The animated television series The Simpsons is a wonderful portrayal of the stereotypes and typical lifestyles of middle class American suburbia, and can be used to illustrate a number of key social theories and trends. Through the individuality and imperfectness of the characters, the show writers were left with a wide range of potential conflicts and situations to place the characters in, and created a relatable yet outlandish outlook on daily life (McMahon 136). The style of comedy allows for the writers to discuss and lighten otherwise uncomfortable and sobering aspects of reality without creating an off-putting media that is unappealing to viewers (McMahon 137). It can take such serious topics as alcoholism, structural violence, gender inequality, and crime and present them to the public in a way that is not depressing or worrisome. To many viewers, these topics could simply go over their heads, and not speak to them at all. However, to those who are victims of particular societal unfairness or are generally aware of underlying messages, these same episodes may speak to them on a different level. This is the ultimate beauty of animated comedy, as its takeaway message is as variable as the viewer base.
Competitive sporting events have long been a staple of society, from the Homer of ancient Greece to the Homer of Springfield, USA. These bouts of physical endurance and mental strategy have been used as ways to distract, occupy, rank, and drive the populations of various cultures, and incorporate their own societal biases. For instance, maybe intellectually inclined people feel that sports are a waste of their time and resources, but are driven to participate or care about them because of the overwhelming enthusiasm of the greater populous. In the Simpsons episode “Lisa on Ice”, this is expressed in Lisa, a traditionally intelligent and successful child, being chastised for failing a physical education class. This was in contrast to her brother Bart being rewarded despite failing an uncountable number of academic classes. Although the hilarity of the situation, coupled with the animated overreactions (McMahon 129), creates a funny piece for the show, it touches on the integral issues of society putting far too much weight on “brawn over brains” (Hoberman 56). In this way, Homer is the personification of the stereotype of the average uneducated American man who values sports above many educational pursuits.
Gender roles have been infiltrated into the sporting scene in most cultures, and America is no exception. Women are often seen as too weak to play physical contact sports and are seen within the professional sporting world as sexual objects (Messner 1). In the Simpson’s episode “Lisa on Ice”, Homer mentioned that the only sports for women were ones such as hot oil wresting and foxy boxing. Though this joke was light-hearted in the context of the comedy, many Americans share this same perception and consider women to be only meant for sports where they wear few cloths and incite sexual imagery (Daniels 3). As the episode progressed, Lisa was shown excelling in the sport of hockey as a goalie, but majority of the reactions and comments from the other characters regarding this success were based in the logic that as a female, her excellence was either surprising or unconventional. These gender roles may seem harmless on a smaller scale, but some believe that they are ultimately stunting many young girls’ drive to achieve traditionally masculine goals (Pollitt 22).
Violence in sports is an issue that often gets swept under the rug, due to the uncomfortable nature of actually discussing it on a logical train of thought. It is common knowledge that many players have lost their lives, severely reduced their quality of life, and suffered untold amounts of pain while training or playing. To put bluntly, this collective suffering is for the same reason as the sufferings of the sports of the Colosseum: human amusement. To be fair, people do not watch sports simply to see players receive injuries, but the high stakes contributes directly to the levels of excitement and uncertainty of the outcome (Goldstein 271). In the Simpson’s episode “Lisa on Ice”, the level of violence in the sport of hockey is portrayed through the comical sufferings of Millhouse, a nerdy boy who originally played goalie on Lisa’s team. In the show, it was expressed that he received a concussion and lost his teeth in a single game, and even included a scene where Marge pulled out a small pile of his teeth to make her argument. Lisa, being the epitome of the intelligent child, refused to allow her father to praise her for what she considered a violent game, but he insisted on it in accordance with the stereotype of the general American public (McMahon 134). In a classic Simpsons turn of events, Lisa’s involvement in hockey ultimately turned her violent, and she turned to fighting with Bart and schoolmates as a way to solve problems.
Animated comedy is truly an underappreciated medium when analyzed on the academic social level. However, due to the wide viewer base, the ability to cater to stereotypes, and the ease of portraying difficult topics in a non-serious way, they remain one of the best vessels to illustrate structural violence to the public. Professional sociologists and laypeople alike would benefit greatly from taking a deeper look into shows such as the Simpsons, for Homer Simpson may be able to provide us with lessons as meaningful as the Homer of Ancient Greece.
- Daniels, Elizabeth A. “Sex Objects, Athletes, and Sexy Athletes How Media Representations of Women Athletes Can Impact Adolescent Girls and College Women.” Journal of Adolescent Research 24.4 (2009): 399-422.
- Goldstein, Jeffrey H. “Violence in sports.” Sports, games, and play: Social & psychological viewpoints (1989): 279-297.
- Hoberman, John Milton. Darwin’s athletes: How sport has damaged Black America and preserved the myth of race. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997.
- Reardon, Jim, Mark Kirkland, Wesley Archer, Bob Anderson, Matt Groening, Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer. The Simpsons: The Complete Sixth Season. Beverly Hills, Calif: 20th Century Fox, 2005.
- McMahon, Jennifer. “The function of fiction: The heuristic value of Homer.”The Simpsons and philosophy: the d’oh (2000): 332-363.
- Messner, Michael A., Michele Dunbar, and Darnell Hunt. “The televised sports manhood formula.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 24.4 (2000): 380-394.
- Pollitt, Katha. “Hers; The Smurfette Principle.” The New York Times 7 (1991): 22-23.