Ideology & RepresentationBy Barry Hodge
SERIES: The Simpsons EPISODE: "King-Size Homer" (episode 5, series 7) PRODUCER: Gracie Films/20th Century Fox Television UK BROADCASTER: Sky One FIRST UK Tx DATE: 03/03/96 US BROADCASTER: Fox Television Network FIRST US Tx DATE: 05/11/95
The Simpsons is an animated cartoon, but this doesn’t mean that it’s like the average Hanna-Barbera or Warner Brothers yarn. The show, now in its seventh season, is a prime-time (6pm in the UK, 8:30pm in the USA), half-hour show, in a league of its own. Cartoons usually have a low modality, meaning the ‘realism’ of the text isn’t very much like our everyday perceptions of reality, the characters residing in the "as if" world. But although this show is set in a ‘realer’ world it does retain an off-beat air (although not too off-beat as to make it impenetrable to, or unworthy of analysis), a combination which grants it the highest viewing figures for Sky One, and high status on its original Fox Network. With its animatic nature, the viewer knows that anything can happen (far more than with live actors), but at the same time it can express its child-like ideologies to a wider audience, through all ages ("older people will watch shows for younger people, but not vice versa"), and to a larger fan base (who go on to analyse and discuss the shows and distribute their ideas as secondary texts, widening the knowledge still).
Before I start finding ideological values in the text, I shall describe the narrative trying to fit it within Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one narrative functions. Using this method I hope to explain the narrative as simply as possible and prove that, although in places tenuously (the structure is allowed to be slightly deviated from), it conforms to the classic structure of folk tales (see the Appendix for actual conformities, excluded here to highlight narrative):
REPRESENTATIONS OF SOCIAL REALITY:
As well as conforming to Propp’s narrative functions, it also conforms to his ideas of characters/spheres of action:
The show and its characters also agree with other social and narrative conventions. They live in a realistic setting, which, as I’ve mentioned, doesn’t exactly reproduce reality, but does reproduce the dominant social view of our sense of reality. Even though the characters appear yellow, they are still human in form rather than random squiggles (which the genre accommodate). None of the character representations are of social leaders, but of those in the working class and their experiences of subordination, as in Raymond Williams’ notions of social extension. The show also conforms to Marion Jordan’s ideas about social realism holding the narrative form of beginning/middle/end, involving the working class, or those they associate with, in ordinary industrial/urban locales. The show is also set ‘now’ – in contemporary America. Jordan’s ideas suit the show more than John Fiske’s work which portrays American television as only depicting the middle class (he wrote in the yuppie-centric 1980s). Indeed, Jordan’s ideas are more true in the case of many US programmes of the ’90s (for example Roseanne and Married With Children), with their left-wing political viewpoints.
The Simpsons family – Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and (unseen in this episode) baby Maggie, in order of birth – live in a very humanised environment, as the heroes of a text should in order to aid audience identification. They have a regular house on a regular street (Evergreen Terrace) with crooked pictures and toys scattered everywhere rather than the over-glamorous, chandeliered mansions of Fiske’s ’80s examples. In a live action show soft or harsh scenery colours signify the heroism or villainy implicit within – in the cartoon the choice of paint signifies this. The Simpsons’ house is mainly pink (which is proven, through tests in American prisons, to have a calming effect on its occupants). The viewer is thus more calm in the company of these people than, say, within the confines of the villain’s lair – Mr Burns’ office in his unsafe nuclear power plant being dark brown and green in colour, full of mahogany furniture (further representing Big Business’ typical mentality of not caring for the environment). Homer’s workstation in the plant is plain metallic (or its blue equivalent), with luminous green liquids seeping from the cracks between the riveted joins – hardly a place of leisure, this enables the viewer to understand Homer’s reasons for wanting to keep away from the place.
