while accepting the evil in the world, recognizes that people are capable of goodness at times.

While uncovering hypocrisy in religion, it recognizes the indisputable role it has in American life. Homer does go to Church and he speaks to God from time to time, but his image of God is rather confused. God for Homer is like a parachute that he hopes he will never have to open, but he needs God just in case. Homer’s God is a more forgiving and compassionate than the God of Homer’s local minister. Lisa and her mother Marge at times do become the social conscience of the family and others (including viewers), reminding them that in the midst of a neo-capitalist world of greed the fundamental virtues of compassion and justice can and should be lived.


Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm, is the author of Laughing with God: Humor, Culture, and Transformation. Foreword by Jean Vanier (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008).


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