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English 101 Sec. 104

L. Rhyne

Project 3, Part II

Yellow Devils:

A Comparative Rhetorical Analysis of Two Interpretations on Matt Groening’s The Simpsons


Since their inception in late 1987, Matt Groening’s animated family, The Simpsons, have aired 17 seasons, becoming the longest running animated TV show, and the second longest running TV program ever, right behind Saturday Night Live. Time magazine hailed the series as the best TV show ever, and Fox is currently planning a Simpsons movie to be released June 2007. Amidst all the publicity from the media, the series has also caught the attention of many critics, analysts, and even professionals from the sociology, psychology, communication and religious fields. Recognized here is an article entitled “Religious Rhetoric and the Comic Frame in The Simpsons” by Todd V. Lewis and an article by Jonathan Gray, “Imagining America: The Simpsons and the Anti-Suburb Go Global.” These two articles each take different theoretical approaches to ascertain some of the animated show’s messages and meanings, and the different approaches lead to many different and some similar conclusions as well.

      The series follows the sometimes ludicrous and usually satirical adventures of a semi-dysfunctional suburban family in the fictitious town of Springfield. The Father of the family, Homer Jay Simpson, is an overweight, unethical, lazy, alcoholic, and for the most part, un-intelligent oaf who works as a drone in the local nuclear power plant. His wife, Marge Bouvier Simpson, is a kind hearted, though often naïve, housewife who loves her family and constantly disapproves of Homer’s antics. Their first child is a ten year old prankster and ner-do-well by the name of Bartholomew Jo-Jo Simpson. Bart is a typical elementary school cut up and class clown. Often the focus of Bart’s follies is his younger sister, Lisa Marie Simpson, an eight year old child prodigy whose intelligence outshines that of her particularly dull family. They all live in a typical home in Springfield, USA. The town, like the family, is anything but typical; it is populated by many estranged characters including mobsters, drunks, idiots, and extreme religious zealots.

      Jonathan Gray’s article views The Simpsons from a primarily allegorical stance, showing the meanings and representation the show holds. The article begins with historicizing the TV sitcom by describing and giving examples of typical TV families from past programs. He concludes from these examples that there is a stereotypical family unit that can be derived from these predecessors, saying, “From Father Knows Best to Family Ties, the Cleavers to the Jeffersons, Bewitched to Full House, the Cunninghams to the Huxtables, the sitcom and its families have served stalwart duty in illustrating all that is supposedly wonderful and idyllic about nuclear family life in the American suburb” (Gray 1). Gray goes on and exemplifies how The Simpsons mocks the perfect American suburbia. Unlike many family sitcoms set in quiet little white towns, Gray calls Springfield, “…an anti-suburb, since its depiction paradoxically mixes enough of the nostalgic warmth of other sitcom suburbs to render it a sitcom suburb, and yet it turns on its brethren, revealing the darker face of sitcom suburbia and the American Dream” (8).

      From an intentionalist standpoint, Gray believes the quazi racist, political incorrectness of the show towards minorities is not intended to offend, but instead represents the “… so-called White Flight to the suburbs and racist exclusivity are the unspoken truths of traditional sitcoms, The Simpsons highlights this racism and xenophobia” (9). He goes on to show how an episode where all the foreigners are being deported from Springfield, “…brilliantly criticises how the very spirit with which America was supposedly founded has been perverted and inverted by the intense gate-keeping mentality of many American suburbs and neighbourhoods” (Gray 10). It is obvious that from the intentionalist perspective, Gray believes Matt Groening and all the other writers and producers of The Simpsons intended to mock and satirize the American ideals that we hold so dear, that are in reality, a fantasy. From an Allegorical perspective, Gray thinks Springfield represents all the things about society we choose not to acknowledge, the in discrepancies today’s America would rather sweep under the rug.