The characters are unlike real actors whose "appearance is already encoded by our social values." Animated characters must play even more to social stereotypes, as "embodiments of ideological values" of the various ‘types’ of people they wish to represent. Their voice talents are cast specifically, although in the case of The Simpsons the actors came straight from the regular cast of the live action sketches, and embryonic Simpsons clips used in The Tracey Ullman Show. Thus we can’t fully acknowledge the actors’ intertextuality as much as in other television series. Only two of the actors could bring with them any textual ‘baggage’ that I know of. Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge, starred in the popular ’70s sitcom Rhoda, making the viewer expect comedy and certain feminist or, at least, left-wing values from her presence (the show produced by Mary Tyler Moore’s known feminist company, MTM). Harry Shearer, the voice of Burns and Smithers (among others), would in the same way bring with him a certain amount of zaniness through his involvement in the mock-rock group Spinal Tap (who themselves appeared in an earlier Simpsons episode).
I shall now take a look at some of the episode’s chief characters.
Homer, the series’ hero, is firmly rooted (or so he believes) in a patriarchal household of the 1950s. He’s sick and tired of going to work each morning (though, initially at least, not the work itself) and wishes that he could work from home to be waited upon by Marge, his devoted wife. His wishes are best expressed in one of the show’s dream sequences:
The rich, popular (and madly religious) next-door neighbour then walks past, his clothes crumpled and sweaty. We can see that Homer has pictured his own lounging in the sun all day, Marge as his servant, and his social better as on the brink of a nervous breakdown. All it is though is a dream (to highlight which, Bart and Lisa are seen to be watching and laughing at him in his dreamy daze – and therefore, metaphorically, the dream itself).
He is a very lazy character and also, let us not forget, very stupid (the animators often add to his usual gorilla-like stature two very distant-looking crossed eyes). Not once does he consider the health-damaging side-effects of his gargantuan size, all he wants is freedom from going to work: "Oh, I’m never going to be disabled," he moans, "I’m sick of being so healthy!"
Marge, on the other hand, is a little more complex. As in the patriarchal household she was brought up in, Marge is both nurturer and servant, although thought of/treated as a lesser member of the family – she doesn’t even appear until the second act (or after the second American commercial break). The opening credits (though cut from this transmission) show her juggling the responsibilities of caring for baby Maggie and buying the shopping in enough time to get home for the other children/Homer (the latter having, it seems, played truant from work, arriving home at the same time as the kids – as if he were one of them).
She can’t be seen as the usual male sex object as she only embodies the most rudimentary feminine aspects – rarely wearing lipstick, and only her relatively small features, ‘big’ hair and eyelashes distinguishing her as a woman in the dominant patriarchal sense. Also, her traditional feminine emotions can’t be as well expressed as those of a real woman, so they are heightened by music (although the folded arms, pursed lips and frown she displays on hearing of Homer’s plan fully acknowledge her feelings on the matter).
From scenes in other episodes it is known that Marge has a touch of French in her blood and wasn’t treated well as a child by her over-bearing father – perhaps because of his ‘latin temperament’ and the embarrassment of his job being that of an air stewardess (sic). She doesn’t want her children brought up as replicas of her father (as Patty and Selma, her nasty sisters, turned out to be), and does have some feminist values (her hair could be said to represent the phallus, thus her ‘trouser-wearing’ position in the household), but she tends to keep the feelings to herself. She’s perhaps too ideologically-oppressed to complain directly to Homer (when she finally confronts him she can still only refer to his plan as "controversial").
Whereas Bart is a youthful version of Homer (he wants to be just like him, and rejoices in helping him gain weight – and thus, in the Oedipal sense, killing him), Lisa is intelligent, versed in all the feminine texts, and the character who often brings the contradictions of the show to the fore – campaigning against underage smoking one week, and the stereotype-conforming Malibu Stacey dolls the next. Marge can confide in Lisa (having no other friends outside her home) and Lisa is a more militant speaker when it comes to personal values. She definitely doesn’t see Homer as the patriarch or bearer of knowledge – she talks directly to him about and against his thoughtless plans, although at heart she loves him for all his stupidity. In a scene reminiscent of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (one of the many intertextual references that the series contains) a group of children laugh and stare through the window at Homer. Lisa sticks up for him to the extent that they literally bow their heads in shame. It’s only when Homer starts hurling mindless abuse at them do they start laughing again – Homer thus failing to live up to Lisa’s thoughtful lines and failing her as a father.
Marge and Homer’s lifestyles keep to J Hartley’s dominant ideology-based heroes, ideas which (shown below) involve gender, age-group, family, class, nation, and ethnicity. In this show, and in other contemporary examples, education is also an important variable.
