Simpsons revealed as models of family values

A scholar's praise: 'An enduring image of the nuclear family' embedded in satire

By Andy Lamey

© National Post, March 25, 2000.

D'oh! Homer and Bart Simpson as upholders of family values?

Don't have a cow, man. An English professor says it's true.

In a recent issue of Political Theory, a prestigious academic journal, Paul A. Cantor of the University of Virginia examines the "deep politics" of Matt Groening's popular animated cartoon.

"For all its slapstick nature and its mocking of certain aspects of family life, The Simpsons has an affirmative side and ends up celebrating the nuclear family as an institution. For television, this is no minor achievement," Cantor writes.

While nuclear families have never been absent from programs such as All in the Family or The Cosby Show, the dominant trend has long been non-traditional family arrangements on TV, Cantor notes, pointing to classic one-parent sitcoms such as The Andy Griffith Show or My Three Sons, as well as Party of Five, a popular current show that dispenses with parents altogether. In the 1970s, shows such as Alice even "began to move away from the nuclear family as the norm and suggest that other patterns of child-rearing might be equally valid or perhaps even superior."

The Simpsons is a break from this tradition, Cantor writes, as it harkens back -- mockingly -- to stable family sitcoms of the '50s such as Leave it to Beaver. But while it parodies such programs' views of the family, it simultaneously reminds the viewer what was good in them, Cantor believes.

"[The Simpsons] continually offers an enduring image of the nuclear family in the very act of satirizing it. Many of the traditional values of the American family survive this satire, above all the value of the nuclear family itself."

Cantor adds: "In effect, the show says, 'Take the worst-case scenario -- The Simpsons -- and even that family is better than no family.' "

This is often lost on critics who portray the show as "anti-family," Cantor argues.

"Many people have criticized The Simpsons for its portrayal of the father as dumb, uneducated, weak in character and morally unprincipled. Homer is all those things, but at least he is there."

Homer's virtue is seen in his staunch loyalty to his wife and children, Cantor writes. He points to an episode where Lisa, Homer's daughter, yearns for a pony. To pay for it, Homer takes a second job working for Abu Nahasapeemapetilon, operator of the Kwik-E-Mart, almost killing himself in the process.

"Homer is not effective in such actions, but that makes his devotion to his family in some ways all the more touching," Cantor writes.

He also examines an episode where the Simpson children are taken away from their parents by the Child Welfare Board. In the episode, the Simpsons' imperfect family arrangement is contrasted with that offered by their pious yet self-righteous neighbours, the Flanders ("I don't judge Homer and Marge; that's for a vengeful God to do," Mrs. Flanders says) and by the government child-welfare "experts."

"The answer the show offers is that the children are better off with their real parents -- not because they are more intelligent or learned in child-rearing, and not because they are superior in morality or piety, but simply because Homer and Marge are the people most genuinely attached to Bart, Lisa and Maggie. ... The episode works particularly well to show the horror of the supposedly omniscient and omnicompetent state intruding in every aspect of family life."

A double-edged element is also present in the show's depiction of religion and government, Cantor writes. Religious figures such as the Flanders are often mocked, but the show -- unlike most -- depicts many characters going to church and portrays religion as "a normal part of life in [its setting of] Springfield, U.S.A."

While government is not glorified, it is portrayed as subject to local control, Cantor notes. Quimby, the town mayor who sounds like a Kennedy, is corrupt in the tradition of a "Democratic urban-machine politician," Cantor writes. "[But] when he buys votes he buys them directly from the citizens of Springfield."

In one way, the show may even be too old-fashioned, Cantor concludes. By making all media outlets, including the world headquarters of the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon empire, locally based, the show may paint a picture that is too benign.

"The Simpsons takes the phenomena that has in fact done more than anything else to subvert the power of the local in American politics and American life in general -- namely, the media -- and in effect brings it within the orbit ... of local control."

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Last updated on August 7, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (