The exasperating both-sides-ism satire of The Simpsons
Re-visiting James M. Wallace’s 2001 essay, “A (Karl, not Groucho) Marxist in Springfield” from The Simpsons and the Philosophers (2001)
INTRO ~ Anyone who has ever seen The Simpsons, remembers in many, many episodes, the tired-looking middle-aged TV newscaster who is equally disdainful of the poor, the rich and everyone else.
In the 2020s, its’ more common for pundits to correctly point out useless, politically correct (in the worst way) both-sides-ism of PBS and other corporate-supported-owned new outlets.
Less common is pointing out useless, politically correct (in the worst way) both-sides-ism of satire in corporate-made cartoons especially The Simpsons.
James M. Wallace eventually gets there in his 2001 essay, “A (Karl, not Groucho) Marxist in Springfield” from The Simpsons and the Philosophers (2001). This reduced version, below, sharpens his points and supports it with minor editing.
by JAMES M. WALLACE
The Simpsons is fun. The comedy pulls in so many different directions, offering “something for everyone.” Few can watch and not laugh whatever your political-economic point of view.
Since the show is often promoted as “subversive,” we might expect it to appeal to people critical of prevailing conventional morality and norms, interested in how art can be used to critique the foundations of the Old Orders of power.
Authentic satire challenges us to question “ordinary” practices, habits and perspectives and to reflect on how the world might be improved, to eliminate stereotyping and scapegoating.
Authentic satire operates at a more intellectual level than slapstick. It requires more from viewers. First, it expects viewers to understand what’s being ridiculed. Second, to know what better behavior, a better world, is supposed to look like.
Anyone familiar with Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, knows the pitfalls of missing the satire. Audiences who assume Swift was honestly advocating eating Irish children rather than calling attention to how the English landlords had, metaphorically, “devoured” the Irish citizenry and land, missed the satire; they did not “get it.”
All comedy makes demands of the reader. Perhaps more than any other form, this is true of satire. George Meredith, Marx’s contemporary and a leading novelist of the late Victorian age, believed drama, should provide lessons regarding the social order. He believed comedies could evoke “thoughtful laughter” to draw attention to humanity’s foibles and contribute finally to the amelioration of social ills.3
While many modern writers no longer believe literature can or will correct society’s problems, most comedies — even those on television — still follow the pattern of either reconstructing society according to a more humane blueprint, or, in the case of satire, pointing out the habits, vices, illusions, rituals, and arbitrary laws, impeding movement toward a better world.
If The Simpsons was an authentic subversive satire, it would expose the hypocrisy, pretense, excessive commercialism, gratuitous violence, and so forth, characterizing modern society. It’s conclusions would suggest a better world lies beyond. Yet The Simpsons assiduously sidesteps authentic satire. . . .
Comic writers can draw our attention to unwanted habits and rigid stereotypes, expose them as UNnatural ways of acting and believing, encouraging us to resist them. How then should we view The Simpsons’ rigid, rampant stereotypes? Could they be cautions against our tendency to stereotype?
Live action “realistic” sitcoms reflect and propagate habitual, middle class customs, habits and premises” (competition, consumerism, blind patriotism, excessive individualism, etc.). Since consumer capitalism is built on a foundation of these habits and assumptions, conventional sitcoms mightily reinforce middle class consumer capitalism. This is why they are often called “pop culture comfort food.” They tell us “the status quo is acceptable.”
The Simpsons does not quite do this either. Because it’s a cartoon, writers can do things writers of live action television cannot do. The Simpson’s writers have more latitude to shatter the illusions of reality and rattle viewers’ beliefs about capitalism as the only and natural, comfortable way of life.
Live-action shows which “imitate life” closely hypnotize us to believe the reality depicted is inescapable and inevitable. The Simpsons does do this; yet, it pioneered and uses the the most shocking and Brechtian techniques ever seen on mass media. Bertolt Brecht rejected the artificial elements of drama — the unified plot, sympathetic characters, universal themes — for techniques which “alienated” and distanced the audience. The Simpsons takes this ethic to heart, scrambles reality, keeps us on our intellectual toes so we avoid the stultifying habit of identifying with characters and continue to assess the ideological content of what we are seeing. . . .
This means The Simpsons is a paradox. It walks, talks and acts like a Brechtian satire; yet the end of each episode reinforces the dismal status quo of all characters. The Simpsons employs the techniques of authentic satire; yet, uses these artistic tools for make both-sides-ism jokes on all ideologies 360 degrees around us. This begins to get at the nihilism of the Simpsons — but I digress.
An example of The Simpsons’ subversive challenges to capitalist dogma is accomplished through incongruity. The following exchange, which may be too good to sully with analysis, is among the best in the series:
LISA: If we don’t get to the convention soon, all the good comics will be gone!
BART: Ah, what do you care about good comics? All you ever buy is Casper the Wimpy Ghost.
LISA: I think it’s sad you equate friendliness with wimpiness. It’ll keep you from ever achieving true popularity.
BART: [showing comics of Casper and Richie Rich] Well, you know what I think? I think Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich.
LISA: Hey, they do look alike!
BART: I wonder how Richie died.
LISA: Perhaps he realized how hollow the pursuit of money really is and took his own life. MARGE: Kids, could you lighten up a little? (“Three Men and a Comic Book”)
In a radical satire, especially one containing an exchange like that or the unrelenting, biting portrayal of the evil Mr. Burns, one might expect a consistent undercutting and exposure of bourgeois ideology and repressive values. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. . . . .
Many Simpsons fans will know Marxists are not welcomed in Springfield. When Itchy and Scratchy moves to another show, Krusty is forced to substitute a cartoon featuring “Eastern Europe’s favorite cat-and-mouse team, ‘Worker and Parasite,’” a gloomy and boring look at the exploitation of the working class which immediately clears Krusty’s television studio.
In “Brother From the Same Planet,” a recruiter from the Springfield Communist Party addressees the crowd before the start of a football game. Unfortunately for the decrepit old recruiter, it’s “Tomato Day,” and the crowd pelts the recruiter with their free tomatoes. In “Homer the Great,” Grampa Abe Simpson searches his wallet for proof that he’s a member of the fraternal organization, The Stonecutters:
ABE: Oh, sure. Let’s see. . . [going through his wallet]. . . I’m an Elk, a Mason, a Communist. I’m the president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance for some reason. Ah, here it is — The Stonecutters.
Apparently the Communist Party has hoodwinked another confused old man into signing up, or perhaps the point is Communism is an old and feeble system, the demise of which everyone, including the members of Spinal Tap, celebrates:
DEREK: I can’t think of anyone who’s benefited more from the death of Communism than us.
NIGEL: Oh, maybe the people who actually live in the Communist countries.
DEREK: Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. (“The Otto Show”)
While Karl Marx is unwelcome in Springfield, Groucho Marx has been spotted in several episodes, either in person (in the crowd around Dr. Hibbert in “Boy Scoutz ‘N the Hood”) or in paraphrase in — of all episodes! — “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield.” Marge, finally realizing she has alienated her family in her attempt to be accepted as a member at the local country club, rejects the country club set with a version of Groucho’s famous line. “I wouldn’t want to join any club who would have this me as a member,” Marge declares.
The allusion is certainly warranted since the Marx brothers made a living exposing the pretensions and hypocrisy of high society. The paraphrase is truly brilliant. While Groucho was sarcastically renouncing organizations with standards low enough to admit him, Marge is rejecting one whose standards allow only “this” Marge, the one who has spent her savings on an impressive dress, parked the car out of sight, and aggressively ordered her family to suspend their normal behaviors and to “just be good.” It’s not a version of Marge she’s comfortable with. She renounces an ideology forcing her to sacrifice her true identity, her true essence. Groucho, no stranger to subversion yet certainly no Marxist, supplies the inspiration for Marge’s triumphant renunciation of the snobbish country clubbers; and, even though Karl’s ilk are banned from town, she shows a true Marxist sensibility when she asserts her freedom from a repressive ideology.
Yet for a Marxist reader there must be something disturbing about the final scene in “The Class Struggle in Springfield.” While the upper class has been soundly lampooned, the episode ends with the Simpson brood back in their place, the more familiar surroundings of cheapo Krusty Burger:
PIMPLE-FACED KID: [mopping the floor] Hey, did you guys just come from the prom? BART: Sort of.
MARGE: You know, we realized we’re more comfortable in a place like this. PIMPLE-FACED KID: Man, you’re crazy. This place is a dump!
While the family wisely turns its back on the cruel and insincere members of the country club (“I hope she didn’t take my attempt to destroy her too seriously,” one of them says of Marge), the Simpson family’s defiance against the propertied and golfing class seems impotent and ineffectual.
In fact, the infirmity of their protest is foreshadowed earlier in the episode when Lisa, seeing Kent Brockman’s daughter huff at a waiter who brings her a baloney sandwich rather than abalone (which she insists she asked for), is incensed yet immediately becomes distracted at the sight of a man riding a pony, her favorite animal. Later she is seen riding a pony; “Look, Mom,” she yells, “I found something more fun than complaining.”