Setting the two lifestyles out like this, one can see the conformity between the two heroes of the text (I say two, even though Marge could be the false hero, in Propp’s terms, for doubting and acting against Homer’s plans). There isn’t any conflict in any of the shown sections – as it would be, in theory, if everyone conformed to the dominant ideology. But as this non-conflict makes boring plot lines, conflicts of interest must evolve between the heroes, as well as (more traditionally) between them and outside factors – villains.
The villains in narratives are generally non-American in their social values – either through accent, appearance of other subtler ways which all add up to make the character ‘unrealistic’ to American ideology (and often difficult to work out). Easily identified ones, however, such as Mr Burns, have many villainous traits in their characteristic representation. Under Hartley’s headings the show’s villains can be seen as below.
Mr Burns is the episode’s/series’ chief villain, the ultra-wealthy owner of Homer’s power plant and instigator of the rigorous fitness regime. He has an English-sounding accent (like Jeremy Irons’ many American roles, or the various portrayals, by the English, of Europeans in the Die Hard movies). At one point, Burns is seen to tap Homer with a walking stick, thus the American obsessions with health and old age (he resembles an emaciated skeleton) are both encapsulated in one person.
As opposed to the heroes being allowed screen time (through editing) to establish their relationship, the only time we see Burns and Smithers together is when they are making their nefarious plans (even though, in this episode, the plan is to make Homer fit and healthy).
The representation of Burns through the angle of the camera (or at least that which was conceptualised on the storyboard page) also informs the viewer of his villainy. He is always seen above his workers, showing his precedence over them – whether outside doing the callisthenic exercises on his purposely constructed podium (resembling various authoritarian regimes: Nazi speeches at Nuremberg, Communist China’s morning fitness rituals, or the Japanese business fitness plans, Japan being America’s new economic ‘enemy’), or in his office where, even though sitting down, the throne-like chair rises (thus making his position) above whoever dares enter (in a reverse of the ‘halo effect’, the chair’s armrests also rise up to appear as horns above his bald head).
Mr Burns wears a sweater in the colours of Yale University – blue on white – a sign of his educational supremacy over Homer (who only graduated in a recent series), and his family. (Even his full name, Charles Montgomery Burns, is more ‘superior-sounding’ than Homer’s.) As opposed to Fiske’s examples of ’80s villains as less educated persons, our current social experience says the reverse: the heroes have to outsmart the more educated, luxurious powers of Big Business. Perhaps in the ’90s, with the left-wing Democrat government, Mr Burns is seen as capitalism gone mad (which could, again, refer to America’s disliking of Japan, where capitalism has become so successful that the Americans – who invested in the place following the Second World War – are jealous).
In this text, a person’s education/knowledge would appear to lead to great, unopposed power – Burns’ office is thus lined with books. (There are, though, levels of education below even the Simpsons’ that are most reviled. Bart’s dream of being "a lardo just like dad" has him speaking in a deeply southern USA accent, saying proudly "I wash myself with a rag on a stick!" This stereotype of southerners being unintelligent fools also appears in Fiske’s example, so it must be American ‘common sense’.) As said before, Lisa the feminist eight-year-old also displays signs of being extremely intelligent like the portrayed villains – a villain against Homer’s dream of patriarchy?
Doctors are generally seen as unfairly overpaid in a society of un-funded healthcare and Dr Hibbert’s good education is displayed above his head (and thus important to him) in the form of his framed diploma. Again, his office has the blue/white colouring signifying Yale, indicating his and Burns’ knowledge of one another (they also both hold a place in the city’s privileged Masonic club). Hibbert could therefore be seen as a villain (although a very friendly physician) in terms of his high standing in the community as well as his playing no part in Homer’s idiotic plan. However, he does refer to him to Dr Nick Riviera, possibly because referring patients would earn him some sort of commission.
Dr Hibbert is black, although I don’t think any ethnicity codes apply in this case as he was only brought into the series as a joke when the rival network, NBC, scheduled their The Cosby Show (in which Bill Cosby played a doctor) against The Simpsons for its final season.
