The Simpsons is one of the many television shows in the United States of America which features a full length cartoon narrating the everyday lives of a family. The show makes us confront the absurdities of how some Americans live through the jovial portrayals and behaviors of the characters in the animated show. While each of the members of the Simpson’s family represent a several prevalent attitudes of Americans—some bordering on the obscene and some bordering on the good—the viewer’s perceptions not only about the American society in which he or she lives in but also about his or her self is challenged.
The show seems to attempt to push its viewers to reexamine their lives, reflecting on each character in the Simpson’s family and the rest of the characters in the show. In general, the Simpson household is a dysfunctional family, never aging through the course of the show in years and often ends the show portraying the family members still loving one another despite the odds. For the most part, the Simpson’s family both reinforce and subvert contemporary American values in a number of ways.
Each episode highlights the struggles of the family members of the Simpson household and the neighborhood, sometimes reaffirming several social stereotypes and sometimes challenging our comfort zones and our accepted beliefs. In any case, it is important to note that even the seemingly absurd gestures and encounters of every character in the animated show point to contemporary American values that may be either subverted or reinforced, depending on the interpretation of the viewer in most cases.
Homer Simpson, the father of the household, embodies the typical American dad. He is a father who enjoys drinking his beer—specifically called “Duff”—who is physically overweight and who is protective of his family. He works at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant despite his careless characteristic, thereby suggesting that he has this potential to bring chaos to the rest of the community with his slightest mistakes while at work.
Apparently, Homer’s characteristics reflect the typical American father who has the responsibility to raise his kids and secure the welfare of his family. His character subverts the contemporary American perception that divorce oftentimes results from a family that is dysfunctional. Despite his failures to provide for several needs of the Simpson household, he has never resorted to divorcing his wife, Marge. At the end of the day, Homer finds himself at home together with his wife in bed looking forward to the coming day ahead.
Moreover, Homer has been shown to have a strong regard for the welfare of his family in difficult times, such as in “Lisa the Beauty Queen” (1992) where he sold his prized car in order to enter her daughter, Lisa, into a beauty pageant to make her feel better and in “A Millhouse Divided” (1996) where he arranged for a second wedding for his wife, Marge, to compensate for their unsatisfactory first wedding ceremony. On the other hand, some of Homer’s characteristics also reinforce some contemporary American values.
One of these values is the thinking that typical American fathers spend their time drinking beer and submitting themselves to their weaknesses quite easily. Some of Homer’s weaknesses are his strong craving for doughnuts, his aggressive behavior in difficult times or in times when he is not able to complete his tasks and his low intelligence. In general, these things reinforce the stereotype of the American dad, reflecting the cultural struggle of the American father in the American landscape, losing his intellectual edge along the way.
Looking at the ways in which Homer Simpson handles himself before his family, it can be said that his character implies the binary opposition between depth and superficial, centering and dispersal, and distance and participation. For one, the character portrayal of Homer suggests the depth of his personality, one that can be easily interpreted as the typical American father at first glance but one that can also be interpreted as an unusual American dad on closer inspection.
Despite raising a dysfunctional family on a daily basis, Homer has not given up on his task as a father although there are times when he seems to be on the verge on giving up on things. While he is considered to be a borderline alcoholic, he does not end up entirely succumbing to his habit. On the contrary, he is able to maintain his fatherly figure and image and goes on to raise his family even when it meant attending to several jobs on many occasions. There is both the depth and the superficial qualities in Homer Simpson that represent American fathers in contemporary society.
While at that, Homer’s character is also able to create distance and participation among the viewers. It is not surprising at all if the viewers of the show are able to relate to the experiences of the Simpson household because the experiences of Homer’s family might just as well be the same daily experiences that other households experience. By focusing on the typical experiences of American families, the animated show is able to draw the attention of the viewing public and, in a way, to allow them to “participate” in the show at least in terms of being able to relate to and find a part of themselves in the show.
However, the animated show is also able to distance the viewer from the characters. In the sense that the nature of the show—meaning, its “animated” structure—makes the characters open to seemingly absurd situations, it is not always the case that the viewers are able to expect an exact representation of their daily experiences. That is, the cartoon characters can perform unrealistic behaviors that the real-life viewers can hardly imitate.
