When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

I published a version of this post a couple of days ago. This one is much more detailed and refined. I wrote it up for The Drum, but it wasn’t wanted. You get it here instead 🙂

The Simpsons fan world is abuzz with the news Matt Groening has revealed the real Springfield is near his hometown in Oregon. Except it’s not. Springfield is stateless. For anyone to say otherwise is grand delusion. It is a delusion that has been picked up by media outlets all over the world – not least by our own Fairfax press and the ABC.

The revelation that Springfield, USA, borrowed its name from Springfield, Oregon, is not new either. Groening grew up in Portland, to the north of Springfield, and has revealed previously that many aspects of his childhood hometown have influenced The Simpsons. Most obvious is that the Simpson family themselves are named after Groening’s own family, while the street name Evergreen Terrace and various character names were also borrowed from Portland.

Groening made his grand revelation in an interview with The Smithsonian Magazine, and what he actually said is a long way from what has been reported in headlines and lead paragraphs. “The only reason [for the name Springfield] is that when I was a kid, the TV show “Father Knows Best” took place in the town of Springfield, and I was thrilled because I imagined that it was the town next to Portland, my hometown,” Groening said.
“When I grew up, I realized it was just a fictitious name. I also figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, “This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.” And they do.”

Of course they do, and that is just the point. In 23 seasons, writers have consistently dropped hints as to the location of the town, but many of those hints have been conflicting and contradictory. In The Simpsons Movie, the Simpson’s God-bothering neighbourino Ned Flanders reveals that Springfield’s state borders Ohio, Nevada, Maine and Kentucky. Any state to border those four would need to be half as big as the continental US. It also has a sea-faring port, a large canyon, snow-capped peaks, national parks and a large lake.

The number of real Springfields in the USA is an important aspect of its appeal, as Groening revealed. Since Springfield is meant to be any town and every town, it must everything that residents could need. Springfield is ably catered for with its own radio and television stations, significant heavy industry, tourist attractions, the Republican Party Headquarters, schools, universities, hospitals and an international airport. These attractions are important, because they mean the community of Springfield can be self-contained.

Springfield itself is one of the more significant characters in the show, because it provides a comforting, fulfilling presence. Since it has everything, there is never a need to leave Springfield – though the Simpsons do leave regularly. In an increasingly uncertain world, Springfield provides the safety and support that Americans need. It reaffirms American family values and assures them that everything will be okay, because Springfield will always be there.

Importantly, the Simpson family is part of a larger community – in one sense it is a community that represents every American. Springfield is, in a very real way, America itself. The town embodies those family and community values that Americans seek refuge in when faced with the unknown. In turn, this is reflected also in the family. For all Homer’s failings as a father and a worker, he is still there and still trying to do his best. Groening ties his Homer with the tale-teller from The Illiad and The Oddyssey, saying: “even though he is getting kicked in the butt by life, he is his own small hero.”

Homer Simpson is never violent toward Marge. Groening covered this in his interview as well: “The only thing he [Groening’s father] said was that Homer could never, ever be mean to Marge. He said that was a rule… I thought that was a good note. I don’t know if that is a rule that has ever been articulated to people who work on the show, but everyone just gets it.” Homer’s gallantry is not limited to the women in his life. In one famed episode, he jumps Springfield’s canyon on Bart’s skateboard to stop his son from doing it.

In Springfields all across the US, fans of The Simpsons can find some comfort in Groening’s words and creations. Homer might not be in charge of safety at their power plant, but he is there in their imperfect but mostly good neighbours. The message of The Simpsons, though it might have been missed by the world’s media, is aimed squarely at every day Americans.