The Simpsons Are Sociologically Savvy: a Postmodernist Perspective

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The Simpsons are Sociologically Savvy: a Postmodernist Perspective Using The Simpsons, a long-running American animated continuing series, as a case study I will analyse the links between audiences, production and text in the creation of meaning. Using a triangulated approach of close textual reading, and theoretical models of post-modernism and queer theory to question the role of agenda setting in contemporary society, I will identify particular mechanisms of agenda setting within this example. The Simpsons, described by Paul Cantor (1999) is a “postmodern re-creation of the first generation family sit-com” (p738) which can be used effectively to illustrate innovative and radical themes and encourages critical thinking. David Arnold (2001) describes The Simpsons as “an irresponsible text, one rich in associations and connotations […] a self-parodic, self-referential pastiche of previous texts” (p264). I will endeavour to show that despite the fact that The Simpsons is associated with cartoons, which in their very nature are assumed to be childish and frivolous, it is because of all of the above associations that the postmodern Simpsons are useful as a pedagogical tool (Hobbs, 1998) and can be used to teach adults and children various sociological issues including sexual identities and hegemony.

The Simpsons lends itself to be a vehicle of a ‘media-virus’ which according to Douglas Rushkoff (1994) can carry [the] “revolutionary message conveyed in an apparently innocent, neutral package” (cited in Irwin et Al 2001 p254). Such programmes appear to have proven to be the most acceptable and accessible spaces to show such subjects as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (glbt) identities because of their separation from reality. Arnold (2001) claims that the ridiculousness of the funny yellow looking characters who pop up on your television and look almost human, but with crazy storylines and unbelievable un-human like behaviours “increase their ability to function as satiric signifiers” (p262). It’s because of their unfeasibility, their “lack of seriousness” that Diane Raymond (2003 cited in Dines & Humez) maintains allows programmes like The Simpsons to “…play with themes under cover of humour where those themes might be too volatile or even too didactic for another sort of audience” (p101). The Simpsons creators and writers rely on the history of other shows and they take from them all the best titbits rewarding their viewers according to Rushkoff (2004) with “a-ha moments” or “pattern recognition” (p296). Whether it is Maggie in ‘A Streetcar Named Marge’ (1992, 9F18) attempting to rescue her dummy-tit at Springfield’s day-care centre to the theme tune of The Great Escape by Elmer Bernstein. Or when Homer arrives to pick her up some of the babies are precariously perched and watch on, which to the media literate is an obvious spoof of The Birds a classic Hitchcock movie from 1963. The wedding scene from The Graduate is spoofed in ‘One fish, two fish, blowfish’ (1991, 7F11) where Homer bangs on the living room window and shouts “Marge” at the top of his voice. ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ (1991, SF19), is where we see yet another classic scene from the The Graduate, where the substitute teacher is seen at the front of the class through Mrs Krabappel’s leg which is hitched up on the desk and Bart’s teacher says those famous words "Mrs. Krabappel, you're trying to seduce me." Some of the audience, children moreover adults may see the ridiculousness of the scenes as ‘funny’ but may not see the more hidden intertextual message due to their time spent viewing media texts. However David Buckingham (2001) claims that children are more active, and sophisticated users […] that they see much more television and are able to detect and decipher the “formal codes and conventions about genre and narrative, and about the production process” (cited in Barker and Petely 2001). These pieces of intertextual fragmented texts...
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