The binary opposition between distance and participation in the show is also reflected in terms of how the show portrays the stereotypes prevalent in American society and, in the process, causes its viewers to identify themselves first with the show’s characters and eventually causing them to redefine themselves. The fact that The Simpsons explores the negative stereotypes in contemporary American society suggests that its viewers may or may not be able to fully relate to these stereotypes.
Those who are able to relate to these stereotypes are more or less likely expected to distance themselves from these stereotypes or, more specifically, from Elizabeth Traube calls as “the fictional self that it (stereotype) constructs” (Traube, p. 129). Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson further suggest that popular culture has not only been the offspring of society’s “beliefs, practices and objects generated from political and commercial centers” but has also become “an entity on its own” (Mukerji and Schudson, p. 53).
Thus, it is not surprising to say that there will be so-called “popular culture” so long as there are conduits for expressing the generally observed patterns of behavior among people. The Simpsons is just one of the many social elements that showcase such patterns. The assumption here is that some television shows such The Simpsons do not only serve the purpose of highlighting parts of the generally observed behaviors of people—behaviors that are parts of stereotypes—but also reinforce and subvert such observations at the same time.
The very presence of these kinds of television shows help people realize what they have become. They aid the human civilization to notice the things that have become so familiar they no longer strike the vein of our senses and sensibilities. In “The Visible Evidence of Cultural Producers”, Maureen Mahon suggests that forms of popular culture serve as “arenas in which social actors struggle over social meanings and as visible evidence of social processes and social relations” (Mahon, p. 467). Apparently, Homer Simpson’s character in the animated series struggles over social meanings within the context of the show.
The context of the show, however, is anchored on the realities happening in the society. That, in turn, suggests that, indeed, the character of Homer is a visible evidence of several social processes and social relations in real life, from his struggles to raise his family and his role as a father. Jerry Herron also suggests that Homer Simpson is not only a “reminder” of how much of contemporary America has declined but is also a symbol for challenging our attitude towards the social stereotypes.
In particular, Homer Simpson is “an appeal to the sensibility of the public towards popular culture to redefine themselves from the negative to the positive” (Herron, p. 12). But what exactly are these positive and negative aspects and how are we able to identify them without confusing one over the other? The answers do not seem to be as clear and as simple as they seem. Based on Jerry Herron’s article “Homer Simpson’s Eyes and the Culture of Late Nostalgia”, it appears that Homer Simpson is both a criticism to society’s stereotypes and, at the same time, as an embodiment of those stereotypes.
Homer plays the role of an intellectually challenged but loving father. He takes the role of the typical American dad who loves to drink his favorite beer and yet his is a character that challenges the contemporary attitude towards dysfunctional marriages and families. He directs the viewer’s attention to his character while making them reflect on their own lives and society at the same time. He shows some of life’s worse obscenities and yet allows the viewers to realize the stark contrasts between a life worth living and a life that is worthless.
In essence, Homer Simpson subverts and reinforces contemporary American values. In “Stereotypes and Registers of Honorific Language”, Asif Agha argues that stereotypes “are consciously grasped” and are, hence, “reportable, discussable, open to dispute” and that “they serve as models for some individuals and counter-models for others” (Agha, p. 152). Following Agha’s interpretation of stereotypes, the social perception towards the stereotype American father is still open to dispute and can in turn serve as the “counter-model” for what the American should be.
Using Homer Simpson as an example, our notion of the “right” American dad can be derived from some of the qualities of Homer Simpson. The conscious exposure of the viewing public towards The Simpsons can be an eye-opener for reassessing our standing perception of the stereotype American father. While the image portrayed by Homer is “an entity on its own”, it is nevertheless still created from the social realities that persist in contemporary America. It is only through a radical change in the contemporary American value system can the American society be lifted from its status quo.
But that is not to say that the task of removing the binary opposition between depth and superficial, centering and dispersal and distance and participation begins at the stage where the American public is able to realize the stereotypes and recognize the “counter-models”. Rather, it begins right at the criticism of such stereotypes prevalent in popular culture. The creation of the character of Homer Simpson is perhaps the first stage in bringing the things that “dumb down” America into the public awareness.
Of course, it is not enough to have shows such as The Simpsons, among others, to emphasize the cultural problems of America and to compel people to address these problems. However, it is only necessary to first bring elements of popular culture into the surface, elements that both reinforce and subvert contemporary American values in order to proceed with the tasks of criticizing what has become of this nation and its people and of resolving what needs to be resolved.