Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Simpsons' Family Values 

I pass rather too much of my time reading strange things with the pretext that they relate loosely to my work. So last night my bedtime reading was an award-winning article from Political Theory (XXVII, 6, December '99) on the politics of The Simpsons. Not its narrow partisan politics, which the article argues (and I agree) are pretty even-handed with a slight pro-Democrat bias, but its broader political assumptions and subtle assertions. Cantor pictures a Simpsons in which the religious nuclear family and the civic values of small-town life are asserted even while they're being weekly satirised. The echoes of Plato are perhaps over-emphasised here (except in the episode in which the Mensa group take over Springfield, which I agree is The Republic all over), but the wider analysis is pretty accurate.

In terms of its family values, The Simpsons is really just the leading light among a few shows which stress the extent to which an outwardly dysfunctional family can bond together and work pretty well as a unit whenever challenged from outside. Married With Children, an awful show about a misogynist pig of a shoe salesman, his family and his neighbours, has some episodes in which the family finally gets revenge on the world. For the most part, it really is dreadful, and what it does in this line The Simpsons has always done better. By contrast, Malcolm In The Middle is a very intelligent show which has crossed over from teenage to family viewing, becoming more like The Simpsons in terms of its complexity all the time. And what it lacks in Simpsonian cultural referencing it makes up for in insanity.

A recent example is an episode in which exhausted mother Lois leaves her three middle sons - Reese, Malcolm and Dewey - to care for the new baby while their father goes out to buy nappies. Lois spends almost the entire episode asleep on the floor, having fallen off her bed and being too tired to get up.

The father lacks the change for nappies, so tries to shoplift them, and when caught is forced to do two hours work at minimum wage to pay for them. He ends up leading a workers' revolution against the shop manager, in which they storm his seat of government (the speaker booth from which he makes announcements to the shop) and finally replace the showtunes soundtrack of the shop with the Phil Collins they'd all voted for back when it was democratic.

Malcolm and Reese, meanwhile, desert Dewey to look after the baby when they are invited to a ball by some girls who wanted to find the most repulsive boys possible in order to make their neglectful boyfriends jealous. Dewey, aged about 7, then spends most of the episode trying to get the baby - without either clean nappies (it ends up wrapped in a newspaper) or a dummy (the boys have taken it with them by mistake) - to go to sleep.

He thus begins to tell a story in which he and the baby find a new house through their parents' closet, a mirror image of their own but one in which they can actually have a good life, which their parents have been keeping from them all this time. A telling line was 'so that's why they always go to bed really early' (in a house which already has five children).

A lot of his resentment at the family comes out, particularly when he finds the room with 'the perfect pants' (trousers) - ones which haven't passed down through three sets of brothers, and don't have decaying dead animals in the pockets. But as in most of the episodes the family proves itself after all, when the brothers rush home with the forgotten dummy, the father makes it home with the nappies after his coup, and the mother wakes up to tell them all off for preventing the baby sleeping.

Obviously, this isn't quite The Simpsons, but it takes a lot of its sensibility from the culture The Simpsons has created. Modern sitcoms can everywhere be found reasserting family values through the covering lens of dysfunction. The question, I suppose, is whether this is a Conservative agenda, or simply a reflection of what 'postmodern' viewers from television - counterculture without radicalism, the hip always placed alongside the reassuring.

Either way, The Simpsons has given us a lot in terms of cultural and political material in the past 15 years or so, if only in its strangely insightful two-liners:

(Homer has just revealed that Aliens have taken over the Presidential race)

Voter: I think I'll vote for a third party candidate!
Alien Democrat: Go ahead - throw your vote away!

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