When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

The Simpsons (left) and The Simpsons from Tracy Ullman (right)

The Simpsons (left) and The Simpsons from Tracy Ullman (right)

I briefly tackled irony in The Lord of the Rings in my last post, focussing on a quintessential speech by Bilbo Baggins at his birthday to make my point. The use of irony in popular texts is a rich vein, one that I first seriously delved into while researching and writing about The Simpsons in my honours thesis.

Below is an extract from that thesis dealing with irony in The Simpsons in a little more detail.

Oh Marge, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.
– Homer Simpson, ‘Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington

The Simpsons has a broad range of cultural and social elements from which to draw its material. It does draw widely from that milieu, finding inspiration in everything from the state of education to the military-industrial complex, presidential campaigns, religion and other pop culture products. As Turner notes, it “has much to say about a wide range of topics, but its most detailed social commentary is about itself”1

The self-referential nature of The Simpsons suggests that the writers are aware of the impact of the show. In fact, Dobson places this self-consciousness on a broader spectrum, theorising it to be “an epigram of the crisis of postmodern self-reflection”2. A focus on self-reflection and exposing what was hidden allows and encourages sharp satirisation of subjects that might previously have been taboo3. Because knowledgeable understanding is now assumed issues are explored and addressed freely. Dobson refers to this practice as evidence of a ‘carnivalesque’ approach to production: “its use of racial stereotypes is like a carnival: an opportunity to ridicule and let off steam against the piety of current political correctness but without going too far”4.

The observation of self-awareness is borne out by many moments within the show itself, such as Homer touching on the origins of The Simpsons as vignettes on a popular variety show: “Tracy Ullman was entertaining America with songs, sketches and crudely drawn filler material” (Lisa’s Sax). In All Singing, All Dancing, the Simpson family engages in a bout of musical reminiscing, but concludes at the end of the episode that there is one thing worse than musical television: “There is something worse, and it really does blow: When a long-running series does a cheesy clip show.” This episode was the third clip show The Simpsons had done in only nine seasons, so the line was ironic not only in the context of season nine, but the whole series. The strong focus on self-reference suggests that its targets are both deliberately chosen and carefully covered in satire: that any prodding of specific topics is probably pointing to something else. While it may appear that the many appearances of non-American nations in The Simpsons consists of ‘crudely-drawn’ stereotypes, it is more likely that the show is attempting to hold up a mirror to America itself, gleefully throwing light on the audience’s own prejudices and misgivings.

  1. Turner, C. (2012 [2004]). Planet Simpson: how a cartoon masterpiece documented an era and defined a generation, eBook edition. London: Random House eBooks. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.au/books?id=w_kee8QOxN8C&num=11&redir_esc=y, p. 136 []
  2. Dobson, H. (2006). Mister Sparkle Meets the Yakuza: Depictions of Japan in The Simpsons. Journal of Popular Culture, 39(1), 44–68. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2006.00203.x, p.63 []
  3. Chow, V. W. (2004). Homer Erectus: Homer Simpson as Everyman… and Everywoman. In J. Alberti (Ed.), Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture (pp. 107–136). Detroit: Wayne State University Press. []
  4. Dobson, H. (2006). Mister Sparkle Meets the Yakuza: Depictions of Japan in The Simpsons. Journal of Popular Culture, 39(1), 44–68. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2006.00203.x, p.58 []