If Lisa’s tirade against insolence and the mistreatment of employees is nothing more than “complaining” and if she can be silenced by a pony, what are we to make of her superb comment later in the episode when she approaches the initiation dinner at the club (“I’m going to ask people if they know their servants’ last names, or in the case of butlers, their first”) or her astounding Richie Rich comment or any of the ideology-pricking comments she’s made over the years?
Certainly, as a little girl, Lisa can be easily distracted by a favorite animal, so perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of her vacillation. Still the episode highlights the show’s constant undercutting of a left-leaning worldview. For that matter, The Simpsons undercuts ALL political stances, as if writers are careful at every step to avoid what could be seen as a consistent political or social statement (more connections with nihilism). What might have been a thorough skewering of the moneyed class, at the end becomes a defeat for the Simpson family. . . .
At the end of “The Class Struggle in Springfield,” order is restored at the expense of the Simpsons, who descend back down to their social class, the “dump” where they have learned to live “comfortably.” It’s not clear at the end if the satire had any target, or any vision of a better world lying beyond and outside conventional ideas of class warfare. Perhaps the whole notion of class struggle is being ridiculed.
Despite the occasional jab, at capitalism’s destructive tendencies, usually from Lisa, it’s Marge’s own bourgeois ideology which accounts for her being “comfortable” in a dump like Krusty Burger. She comes close to a revolutionary moment, yet falls back into a conditioned, quiet, complacent acceptance of things as they are. This is contrary to authentic satire. . . .
The writers of The Simpsons seem to take pains to avoid earning our sympathy for the family or for anyone who suffers or endures. They refuse to pick a side. Ridicule is equally distributed among the powerful and the helpless. This is very close to the amorality, the absence of truly human values, which characterizes corporate consumer capitalism
Groucho’s banana peels were placed squarely under the heels of the affluent, the pretentious academics, the corrupt politicians. The Simpsons’ banana peels are placed there and everywhere else: immigrants, women, the elderly, Southerners, homosexuals, the overweight, the studious, the politically committed. Every marginalized or maligned group takes as hard a tumble as the evil captains of industry. No one seems safe from derision, ridicule or canceling.
How do the Writers of The Simpsons view the working class? We might expect the writers who lampooned the golf crowd, to side with the workers, a reasonable assumption given the dismissal of the country club group. Yet in The Simpsons, no such sympathy or empathy is extended to workers. The Simpsons portrait of workers suggests does not include rebelling against unfair labor practices or struggling to improve the condition of the working class.
In “Last Exit to Springfield,” the union (the “Brotherhood of Jazz Dancers, Pastry Chefs, and Nuclear Technicians”), led by workers Lenny and Carl (Lenin and Marx?) don’t give a moment’s thought before trading their union’s dental plan for the promise of a keg of beer at every union meeting. A strike ensues. Although the union wins back the plan by the show’s end, it does so only through the stupidity of both Mr. Burns and union president Homer. In another show about striking employees, teachers carry picket signs reading “A is for Apple, B is for Raise,” and “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme.” The theme of the Springfield Auto Show is “We salute the American worker — now 61 percent drug free.”
Many of the characters are defined and identified by their occupations, and it’s hard to think of any, beside Frank Grimes (and he was dispatched in short order), who isn’t a bungler, a loser, inept, crooked, lazy, sycophantic, uneducated, unethical, criminal, or just plain dumb, Homer, of course, being the obvious example. In one memorable episode, Homer saves the Shelbyville Nuclear Power Plant from meltdown by choosing the correct button in a game of eenie-meenie.
It’s almost impossible with such a free-floating, 360-degree attack on everything and everyone to know precisely what target The Simpsons intends to satirize. It’s as if Jonathan Swift, having shamed the English for devouring the Irish poor, had turned his contempt on the poor themselves.
[In the Simpsons, targets are either so ill-defined or so wide-ranging, viewer’s attention is constantly directed from one satirical target to its opposite constituency — as if this is normal. It’s likely the success and longevity of The Simpsons is in large part, due to this. Viewers from far Left to far Right on the political spectrum can find The Simpsons making fun of at least one target deemed politically correct by the viewer — bd]
When the Catholic Church took offense to a parody of Super Bowl commercials, the show’s executive producer revised a key line in re-runs of the episode. The pressure to rewrite hints at the corporate control over even supposedly subversive shows. It also points to the fact in a satire with no vision of what the world should be, revisions are easily made. The show targets anything sponsors and its audience will let it get away with. Everything is fair game. No one is spared. No one is held up as a positive role model; and from time to time, EVERYONE is held up as a positive role model.
