I started teaching The Simpsons at the college level in 2000, and in the years since, I’ve encountered many students who had not been allowed to watch The Simpsons as children. I felt disappointment on behalf of those students, but not judgment against their parents; The Simpsons, after all, is not a kids’ show. I couldn’t begin to suggest a right age to allow children to watch the show; it really depends on the individual child. However, smart, layered television like The Simpsons makes its viewers smarter (if you don’t believe me, see Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You), so I generally believe that good parenting involves watching the show with kids, pausing to explain the allusions, cultural references, and elements of satire. This is how I’ve watched The Simpsons with my boyfriend’s son for the past five years (he’s almost 15 now) and this is how my best friend and writing partner, Karma, raised her son, whose robotics team just won their regional competition (yes, I see a correletion, maybe even a causation).
Karma recently told me about how she finally got a joke on The Simpsons years after the episode first aired (and then she had to explain it to me); in “Kamp Krusty,” Marge reminds the children, “Leaves of three, let it be,” to which Homer adds, “Leaves of four, eat some more!” Karma originally watched “Kamp Krusty” with her step-father, who opted not to explain it to her. (If he had, though, I doubt she would have been damaged). In fact, the only reason she even knew that the line was a joke and not just the end of an obscure proverb was because of the bales of laughter from the adult in the room. The Simpsons pitches jokes to all levels — you’ll only see the pitch if it’s meant for you. Jokes like Homer’s glory hole reference in “Night of the Dolphin” will probably fly over a kid’s head and won’t corrupt him or her, similar to the “leaves of four” joke. (And if your young kid understands the glory hole joke, hey, as a parent, that’ s on you, and you can’t blame The Simpsons for that).
Hello, everyone. Before last year’s Halloween show, I warned you not to let your children watch. But you did anyway. Well, this year’s episode is even worse. It’s scarier, more violent, and I think they snuck in some bad language, too. So please, tuck in your children and… Well, if you didn’t listen to me last time, you’re not going to now. Enjoy the show. (Treehouse of Horror II)
But was that remark a “skeevy line”? It struck me as a ridiculous stereotype of truck drivers. By now, shouldn’t we know better than to take lines from The Simpsons at face value? Satirizing stereotypes is something The Simpsons does often and well, so it surprises me when viewers don’t understand that when a stereotype is depicted on the show, they are not mocking the group being stereotyped; they are mocking those who buy into such stereotypes. The Simpsons did this with gay men in “Homer’s Phobia,” with Minnesotans in “Coming to Homerica,” with the French in “The Crepes of Wrath,” with immigrants and Americans in “Much Apu About Nothing,” with female and black stereotypes in this past Sunday’s episode “Love Is a Many Strangled Thing.” I could list many other others. The episode “Bart vs Australia” even made fun of the mere existence of stereotypes by inventing some new, ridiculous ones.
Speaking of “Love Is a Many Strangled Thing,” I was surprised at the online reaction to the Precious parody. There were oodles of surprised but pleased tweets about the parody and some positive reviews on places online, such as Hulu, but Jezebel once again didn’t get it and was horrified by the “mean fat jokes.” If you missed it, Homer is having nightmares of abuse resulting from some very effective counseling to break him of his Bart-strangling habit.
The depictions of abuse that he dreams consist of black stories from our media: he dreams of being in The Jackson Five, scolded by Joe Jackson. Later, he dreams that he’s Precious, dodging televisions hurled at him and eating fried chicken. Why does Homer’s subconcious go there? Because stereotypes are easy, especially for the simple-minded. It’s easier for him to call up numerous examples of abusive families from our popular culture’s depictions of black families than the “yellow trash” families that Homer is a part of. Precious ran the gamut of tired, dangerous stereotypes in its depiction of black people and black problems: illiteracy, abuse, poverty, fried chicken, teen pregnancy, and obesity. The fact that The Simpsons got some viewers all bent out of shape over this reference to Precious is exactly the point: If it’s not okay for The Simpsons to go there, to fall back on unfair, unsettling stereotypes, then why was it okay for the filmmakers behind Precious to do so? I can’t imagine how The Simpsons could parody the critically acclaimed film without those damaging stereotypes, but doesn’t that just reinforce how much the film itself was tied to them? This allusion was an unkind parody of Precious, not simply a cheap fat joke.
The Simpsons has always been satirical and it’s always required critical thinking to fully appreciate. Sometimes that means that children can’t appreciate the show without some guidance, and after all these years, it appears some adults need the concept of the adult cartoon clarified for them, too. Perhaps some of the young adults who’ve been raised in a Simpsonized world could sit down and watch it with them.
Denise Du Vernay is the co-author of The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. You can follow her on Twitter @Simpsonology.