      Todd Lewis’ article, which comes from a journal of media and religion, claims that some of the main characters are representational of aspects of peoples’ faith. This mimetic perspective of a cartoon character representing a truth in the real world is used in many places throughout his article. He begins by describing how animation is a, “rhetorical conduit for a religious message” (Lewis 156). Lewis describes how The Simpsons can do this by saying, “…cartoons may say, do, and show all kinds of things that would be ‘forbidden’ in more serious cultural forms. As traditional nursery rhymes used satire and comedic allusions to adult foibles, so too, do modern animated features such as …The Simpsons offer adult messages in the guise of children’s programming” (Lewis 156). He first uses the example of the Simpsons’ devout evangelical Christian neighbor, Ned Flanders. Though many would say Ned is a pious, goody two shoes, Lewis believes Ned is a genuine and respectable character, who even has his faults. Lewis says, “Rather than portraying him as a mindless, automaton fundamentalist who embraces his religion without question, the writers on The Simpsons have respectfully given Ned Flanders a dimensional aspect to his faith” (Lewis 158). Lewis thinks while Ned is a comic and often overdone character, he is an embodiment of a righteous man, to whom good things usually come. Lewis sums this representational character up by saying, “Ned Flanders appears to have a genuine faith, one that can be lampooned, but never disrespected” (159).

      Lewis offers some explanation to the shows religious references from a pragmatic point of view as well. There are a wide variety of faiths in Springfield, “…Krusty the Clown… embrace his Jewish heritage. Apu and his Hindu family coexist with Christians in the town of Springfield. Recurring characters are portrayed as Muslims or Buddhists or even atheists” (Lewis 184). Lewis offers this diversity as a means for affecting and appealing to a wide variety of audiences.  He points out how many different audiences are touched in different ways by challenging critics to, “Strike up a conversation with people of many religious faiths (and those who embrace no faith at all) and viewers will receive a wide range of reactions to The Simpsons’ “religious” universe” (Lewis 184). This view allows Lewis to explain the plethora of religious references from a mass media perspective, trying to affect a large audience as strongly as possible. The pragmatic power of the show explains how The Simpsons became as successful as it is today.

      It is obvious that viewing the show from different viewpoints has led Gray and Lewis to notice very different aspects of The Simpsons. Lewis noticed the religious characteristics, saying the show is, “… considered by many secular and religious critics alike to be the most ‘religious television show’ currently being aired” (153). He believes that through all the mockery and silliness, there are true morals and aspects of our everyday life that can be recognized. Gray, on the other hand, believes the cartoon to be a lampoon of American society, seeing Springfield as a truly dysfunctional place that points out the bad in society, “Indeed, Springfield’s ignorance is regularly satirised in The Simpsons” (Gray 9). He sees the animated series as not just Matt Groening’s outlet to poke fun at society, but to condemn and bring to light many of our undesirable social characteristics.

      While these two articles brought different conclusions about The Simpsons and its effectiveness, this does not necessarily mean that any one conclusion is right or wrong. It is simply the light in which it is viewed; the viewpoint the author sees the show from affects his or her opinion. When Lewis thought about how the audience would react to the show, he was forced to see the many different audiences the show appealed to, therefore seeing a purpose to some of the show’s religious satire. This is where there is similarity between Gray’s and Lewis’ interpretations. In his statement, “The Simpsons reflects a commitment to satirizing the pietistic and hypocritical elements of American religious expression, but it does not attack the bases of American religious faiths” (Lewis 153). This is almost completely concurrent with Gray’s view on the shows satire, only Gray believes the show is more of a direct attack on some of societies ails. There are plenty more opinions on The Simpsons’ satire and comedy, and equally as many vantage points and interpretations of the meaning behind Matt Groening’s “Average” American family.

      The issue of interpretation is the most open and debated field in the Humanities, Sciences or social sciences. While science and statistics of cultures are facts, (that is to say they are generally undisputed) any artistic text is open to a plethora of interpretations from critics, art lovers, and artists alike. This paper was meant to demonstrate how some of these interpretation differences come to be. Most of these differences result from, of course, the viewpoint from which they are interpreted. There are many other factors that affect the interpretation of a piece, including anything from personal bias or experience to an understanding of the time period in which the text was produced or even scientific discoveries that enable us to better understand the world we live in, the context in which mankind produces art.




Works Cited

Gray, Jonathan. “Imagining America: The Simpsons and the Anti-Suburb Go Global.”

     Conference Papers -- International Communication Association; 2003 Annual Meeting, San

     Diego Ca. 1-23.

Lewis, Todd. “Religious Rhetoric and the Comic Frame in The Simpsons.  

     Journal of Media and Religion  1 (2002): 153-165.