Waylon Smithers, Burns’ loyal personal assistant, is represented as a closeted gay man with delusions of love for Mr Burns – thus very much a villain to America’s dominant ideology. In this respect he could be seen as Burns’ villainess (rather un-PC, but that’s the decoding I’m offering). Although the producers’ official line is that "they’re just good friends," he is visually represented as at least ‘different’: he wears a dapper pink bow-tie (thus displaying a pair of pink triangle symbols), he has vaguely styled hair rather than the greasy mess of other males (for example, Lenny’s), and, unlike most characters, wears glasses. He’s also the one sent to search for Homer in the toilets, and even though Homer was standing in the toilet bowl, Smithers was still able to sense which cubicle he was in. (In other episodes he betrays his secret further, for instance, Burns doesn’t like dogs: "Would you like something sniffing around at your crotch?" to wit Smithers replies "If you were doing it, sir?")
Dr Nick Riviera, advocate of Homer’s scheme, could be seen as the final human villain of the text. Even though in the twisted terms of this narrative he is Homer’s donor in the ‘fat plan’, in a social sense with such a scheme thought of as negative, he can be thought of as another villain (although, in the confusing social common sense, Mr Burns could be seen as a hero trying to encourage Homer to be healthy – it’s rather complex). Dr Nick (sic) is separated in terms of race, with his exaggerated Hispanic accent, and also social status. As a doctor he is seen as one of the intelligentsia, even though he’s a crooked one charging a standard $129.99 per operation, has a catchphrase ("Hi everybody!" to which everybody replies "Hi Dr Nick!"), and, when Bart recommends "brushing your teeth with milkshakes" as part of Homer’s weight-gain plan, he asks "Did you go to Hollywood Upstairs Medical College too?" showing he can’t even deduce that Bart’s a ten-year-old boy.
Homer’s flab is also a villain here (it’s been un-American to be unhealthy in their culture, where even the presidents jog, for at least fifteen years – even though personal experience of many citizens proves otherwise), and like the traditional plans of the villain, the ‘fat plan’ is definitely lost before the end, unlike Burns and Smithers’ plans which, as part of the series’ narrative structure continue from week to week.
Now that I have found the various ways in which the characters are represented, I shall now investigate further their social ideologies. In some respects though, my decoding of this American-encoded series could be "aberrant" because of my differently, British culture-encoded brain. Even though my common sense has already been tainted by the USA’s dominance of the media, it can still prove a problem, especially in terms of their political system. For instance, I have little understanding of the Watergate affair (being too young, uneducated, or British), but the American viewers would understand more clearly the constant references to Richard Nixon – one character, Milhouse (sic), bares his middle name (and one can only ascertain from his un-dominant ideological background – bespectacled, constantly bullied, hated – a little of the true Nixon).
I do, though, understand quite a lot from the text. The fact that the Simpsons are WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or at least their yellow equivalent) is hardly coincidental. With most viewers situated in the country’s dominant ideology, they are able to watch the show and identify themselves with, and have their wishes fulfilled by the characters (in the ’80s there was glamour, power, wealth – in the ’90s, no one could want to be like Mr Burns and his wealth, but rather have a Simpsons-esque home life where the man isn’t completely dominant). The show circulates its creator Matt Groening’s ideology (also writer of the Life in Hell comic-strip, which includes the definitely non-dominant pair Akbar and Jeff – "Are they lovers, are they brothers or are they both?"). The Simpsons, therefore, has a strong left-wing, anti-Republican Party bias. (As a reminder of this, the cash register in the opening titles lights up – in freeze-frame mode – to highlight various ironically right-wing messages, for example "NRA4EVER", pertaining to the rightist National Rifle Association.)
As well as its (executive) producers’ input, the show’s American broadcaster, the Fox Television Network, must also have something to do with its twisting of the traditional narrative style (if not form). The network is often thought to the lowest common denominator in terms of the country’s television (to say nothing of the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, including its UK broadcaster Sky One). The relatively new channel has had to broadcast conflicting programmes of this nature so as to appear different and original when competing with the other networks (who, in turn, commission the same type of programmes – for instance, ABC’s Roseanne, which for its last season became very weird indeed, and more like The Simpsons each week).
