Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Simpsons and a consuming popular culture

Matt Groening’s award winning series, The Simpsons is a good example to examine some major theories, where a contemporary understanding of mass and popular culture can be found. This essay will explore theories of the Frankfurt School, Ideological Hegemony and Counter Hegemony, the ideas of Stuart Hall and postmodernism. Issues that will be considered will be the family, globalisation, identity, and how the idea of identity is played out on screen and how this reflects within an audience. The Simpsons, examines popular culture, providing social comment using comedy as its weapon.
In the 1990’s, The Simpsons, was a television show that subverted the traditional ideals of the happy family that was usually portrayed on television. It is a show that is often charged with depicting dysfunction, and in so doing, shows how a ‘real’ family behaves.
“Their apparent truthful reflection of life in the contemporary nuclear family. The bitchy put-downs between family members, the frustrations and irritations the perennial material discomfort, the sloth and general air of amorality, the mocking of father’s long-lost patriarchal authority are all played in stark contrast to the sanitised, happy families of situational comedies” (Martin, 1994, p. 71).
The Simpsons is not portraying a dominant ideology of ‘father knows best’, seen in other television shows such as Happy Days, and The Cosby Show, but rather, a subversive one. Homer Simpson is the antithesis of Howard Cunningham and Bill Huxtable. An example of this comes from an episode where Homer takes the “National Fatherhood Institute Test” and fails miserably. He knows “jack” about his son Bart. (Cantor, 2001, p. 75) this apparent subversion even led the former US President, George Bush, to remark: “What America needs is families like The Walton’s, not families like The Simpsons” (Wark, 1992). This is significant; an American president is concerned about what television portrayal of a family like the Simpsons will do to America’s culture.
Here is an interesting question. Just what are the effects of popular culture and a television show like The Simpsons, upon mass society? To answer this, Stuart Hall provides a perspective. He asserts that society consumes culture and either live in a permanent state of “false consciousness” or they are “cultural dopes who can’t tell that what they are being fed is an updated form of the opium of the people” (Samuel, 1981, p.232). Certainly it seems that George Bush thought this was the case. Hall goes on to say that the view of society’s cultural consumption shifts between two poles of “pure autonomy” and total “incapsulation” and that is unacceptable. (Samuel, 1981, p. 232) Instead, Stuart Hall believes that audiences can distinguish reality from representation. That is, The Simpsons is representing cultural complexities within reality. “They are perfectly capable of recognising the way the realities of working-class life are reorganised, reconstructed and reshaped by the way they are represented” (Samuel, 1981, p. 232). Stuart Hall believes audiences are canny. They know and can cotton on to the difference between families on television and families in real life.
The Simpsons popularity is immense and it “offers one of the most important images of the family in contemporary American culture, and in particular an image of the nuclear family” (Cantor, 2001, p. 70). Subversive yes, but dysfunctional? The Frankfurt School would argue, that although The Simpsons may not be the image championing the ideal of a patriarchal functional family they are a nuclear one. The characters in the show do care for one another and they do have traditional roles.
Homer Simpson is the main breadwinner, working in a nuclear power plant; Marge Simpson remains within the inner sanctum of the home with baby Maggie, while Bart and Lisa Simpson attend school. As well as this, religion features prominently in their lives. A “dysfunctional family has to be, at some level, a broken-down family, a family that is not really what families should be” (Martin, 1994, p. 74). A Frankfurt school theorist would argue that the status quo remains and although the show pokes fun, traditional roles exist.
Status quo is also apparent within the town of Springfield. Monty Burns is the town’s richest man, he owns most of Springfield, lives in a big mansion and enjoys the good things in life. Homer goes to work each day and is working class. Viewers also get to know other high status characters like Mayor Quimby, Police Chief Wiggum, Reverend Lovejoy and Principal Skinner. All having significant ‘pillar of the community’ roles. The Simpsons also advocates the free market and capitalism, Homer telling us, “American donuts – glazed, powdered, raspberry filled – now how’s that for freedom of choice?” (Cantor, 2001, p.102). Again, the status quo is adhered to. Finally, the town of Springfield “harks back to an earlier age, when Americans felt more in contact with their governing institutions and family life was solidly anchored in a larger but still local community” (Cantor, 2001, pp. 80-81).