What would a classically trained satirist make of The Simpsons? He or she would say without some core truly human value, absent any positive vision of what a better world might be, The Simpsons does little more than string together isolated and transitory comical moments. In the aggregate they add up to no discernible, consistent political point of view, let alone a subversive one.
In fact, because episodes like “The Class Struggle in Springfield” end with a restoration of the status quo, unequal social order, with the country club set happily in their place and Marge’s family content in their dump, the show subverts its own subversion and propagates the very institutions and social relationships a classical satirist would attack.
Class antagonisms are exploited for jokes, then merely propped back up, ready for the next pot shot joke. Taken individually the jokes can be exceptionally funny — incongruous, surprising, challenging. Taken together in the totality of The Simpsons, do they add up to anything? No, or only to a view at once nihilistic (everything is a target) and conservative (the traditional social order endures). The satire is too wide, any satirical purpose dissolves in a shower of jokes aimed at every and all targets on the political spectrum. We are left with what we started with — a world of exploitation and struggle, an endless Groundhog Day world of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is the ultimate conservatism
The Simpsons thrives on the joke, on the one-liner, the comical juxtaposition, the occasional shocking truism in the mouth of a child. Greater concerns, such as a consistent political or social philosophy, are banned in the writers room. For example, during a quarrel between his daughter and an Albanian exchange student, Homer utters one of the most memorable lines in the entire series, “Please, please, kids, stop fighting. Maybe Lisa’s right about America being the land of opportunity and maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of workers. (“Crepes of Wrath”). We’re left wondering how we should respond. Can we take anything Homer says seriously, or is this just another witty remark in a show filled with witty remarks? Does Homer’s insight carry any more weight than his other comments?
Homer to his own father, “Aw, Dad, you’ve done a lot of great things, but you’re a very old man, and old people are useless.” (“Homer the Vigilant”)
“Lisa, if you don’t like your job, you don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the American way.” (“The PTA Disbands”)
Inconsistencies in Homer’s character makes him no more than a conduit for the writers’ lines. Each joke is funny in its own small context. Taken together, the individual jokes amount to very little either in terms of a vision for improvement. Audience are prevented from identifying with a character who, to mouth a good line for the writers, becomes even less human and more chameleon in his values. It appears the writers’ prime claim to subversion is to subvert characterization.
Only the jokes survive. Nothing is really all that important. The kids have lightened up. Nothing matters. Satire whose only point is, “Don’t take anything too seriously. Perhaps The Simpsons primarily reflects the rise of despair and nihilism as the truth of society, here at the end of one-sided, greed-corrupted capitalism.
The series is intended for mass consumption by a public habituated to staccato images, disjointed themes and fragments of meaning. As a high water mark of postmodern television, this stew of literary references, cultural allusions, self-reflexive parody, shotgun humor, and absurdly ironic situations, is the inevitable result and perfect reflection of the fragmented, disjointed, contradictory world of consumer capitalism.
Wholeness, consistency and truly human values are replaced by increasing disparity not just between the “haves” and “have nots,” but also between:
- the social and the individual,
- the public and private,
- family and work,
- the general and the particular,
- the ideal and the concrete,
- word and deed.
“Rebellion” and “revolution” here are used to sell Dodge trucks, promote the Oprah Winfrey show or drum up membership in the Republican Party. In The Simpsons, as under capitalism, all opposition is absorbed, and criticism is co-opted. Janis Joplin now sells Mercedes Benz. The Comic Book Guy writes to the producers of Itchy and Scratchy in mockery of Internet users who critique The Simpsons. In The Simpsons everything is up for laughs; just as under capitalism, everything is up for sale.
Does The Simpsons embrace capitalist ideology?
.. . . The writers strip workers of their individuality through alienating work. The objectifying of characters into stereotypes and mouthpieces for jokes, can be seen as a reflection of capitalism’s tendency to reduce people to the quality of objects. Even as The Simpsons portrays everyone as not much more than impersonal objects, it might be argued the show is an accurate depiction of late-phase dog-eat-dog, capitalist ideology, where human beings matter less for their individual qualities than what they can be used for.
