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Jordan Palk

An analysis of The Simpson s in relation to the cultural circuit

In society today we find that Mass Media surrounds us, it has become an institution in our everyday lives. The success of each individual medium such as television, radio and magazines depend on its approach to the cultural circuit. The five aspects of the cultural circuit representation, identity, production, regulation and consumption all combine with one another to create a marketable commodity. Television in particular works on many levels, it educates and informs viewers on events that happen on a national and international scale, and it could be argued that it brings the vast array of cultural differences closer together. Through television Global companies have also used the opportunity to advertise their products to a potentially world wide audience, but amongst television s usefulness as a vital means of communication, we are constantly being supplied with a vast array of light entertainment. News updates and factual documentaries are in an increasingly losing battle against the forces of comedy sitcoms and soap operas. This has been made evident by terrestrial channels like BBC One and ITV who have put back news programmes to later times to cater for the growing demand in soap operas, that is particularly effecting the market of young viewers. One such example of modern populist television is The Simpsons. Throughout this essay I will make reference to a particular episode The call of the Simpsons . Its re-release onto video eight years from its first screening is indicative of its success throughout the nineties. Similarly to the Sony Walkman, I will explore how it represented, what social identities are associated with it, how it is produced and consumed, and what mechanisms regulate its distribution and use . (Doing Cultural Studies: The story of the Sony Walkman)

The Simpsons had developed a large and devoted audience of young people and young thinking adults . The American public could identify with what John Fiske labels as not just a cartoon but a sitcom , undoubtedly due to its representation of supposedly traditional family life in an American suburb. The notion of representation unquestionably involves the use of stereotyping. The Simpsons clearly portray a variety of stereotypes which spread from within the domestic household and the neighbours, to outside representations of an incompetent sense of authority, and the influence of an over the top media. Characterisations such as these are designed to be culturally specific, if not slightly exaggerated, depicting everyday events that the everyday public can identify with. The opening scene in The call of the Simpsons sees Homer, a beer drinking, doughnut eating husband, and father of Bart, a cocky pre teenager, a failure at school and misunderstood at home

(a typical stereotypical view of teenagers), is mowing the lawn and asks why they cannot get a new mower like the neighbours. A well-used phrase of keeping up with the Jones is utilised here with Homers response of don t try to keep up with the Flanders . A message designed to make the family happy and content with what they have, however, this advice is corrupted as Homer sets out to buy a bigger and better motor home than his law abiding, church going neighbour. Yet another example of those all to familiar fatherisms , do as I say, not as I do. Marge, the mother of the children and often Homer is not left out in the representation of typical family life. With the aid of her daughter Lisa, who is portrayed as vastly superior in intelligence to that of her brother (a reference to modern school statistics, that see preteen girl do better academically than disruptive boys4), Marge is often seen cleaning the home and preparing the food. This allowing the father to wander off, often finding himself in Moe s Tavern the local Pub. The call of the Simpsons takes the family to their most primitive level, alone in the forest having lost their belongings. The portrayl of the domesticated housewife is not diminished even here. As Homer away to find food with his son following closely, Marge and Lisa are left behind to sweep the floor of the forest and make shelter. In terms of semiotics, this may not be the best example to set for the younger female viewer as they decode the signs, causing them to form a negative opinion of their role in the family

The notion of identifying oneself with certain aspects of the programme, whether it is with a character or the narrative, is what makes the Simpsons popular. However their representation through language was once cause for debate. In 1990, William Bennett, U.S secretary for education, condemned the show. He formed the opinion that Bart s language and attitude towards school was not appropriate and proceeded to place a ban on all Simpson T Shirts that were anti – education. 5 Politicians and parents alike, content with a vaguely defined criticism that they are bad for children 6 generally ignore the majority of cartoons. The difference with the Simpsons is that there was not simply one niche market that was being attracted. It appealed to many adults as well as teenage children, often using celebrity guests such as Tony Bennett and Sting, who many younger viewers would be oblivious to. More worryingly

Bart quickly became the mascot for America s disaffected youth, particularly black youth 7. With the now well known sayings of Don t have a cow and What the hell are you talking about sir (both said in The call of the Simpsons ), coupled with his inability to remain motivated for school and his tendencies to truant or cause family problems. It appeared that such behaviour was increasingly socially accepted, as Bart never learned from mistakes and constantly managed to find his way out of trouble.

The show has unquestionable American Identity, but successfully made its way to Britain through satellite and cable. Its amusing representation of American life and distinctive identity in terms of colour and humour made it instantly recognisable and therefore marketable. The advertisers, according to D. Buckingham preyed upon Younger audiences;

Children are generally seen as passive and uncritical consumers of television…which has an extraordinary power to mould their attitudes and determine behaviour 8. What is interesting is that when The Simpsons was being advertised and marketed in terms of toys, posters and most successfully the popular music single Do the Bartman , the programme itself was still only available to those owning Satellite or cable. For companies like Sky television, The Simpsons became a form of free advertising as the phenomenon began to increase. The Simpsons also helped to break down the boundaries between the Working class, and Sky television. As before it was seen as only the rich who had Sky, but people were able to relate to the mini phenomena and Sky became instantly fashionable within the Working class. For the majority of consumers, the Simpsons were a commercial product in Britain before they were ever known as a regular cartoon sitcom . Those fortunate enough to view the series, were seen by some to be watching loser television , a category which also attracted other cartoons like Beavis and Butthead (also found on Sky)

A large television audience is attracted to programmes that articulate their own frustration and sense of no future 9. In the episode I am studying we find Homer particularly frustrated. His son frequently opts to calling him by his first name as opposed to the preferred dad . This is a sign of Bart s lack of respect towards authority, and the sense of not being able to se him as a father figure. Issues such as these represent a feeling of unhappiness within the household, perhaps causing Bart s disruptive behaviour and Homer s constant lapses of depression, as shown after crashing in the forest

Its all my fault, I ve murdered them all . Such a story of unhappiness and depression can be seen in most family homes at times, This showing The Simpsons not afraid to add realism to the narrative.