As stated before, the presence of the dominant ideology in the show’s reality (as well as Groening’s views ingrained into it) are to ensure the show’s popularity. Set in television’s role of making social changes, the show is "a contradictory mix of confirming and contending identities" – it’s based around the ideology of patriarchy, but there’s more than a hint of feminist issue in it, issues which are important and should be discussed on television. The Simpsons (and the rest of the ’90s breed of programming) doesn’t constitute an ‘out-an-out’ feminist text, but one of a feminine culture asserting its values within and against patriarchy. We are able to cope with this radicalism because, in social circumstances (unlike viewers in the ’40s and ’50s) we have been subject to some form of feminist power in our lives. Continual exposure to such issues as these (and equal representations of other repressed groups, including the Smithers’ of the world), work to "whittle away" at patriarchy’s power of oppressing women (etc.). As part of this, Homer envisioned in his dream of working at home (as opposed to the show’s own, and our social reality) that Marge was his slave, but in reality she "runs errands in the daytime," telling Homer what he probably doesn’t know of her life (he doesn’t ask/care about her day). At one point, Homer is able to use the washer-drier to wash his ‘fat guy hat’ without support from Marge showing, perhaps, some degree of his non-reliance on the ‘little woman’, but it could just as likely be an excuse to say ‘fat guy hat’ (it resembled Dom DeLuis’ ever-present white cap). (Interestingly, when he puts the hat on, he cries "I can feel three kinds of softness!" thus betraying the power of commercials on the common man. Earlier, when discussing with Marge the pros and cons of being fat, Homer mentioned as a pro, in his commercial-talk, that he was "drought and famine-resistant.")
The general narrative structure (ignoring its great twists of unhealthy equalling good) doesn’t conform to the patriarchal tradition. As said before, the normal untroubled marriage of the dominant ideology would make a dull storyline so, in contradiction, Homer gets fat and disrupts his marriage situation – it encroaches on Marge’s territory (mentally and physically, with the air-conditioner continually at full blast), and she says she isn’t sexually attracted to him anymore (hardly the stuff of usual cartoons) which, in turn, encroaches on Homer’s patriarchal dream world. Because of this and, perhaps, Homer’s Oedipal feelings for Marge (his true mother leaving home when he was a child, leaving him with a miserable single father), Homer is finally swayed by his wife’s feelings. Women are traditionally seen as being able to control relationships, and Marge ‘forces’ Homer to lose weight in the end. Perhaps he thinks he’d otherwise lose her for good (feminist text: a man is useless), although the expression on her face and his sudden action does seem to prove that he worries for her welfare (patriarchal text: the man looks after the little woman – the heroine in jeopardy is saved).
Also, unlike the masculine narrative setting of the office or the police station, this show is mainly set in the traditionally feminine arena of the home. It refuses some of the encodings of patriarchy in favour of some feminist issues. Also, the Simpsons’ on-going situation is never resolved as in the feminine narrative (with its multiples of plot and character, like the ‘feminine’ soap opera form) even though, like the masculine narrative (with its desire for climax, as in sexuality – for example, the closure of police shows), each episode has its own conclusion. Mick Eaton says this mix of narratives is especially true of comedies, thus making them popular to both audiences as, in theory, everyone can read their identities into it.
I don’t believe that everything I’ve read into the text was consciously inserted into it, but much has been found out about the show. The episode has the social values of the dominant ideology to cater to its large audience, and it holds the dominant patriarchal view of minority groups although at least they receive a much needed and welcome mention. (Since when did the other prime-time cartoon for adults, The Flintstones, include anyone ‘of colour’ or gay, both groups being more-or-less illegal in the early ’60s?) The show is trying, like the USA and Western World in general, to create a cultural shift towards total sexual/ethnic emancipation. The popularity of such issues has changed and will continue to change as popular tastes move with different social and historical issues. There’s currently a resurgence of shifting definitions of femininity – as there were in the ’70s, with such series’ as Charlie’s Angels – a sign, like now, of the Democrats in presidential office.
I hope The Simpsons continues to highlight such issues, even those which aren’t as controversial as race or gender – like this episode’s highlighting of the simple ways to exploit disability benefit – and that it continues to enlighten and entertain for many more series.
Here follow the conformities, although a few are tenuous, to Propp’s narrative functions (as quoted from John Fiske).
Last updated on July 23, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)