For a Marxist in a good mood, then, The Simpsons can be seen as the creative embodiment of a particular ideology. Laughing at the show is a way of laughing at the contradictions of capitalism. Tho not why most people are laughing, an audience attuned to Marxist criticism, predisposed to see capitalism as a flawed and alienating system can find laughs in The Simpsons.
The opposite public analysis seems more common. The Simpsons is most often praised in such places as Time, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, National Review, and The American Enterprise as a show celebrating the American family, “who stick with one another through thick and thin”6 or “love one another, no matter what,”7 and which presents characters who, in their bungling attempts to endure, are ones we can all identify with, or who extol American values such as rebellion. . . .
Critics are actually on the mark when they say, despite its barbs at commercialism and corporations, The Simpsons reflects, conserves and propagates traditional bourgeois ideology. Its success is at least partly responsible for the trend in television sitcoms and cartoons to focus less on character development and authentic satire, to focus more on one-liners, mean-spirited humor, without holding out any hope for social, or even, individual progress (now we’re back to nihilism, black humor again).
The popularity of The Simpsons and its acceptance by conservative critics, finally, proves just how content we are with the ideology of modern America. When Monty Burns says,
Listen, Spielbergo, [Oskar] Schindler and I are like peas in a pod: we’re both factory owners, we both made shells for the Nazis, but mine worked, dammit! (“A Star is Burns”). We laugh, probably because we are shocked at his blindness to what he is admitting. Yet knowing this about him, viewers can continue to laugh at him only because in the broader context, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we’re content and satisfied with the state of affairs.
W.H. Auden helps to make a point: . . . . In public life, the serious evils are so pressing, satire seems trivial. The only suitable kind of attack seems to be emphatic prophetic denunciation” [edited]8 If satire cannot flourish in times of evil and suffering; then, why does The Simpsons flourish? It can only flourish by both-siding our suffering, not taking one side’s suffering more seriously than the other side’s suffering, treating all suffering as equally painful.
In The Simpsons there is no better world and nothing, really, worth worrying about because we are all powerless pawns. So homelessness, racism, arms sales, political corruption, police brutality, an ineffective educational system — all can be grist for the comedy mill. The message becomes, ‘Current suffering is simply to be endured, not changed. None of us are capable of changing it, so why try?’ (now we are back to subliminal, hypnotic, conservatism).
In cartoons, we can laugh at things in a cartoon we wouldn’t find funny in “real life.” A Marxist might contend, if we truly recognized:
- the violence done to workers,
- the human costs of stereotyping and scapegoating,
- the devastation sanctioned in the pursuit of profit…
…we couldn’t possibly find The Simpsons comical.
Our willingness to find The Simpsons funny demonstrates one of the worst aspects of bourgeois pop culture, dulling us to the suffering of others.
A Marxist would say The Simpsons is the worst kind of bourgeois satire since it not only fails to suggest the possibility of a better world, it also teases us away from serious reflection on or criticism of prevailing practices. Even worse, it finally, hypnotizes us to accept the current status quo Oligarchy, comical as it sometimes is, as the best world possible. A Marxist, even if he or she laughs, has to be disheartened.
Its contradictions and inconsistencies reflect a world opposite the integrated, harmonious world Marx envisioned. In the end the show promotes the interests of oligarchs maintaining economic power over the masses, selling them T-shirts, key chains, lunch boxes, and video games. Its lack of vision and its equal distribution of disrespect and hostility make it static and immune to criticism.
Capitalism can absorb and co-opt any dialectical challenge and defend itself by appealing, with a wink and a nudge, to the supremacy of the joke. To a Marxist, the jokes may be funny, yet in The Simpsons, where no one grows up and lives never improve, laughter is not a catalyst for change; it is an opiate.9
1 E.B. White, “Some Remarks on Humor.” In The Second Tree from the Corner (New York: Harper, 1954), p. 174.
2 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 199.
3 George Meredith, An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit (New York: Scribners, 1897), p. 141.
4 Michael Ryan, “Political Criticism,” Contemporary Literary Theory, eds. Douglas Atkins and Laurie Morrow (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), p. 203.
5 Frederick Engels, Letter to Minna Kautsky. In Marx and Engels on Literature and Art (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 88.
6 Richard Corliss, “Simpsons Forever,” Time (2 May 1994), p. 77.
7 M.S. Mason, “Simpsons Creator on Poking Fun,” Christian Science Monitor (17 April 1998), p. B7.
8 W.H. Auden, “Notes on the Comic,” Thought 27 (1952), pp. 68–69.
9 I am grateful to Louis Rader for his many suggestions on the numerous drafts of this essay — JM Wallace