micah holmquist's irregular thoughts and links
Welcome to the musings and notes of a Cadillac, Michigan based writer named Micah Holmquist, who is bothered by his own sarcasm.
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Monday, November 04, 2002
The Value of The Simpsons
The three segments all were a solid blend of the zany take no prisoners humor that was situated in the real world of ambiguities, uncertainty and problems. The middle segment told the story of how the citizens of Springfield decided to eliminate guns –including the guns of the state- and then quickly found themselves harassed by the gun toting ghosts of outlaw cowboys and one German general. Throw in some witty wordplay and jokes that point out the ridiculousness of the sci-fi concept of time travel and you have great comedy. “I guess guns really are the answer,” said Lisa towards the end.
What made the segment stand out in my mind is that it poked fun both at those who think there is any chance that guns should be eliminated in the real existing world and at those who view firearms as an absolute good. Neither side was left off the hook and because the lack of an answer doesn’t give way to a political program, it rates as some of the more honest cultural satire ever created.
The first segment looked at cloning while the third segment was a parody of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau and the 1996 movie based on the novel and features a minor pro-vegetarian theme, a theme that is by now a staple of the show. I bring this up because it says something very interesting about The Simpsons when considered in light of Burger King’s recent promotion of 10 Chinese made plastic toy statues of characters from The Simpsons in creepy garb or animal/human hybrid appearances.
From nearly the very beginning The Simpsons was a product of corporate culture and the result of a committee process. True Matt Groening had the initial vision but by the first actual episodes it was in the hands of a larger group of people and in the years that have followed the number of people who have left their mark on the series has grown far larger than I care to count. To make a long story short, there is no auteur with a vision behind the series. It is the product of a group process that was designed by the FOX corporation to make money. And if it didn’t make money it would cease to exist or at least be retooled so that it could.
Great art rarely comes from such a process –although it should be said that creating great art within capitalism usually requires not losing too much money and/or having an alternative source of funding- and yet I believe that The Simpsons should be placed in the category of great art for what the episodes routinely say about life, culture, society and the world in a humorous fashion. It is able to make statements about gun control and more importantly guns, vegetarianism and the existence of God that are bold within the context of the show yet which are problematized but the marketing and commercial apparatus the surrounds the show. (And just for the record I collected the Burger King figures and have many toys based on the show.) Burger King may have a veggie burger but it is still a huge part of the corporate kill animals so more advanced animals can eat them process and certainly doesn’t want to see vegetarianism take hold. So, in a way, Burger King was trying to use the popularity of the show even though it hopes that one of the regular messages of the show doesn’t take hold.
It should be said that by using The Simpsons brand Burger King is not promoting The Simpsons so much as they are using the show’s popularity to promote their chain of the restaurants. The popularity and influence of The Simpsons is unlikely to change much in the near future and so its ideas are already as much out there as they are going to get. Burger King doesn’t have to fear the themes of The Simpsons because they, like most successful business enterprises, do not pine for an ideal world but rather try to make a buck within the existing one.
All of this denies that The Simpsons possess anything approaching a “subversive” power, which brings up some interesting questions. Is it possible for a product of corporate culture to change society in a qualitative way that is not directly connected with the further expansion of the productive and profit making power of capitalism? If the answer to the previous question is no, can the producers of the popular culture have any impact not related to entertainment value and the strengthening the current set of economic relations? Does it matter what the producers of culture do? How should people who are critics of the set of economic relationships that currently exist in the U.S. and/or the world relate to popular culture?
I don’t think there is any value to simple answers to the above questions. There too many nuances involved and anybody who answers those questions in a fair manner will have to deal with their own prejudices and desired outcomes. I for one want The Simpsons to have some value beyond entertainment in a world where critical political humor is an endangered species. Maybe this is in fact of the value of the show. In a culture where the late Bill Hicks receives almost no appreciation and a comedian is lauded because he has nothing to say about anything, maybe The Simpsons is valuable because it carries forth the tradition of satire that is mainstream and yet still biting and pointed. If that is the case, then the show’s value will be that it will be looked at as a guidepost for the developing and not yet developed humorists who point out the shortcomings and problems of the conceptually unlimited war that President George W. Bush and his advisors have started.
Maybe it is just my bias but I hope that will be the case.