Friday, April 25, 2008

The Simpsons Do Feminism

When you think of feminism in mainstream media, I’m guessing The Simpsons is not the first show that comes to mind and that’s ok! Much to my mother’s displeasure, my brother and I have been watching The Simpsons since the tender of age of five years old, and while some people disapprove, I think it has served me well (especially in terms of this assignment). Because I have watched almost every episode at least seven times at varying stages in my life, I have witnessed first hand my own growing awareness of the messages the show presents to the audience. Matt Groening’s often used quote is that “The Simpsons is a show that rewards you for paying attention” (qtd. in Irwin and Lombardo 81). Both my brother and I have noticed how, as we got older and learned more, we began to pick up more on the social satire and of course, the almost overwhelming number of references, ranging from pop culture to poetry to literature. Simone Knox asserts that since it’s start, “the series has become accepted as a vital part of both US and global culture” (Knox 73), winning 23 Emmys, a Peabody Award for “providing exceptional animation and stinging social satire, both commodities which are in extremely short supply in television today” in 1996, and being named “Best TV Show” of the century by Time magazine in 1999 (qtd. in Knox 73). Currently, it is the longest running American sitcom ever, with over 400 episodes and counting.

Matthew Henry writes, “The Simpsons is above all a sophisticated satire on American culture…offering scathing critiques of America’s numerous faults and flaws. Among other things, The Simpsons mercilessly exposes the hypocrisy and ineptitude of pop psychology, corporate greed, commercialism, consumerism, and modern child-rearing, as well as the potential dangers of fundamental religion, homophobia, racism, and sexism” (273). Each episode questions the universality and normativity of-so called “traditional family values” and satirizes America’s own exclusionary practices of “minorities” in American culture, whose status, which Henry points out, is based on religion, race, age, sex and gender (273). This essay specifically explores how the show presents feminist ideas and feminist struggles through Marge, but in the end falls back on traditional gender norms.

Due to the changes in women’s lives and a shift in theoretical perspective since the height of second wave feminism, many women struggle with what it is to be a feminist, and as Henry notes, “their lives are marked by ambivalence and ambiguity, complexity and contradiction” (274). In Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Susan Douglas states, “American women today are a bundle of contradictions” (9). Douglas demonstrates that much of the confusion about women’s “proper place” and roles in culture are present in mainstream mass media, causing many women to be in a conflicted state, torn between traditional and stereotypical ideas of who and what they ought to be and progressive and liberating concepts of who and what they can be. Douglas writes, “The war that has been raging in the media is not a simplistic war against women but a complex struggle between feminism and antifeminism that has reflected, reinforced, and exaggerated our culture’s ambivalence about women’s roles for over thirty-five years” (12-13).

One issue that feminism has had an on-going discussion of is that of the stay-at-home mother. In season three, the episode “Homer Alone” (#8F14) attempts to address the same issue. Opening on a stressed Marge, it shows a sped-up version of her daily routine. Like a perfect storm, the combination of practical jokers on the radio, heavy traffic, a rude tailgater and Maggie, who spills her bottle of milk all over Marge and the car, lead to her breaking point. Stopping her car in the middle of a bridge and creating gridlocked traffic in both directions, local newsman Kent Brockman shows up to report on the situation. It is at this point that the gender issues discussed in Ann Crittenden’s “The Price of Motherhood” are brought to light as Brockman states, “An overworked and under-appreciated housewife has snapped and parked her car on a bridge.” Eventually, Homer arrives at the scene and pleads with Marge to come home, promising to help out more. Marge agrees, but insists on having a vacation for herself.

While vacationing at Rancho Relaxo, Homer struggles with tending to the children and the home. In some shows, Marge would be called back early to help restore “proper” order to the house, but instead, Marge finishes her vacation. Homer desperately tries to put the house together so it would appear that things were fine in her absence. Instead, the image of perfection at home that Homer wants to recreate is contrasted with the “real”, when Marge holds up a photo of her family (one in which everyone is well groomed) and lowers it to reveal the unkempt group waiting for her. The episode ends with Marge stating that she expects more help from everyone around the house to lessen her own stress level, and everyone agrees to pitch in. However, it seems that while the show highlighted the labor involved with taking care of the home, which has long been devalued or unacknowledged, the show seems to fall back upon the well-established gender norms for a resolution.

In season six, women’s roles outside the home are addressed in the episode “The Springfield Connection” (#2F21). In this episode, Marge has a knife pulled on her by the petty thief Snake, and during a rush of adrenaline, she successfully defends herself. After her exciting brush with danger, Marge struggles to find thrills in her life as a homemaker. Eventually, Marge goes down to the police station and announces that she wants to join the police force. Later that evening when Marge shares her news with Homer, it is obvious that Homer subscribes to the idea of polarized gender roles. He states, “Marge, you being a cop makes you the man, which makes me the woman, and I have no interest in that.” Marge quickly reassures Homer that there is no need for him to feel threatened, an acknowledgment of the idea that the feminism is a threat patriarchy.

Marge successfully completes training and becomes one of the best cops on the force, but she finds that her success comes at a price. Outcast by the town, it is Homer who finally voices his complaint: “You’ve become such a cop. Not that long ago, you were so much more to me. You were a cleaner of pots, a sewer of buttons, an unplugger of hairy clogs.” Marge replies, “I’m still all those things, only now I’m cleaning up the city, sewing together the social fabric, and unplugging the clogs of our legal system.” Homer, locked into the binary gender roles, asks “You’re cooking what for dinner?” Later, Marge writes a ticket for Homer’s car parked across three handicapped spots, but Homer simply claims that she is not a real cop, taking her police hat off and verbally mocking her. Embarrassed in front of the crowd that has gathered, Marge demonstrates the realness of her job by arresting Homer. Now fighting, it is only when Homer discovers that a counterfeit jeans operation is being run out of his garage that he realizes the role Marge plays as a cop. Following a dramatic chase scene, Marge successfully captures the criminal. But just like in “Homer Alone” this progressive ending is undone when after seeing all of the other cops trying on the illegal denim, she says “There’s too much corruption on this force,” and quits, returning the characters to their status quo.

Despite this “return to normalcy” at the conclusion of these episodes, I find it inspiring that these issues are receiving greater exposure in mass media. While we have established how enormously successful the show has been, I think it is important to consider what this means for episodes like those discussed here. Many of the viewers will not have taken a women’s studies class where they would be exposed to feminist ideas like undervalued motherhood and the rigidity of gender norms in marital relationships, but these episodes are able to reach a wide audience and hopefully, will inspire a discourse of some sort. The Simpsons continues to air today and even in the most recent episodes, they have managed to slip in quite a few references to feminist ideas (most recently Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and the idea of women as the objects of men). Matt Groening himself has stated that he sees the show continuing for many more years, and for me, that means more opportunities to reach those unfamiliar with the ideas of feminism and maybe change some minds.

1 comment:

mcgeeing said...

Your article is super-duper intriguing. Hot commodity too. Kudos!