When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

UPDATE: If you’ve come to this post looking for information about content analysis, you might be better served looking here, where I’ve written up a more detailed and logical post.

It’s been a little while since I written a post here with anything to do with my thesis. That is mostly because I’ve been working too hard on the thesis itself to write updates here.

Anyway, I’ve not long finished collecting my content analysis data from the first ten seasons of the show. It relates specifically to the appearance of nation in the show, and only counts things that I identified as relevant to the content analysis. The data seems a bit complex on first view, but offers a bunch of interesting stuff. It runs to fifty pages when printed, but the vast majority of that is the notes I added along the way. Here’s the link, if you’re interested. I welcome and comments, questions or feedback. You’re also welcome to use the data for your own purposes, but please link to either this site or my Twitter profile if you do.

As for the thesis itself, some chapters are looking better than others. Following are some extracts from the introductory sections.

Abstract

When Benedict Anderson proposed the nation as “an imagined political community” (1991: 6), he established a central role for mass communication methods in that imagining process. His arguments were underlined also by nation as a limited entity, which means that beyond the borders of each nation lay other nations. The nation was as much a reflexive imagining as a positive one, in that it was defined in opposition to other nations as much by what it inherently was. We extend this notion to argue that a core aspect of the representation of any nation is its opposition or exclusion of outsiders. The tropes of nation identified by Anderson have persisted into fictional television and the American television series The Simpsons is no exception. For a show that is ostensibly about small town life, The Simpsons is full of representations of nation. Many of these fit neatly into Michael Billig’s conception of banal or everyday nationalism. Further, there are a range of characters presented as outsiders, as Edward Said’s seminal “other” (1978). By examining the representations of eight different nations throughout the first ten seasons of the show, the method and form of their imagining, including the inherent politics of exclusion, is established. The key research questions answered in this paper focus on the construction of notions of nation in The Simpsons and the ways in which characters are constructed as American or non-American.

Five key symbolic elements in the representation of nation are identified from relevant literature, namely national days, flags, gastronomy, territory and language. These are supplemented with another practical marker of any nation – its name. These six symbolic elements cover a range of ideas about constructions of nation and provide a rounded view of nations through which their appearance in The Simpsons is analysed. A comprehensive 10 season, 226 episode content analysis was conducted in search of appearances of these six elements. Other elements of representations of nation manifested themselves during this content analysis, particularly historical events and national institutions. Following the initial content analysis, a detailed discourse analysis of a further five episodes provided significant qualitative data to support the findings from the quantitative data analysis.

This thesis demonstrates that ontologies of nation in The Simpsons are indeed constructed primarily by representations of the five symbolic elements identified from the literature, and that historical events and national institutions are also important. It is shown that the politics of exclusion and othering are clear in representations of particular characters and that most non-American nations represented in The Simpsons are objects of self-referential ridicule, where the show’s creators seem to be highlighting their audience’s own prejudices rather than indulging or presenting new versions of them. Meanwhile, American nationhood is strongly positioned as a banal norm.

Introduction

In many ways, The Simpsons defies any sort of neat theoretical framework. For a show written by “Harvard geeks” (Angell 1993), it does very well with the mass public. It is a cartoon, but arguably not for children. Bart is problem child and Homer is an absent father, yet they also represent the conservative middle American nuclear family (Cantor 1999). The Simpson family often struggles for money but they are well-travelled and can afford for Marge not to work. Their town, Springfield, has everything it needs to be simultaneously self-contained and yet connected to the outside world. The town’s evening news is delivered by Kent Brockman, a newsman who lives in the family’s neighbourhood. As Principal Skinner tells his Springfield Elementary students in Lisa on Ice, “grades are at an all time low”, and yet the town has two universities. Springfield’s citizens are notoriously reactive, as evidenced by their wholehearted embrace of the smooth-talking monorail salesman Lyle Lanley in Marge vs the Monorail. Springfield is small-town, but in a big town kind of way. It has an international airport, a well-utilised harbour, and interstate railways and highways. The headquarters of the international television conglomerate Itchy & Scratchy Publishing are located in Springfield, as is the chief brewery of Duff Beer. After moving in across the road from the Simpsons, former first lady Barbara Bush says Springfield has the “lowest voter turnout in America” (Two Bad Neighbors), and yet in Bart Gets an Elephant, both the Democratic and Republican national conventions arrive in Springfield, and the American President regularly comes to town. So Springfield is worldly and cloistered at the same time.

This thesis is located at the intersection of nation and nationalism, but situated firmly in Springfield. It finds those representations of nation in The Simpsons that may ignite nationalism in audiences and teases them out, highlighting the inherent politics of exclusion in any process of representing nations. To demonstrate the appearance of such exclusion, the thesis will address how The Simpsons imagines both American and non-American national communities. It engages also in debates about how particular characters are ‘othered’, or presented as somehow different (and deviant) from the ‘mainstream’ American community. The interest here is not to examine national identity as it appears in The Simpsons, but conceptions of nation itself through representations of particular nations. We accept that nation is a highly contested and problematic term because “no satisfactory criterion can be discovered for deciding which of the many human collectivities should be labelled in this way” (Hobsbawm 1992: 5). As such, it is not the concept of nation that is under interrogation here, but its particular representation in the show. Anderson argues that representation is antecedent to existence in any case. The characteristics, organs and symbols of the nation-state as portrayed in The Simpsons are the main focus in this thesis, while certain characters are shown to be representative of their affiliated nations. This thesis is not an attempt to de-sacralise nationhood; nor is it an acceptance of naturalised national identity. It is a study of a particular conception of national identity, as constructed through complex, layered iconography and allusion in The Simpsons.

In assessing the representation of nation in The Simpsons, it is important to be conscious not to ascribe too much importance to the role of those representations in defining audience views of nation. To do so would be to fall into the trap that Couldry calls “the myth of the mediated centre” (2003). This myth reminds media scholars that the media is not the sole arbiter of culture and worldview. Hall concurs, writing that within a positivist strand of media scholarship: “‘meaning’ tends to be conceptualised in a very reductive way – largely, in effect, as manifest content or message, on the basis of a very simple notion of ‘language’ as one-way communication” (1999: 310). The active audience paradigm is very much evident in the interpretation of data in this thesis, but is not a central concern. How those representations are received or understood by audiences is a matter for further research. Whether it then influences audience members’ own schema of their national identity or anyone else’s is also for another study. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that there are occasions where audiences and broadcasters in countries like Australia, Brazil and Japan have reacted strongly to episodes portraying their peoples and places (Dobson 2006). The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is also conscious that depictions of particular nations can spark strong reactions, even apologising to a journalist for the episode Bart vs Australia (Idato 2000).

Following this line of enquiry, this project is committed to an exploration of the manifest content in the show through two interrelated research questions:

  • How are notions of nation constructed in The Simpsons?
  • How are characters constructed as American or non-American in The Simpsons?

The first question seeks to establish what conceptions of nations are present in The Simpsons, and how tropes and symbols are employed to construct such conceptions. This is the overarching question, and it assumes conceptions of nations are constructed. Nonetheless, the data collected demonstrates that such constructions are indeed present. The representation of both American nationhood and other nationhoods can be interrogated collectively through the manifest audio and visual content in the show.

Please note, it’s too fiddly for me to put up the references, but I’ll come back to it once the thesis is submitted. If you are interested in a particular reference, please get in contact and I’ll help you out.