All these are examples a Frankfurt school theorist would applaud. However, The Simpsons is a postmodern text. Although all these issues are portrayed with a maintained ideological hegemony, it is at the same time counter-hegemonic. Marge may remain within the inner sanctum of the home, but there are numerous instances that show her as the feminist she is. Politically and socially astute, she is not only a wife and mother. Audiences have learned that in high school, Marge Simpson burned her bra, the quintessential feminist act, and in another episode “she goes off on a jaunt a la Thelma and Louise” (Cantor, 2001, p. 74).
Like her mother, Lisa also shows feminist attributes, she is also political, a vegetarian and an environmentalist. Lisa Simpson is a character that reminds us of the important issues, even though the show’s producers benefit by ridiculing and parodying matters for debate. One episode emphasising this is when Lisa decides to be a vegetarian. At the dinner table she questions where her meat has come from. Later in the episode we see her trying to turn others to her way of thinking. Eventually realising the futility of this she despondently ends up at the Kwik-E-Mart. Here she finds out that Apu is also a vegetarian together with his friend’s Paul and Linda McCartney. They discuss vegetarianism and Lisa learns that it is better not to push her own values on to other people, but rather, live diplomatically side-by-side.
Raymond Williams insists, “cultural hegemony operates within a whole social life-pattern” (Gitlin, p. 510). What this episode highlights is the tension between the meat-eating dominant ideology and Lisa’s counter-hegemonic actions.
Another counter-hegemonic example is of Springfield itself. Already pointed out is the town’s hegemonic structure. The Simpsons in true comedic style, is able to parody each and every example that maintains this status quo. Monty Burns is the richest man in Springfield, but he is also the one with the least morals. Homer goes to work each day, but it is rare for audiences to see him working, more often than not he is stealing donuts or has his feet up and eyes closed. The town’s authority figures are systematically ridiculed. Mayor Quimby provide viewers with antics that have a marked resemblance to the Kennedy’s; Police Chief Wiggum is inept, share’s Homer’s love for donuts and resembles a pig; Reverend Lovejoy lacks passion and enthusiasm for a church leader, Ned Flanders usually eclipsing him in that respect, and Principal Skinner, still lives at home with his mother and goes so far as to share the school property, turning part of it into a jail. All these leaders are parodied in some way, so that an audience may see representations of elitist characters. Their behaviour often belies the ideal a Frankfurt theorist would deem ‘proper’.
Springfield may depict its people enjoying an institutional relationship that seems local, but at the same time globalisation appears to be prevalent. This final counter-hegemonic example, explores small-town American archetype, but at the same time other nations are also dealt with. The Simpson’s often travel the world, Japan, Australia and the UK have been some destinations. There is a continuous stream of international visitors and in one episode Bart is banished to France for misbehaving. “The Simpsons effectively portrays the globalisation of America in the 1990’s” (Cantor, 2001, p. 91) and another example is of Homer purchasing art supplies from “’Mom & Pop Hardware’, which turns out upon closer inspection to be “a subsidiary of Global Dynamics Inc.” (Cantor, 2001, p.96).
The TV show depicts a globalised town, Apu is an immigrant from India, and through one episode we learn that Moe has dubious American citizenship, emigrating perhaps from Eastern Europe? “For small-town people, the Springfielders are in their own way remarkably cosmopolitan, especially when compared to their antecedents in the sitcoms of the 1950’s” (Cantor, 2001, p. 91).