It was in some ways inevitable that The Simpsons, despite occasional censorship problems in America would appear on terrestrial television. The BBC decided to show episodes previously on Satellite. In 1997 BBC 2 started showing repeated episodes every Monday and Friday night at 6pm. The timeslot was seen as no surprise, as Chris Evans and T.F.I Friday (Channel 4) had been capturing the younger market on Friday evenings since its first broadcast on 9th February 1996. The decision came relatively late considering The Simpsons obvious popularity, and the Cult status Bart was receiving. For seven years the family of five had been entertaining, even in the forms of video games, clothing and food sponsorship. The danger for the BBC was that the novelty had worn off, but fortunately this was not the case. So much so, in fact that Live and Kicking, a popular Saturday morning children s programme, celebrated the Simpsons Tenth anniversary by showing episodes form the first series every week. Merchandise was a key factor in keeping dedicated Simpsons fans, but also modern mediums such as the Internet, which offers up to date websites that offer staggering amounts of information for die hard fanatics. Even now 20th Century Fox produce a variety of video box sets almost monthly. Musical albums such as Songs in the key of Springfield (1997) and

The Simpsons sing the Blues (1999), are also readily available to buy over the Internet.

In its most literal sense, consuming the product in the home can be done at least twice a week. Like all good family entertainment, which The Simpsons strive to be, it is best watched with others. Often it is found that each varying sense of humour, according to each individual is struck upon at some point. This became evident to me, after watching an episode with my friends of the same age. Viewpoints on certain storylines differed. The Male viewpoint tended to enjoy the episodes with Homer and Bart as they were seen as rude while the Female perspective enjoyed episodes where Lisa and Maggie were involved as they felt they were cute and reminded me of myself . After watching The Simpsons on several occasions, it is not uncommon to recognise Homerisms and Bartisms that have merged into our everyday vocabulary, with Doh! being perhaps the most commonly used expression. In many respects, by understanding and talking about the cartoon among friends, a sense of identity is created a springboard from which to instigate conversation. Coincidentally, or perhaps deliberately in an attempt to add yet more realism, the representation of media consumption is often made evident in the show. In one scene from The call of The Simpsons , Homer is branded as being the legendary Bigfoot . It is reported on a televised news report, causing widespread excitement and interest. Newspapers and magazines become involved, and ask questions to his wife Marge, each going into ludicrous detail ( he likes to eat pork chops ) for the next day article. This is a silly, but none the less accurate example of today s media adding more fuel and intrigue to the fire of curiosity. It interprets the media influence as an often over the top creator of news, rather than just a reporter of it.

The final scene in this episode shows Homer and Marge in bed together watching television, we are made to observe their consumption of the same element of media, we are in effect simultaneously watching television as there was nothing better to do at the time , or just for company 10. Before turning off the light, Marge giggles and kisses Homer, then lovingly says Oh Homer my brilliant beast . It is a gesture towards sex, and is touched upon many times in similar fashions throughout the series. In this respect The Simpsons are self-regulated, they recognise their audience an act accordingly. You gain connotations from the narrative without actually seeing any physical contact. It may first appear as if alcohol (Duff beer in particular) is not only often touched upon, but also openly celebrated. However with Marge acting as the authoritative voice of reason, openly condoning Homer s drinking patterns, and Homer s drinking pal Barny shown as a miserable, ugly wreck of a man, the dangers and consequences of alcohol abuse are in fact continuously made apparent. Regulation in The Simpsons, considering its older fan base, finds swearing unacceptable. Breaking such a code of decency would cut off a large percentage of younger viewers and it would no longer be able to keep its primetime slot of 6 until 7pm, which is particularly aimed for the 14 to 24 year old category.

The word stereotype is today almost a term of abuse 11. This can be seen in the treatment of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. He is portrayed as an Indian local merchant who runs the Kwik mart. He has been put into a racial stereotype in terms of employment, and in the book

The Simpsons guide to Springfield ; Apu is quoted as saying

It has given me a purpose in life, a liveable wage, discounted past freshness date merchandise The Simpsons self regulation may cover sex, drugs and alcohol, but seems to of forgotten racial equality.

The Simpsons are a unique element of the media. They began in the nineties and have continued to entertain into the new Millennium. As they celebrate their tenth anniversary, one wonders what the future and the increases in technology holds for the cartoon phenomenon. Its modern day equivalent South Park has an equally unique style and target audience, but similar to MTV s Beavis and Butthead rely heavily on crudeness. Assuming that teenagers are still shocked by bad language and often perverse sexual connotations The call of the Simpsons is a prime example of representing stereotypes within the show we are given the opportunity to identify with the family and their daily routines. Then from the show we meet other characters that we like whether it is because they are rude of that they just bear resemblance to ourselves. Adults can watch and enjoy the antics of Homer and his family because the jokes are simply an exaggeration of real life. One can identify with them, and form an identity with others whilst talking about them. Teenagers and younger children are attracted by the fantasy world, where nearly everyone is yellow and

Unlike a sitcom, your characters don t have to walk in through the same doors every week, and they never get old and wrinkly 12. Merchandise fuels their enjoyment and provides them with many means by which to consume the product. Regulation maintains the same style of humour in production in today s episodes as it had in the early nineties. In a world of mass media where television introduces new faces everyday, in the world of comedy it is comforting to know that the yellow faces are here to stay for a while yet.


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