It must be remembered that The Simpsons is part of a popular culture. Although Frankfurt theorists, feminists and Gramsci advocates would find merit in the show, ultimately it is created in the USA, animated in Korea and shown all over the world (Cantor, 2001, p. 91). Even the exterior of the show is dictated by globalised economic and consuming values.
The Simpsons show characters within the show consuming culture, just as the audience is consuming them. This postmodern idea is important because The Simpsons’ self-reflexive consumerism is our cultural artefact. We are often told, “in a media-laden landscape that identity is closely tied to the active consumption of products offered by the media and leisure identities” (Ott, 2003, p. 56).
Literary theorist Pierre Bourdieu, asserts that identity is integral to culture. It is possible “to tell someone’s social class by the concerts they see and the magazines they read” (Brasted, 2004, p. 2 of 10). Television is no exception, nor is the absorption of a TV show like The Simpsons. Many people can identify with The Simpsons because it is a show about consumption. In a popular culture viewers are very aware of this concept.
“The Simpsons reflects an odd tension concerning consumption…it intoxicates some viewers by providing a multilayered text that promises pleasure in its endless consumption, as it simultaneously teaches other viewers to be wary of such action” (Ott, 2003, p. 72).
Thus, the value viewers perceive in a show depicting consumerism and culture is through the “endless intertextual gestures that animate the series each week [where the show will] function as a sort of quiz, testing viewer knowledge of both high and popular cultural texts” (Ott, 2003, p. 70). It is the idea of ‘getting it’ and The Simpsons is a postmodern text of popular culture that gives its viewer an identity. Stuart Hall emphasises this saying:
“If the forms of provided commercial popular culture are not purely manipulative, then it is because, alongside the false appeals, the foreshortenings, the trivialisation and short circuits there are also elements of recognition and identification, something approaching a recreation of recognisable experiences and attitudes, to which people are responding” (Samuel, 1981, p. 233).
Further, it could be argued that Homer’s doltish antics provide a victim of excessive consumption. Homer publicly embarrasses himself and through the “comic fool, viewers are shown the error of their ways, and chastened not to consume blindly, but to use the culture industries…strategically” (Ott, 2003, p. 72).
Earlier this essay asked the question, what effects did popular culture have upon society at large? To understand this further, we again turn to Stuart Hall and his model of:
“encoding-decoding media discourse which represented the media text as located between its producers, who framed meaning in a certain way, and its audience, who decoded meaning according to their rather different social situations and frames of interpretations. Social position or social class does not influence the meaning an individual takes from a text” (Brasted, 2004, p. 5 of 10).
Therefore, a text would have an effect depending on how it was interpreted and social standing would have influence over this. This idea also takes into account the issue of identity previously explored, where the show’s manipulation, reflects how it is decoded and accordingly fit into the dominant ideology. The Simpsons could be enjoyed by the CEO of a company and at the same time a young junior employee or member of the cleaning staff.
Adults and children alike enjoy it. Roland Barthes speaks of “readerly and writerly texts” (Fiske, 1989, p. 103). This is when a readerly text,
“invites an essentially passive, receptive, disciplined reader who tends to accept its meanings as already made. It is a relatively closed text, easy to read and undemanding of its reader. Opposed to this is a writerly text, which challenges the reader constantly to rewrite it, to make sense out of it. It foregrounds its own textual constructedness and invites the reader to participate in the construction of meaning” (Fiske, 1989, p. 103).
Barthes echoes Hall’s earlier ideas of encoding-decoding. Both theorise that an audience make what they will of representations and meanings presented to them in a text.
This essay has examined the ideas of the Frankfurt school, ideological and counter-hegemony and the theories of Stuart Hall. It has used these theories to explore the televised sit-com family and how The Simpsons portray this. Also explored are globalisation, the town of Springfield and finally the issue of identity and consumerism. All this give a valid contemporary understanding of mass and popular culture and the role television plays. How an audience consumes a TV show like The Simpsons as the Simpson’s simultaneously participate in a consumer popular culture.


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