The Simpsons is a popular television program. This paper explores and analyses a postmodernist reading of this contemporary adult TV animation. In the analysis, the essay takes a keen look at the postmodern theories of intertextuality and self-reflexivity. The two theories are further supported by elements of metanarratives and hyperreality. The aesthetic production of various elements of postmodernism are also outlined in the essay before getting into the detail of The Simpsons.
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Postmodernism encompasses a contemporary cultural movement especially when referring to the cultural criticism and aesthetic production that gained popularity before the advent of the 1990s.1 The magnitude of its reach explains why it is an outstanding movement. Besides, disciplines such as sociology, politics, philosophy, and arts have proven to be relevant to postmodernism. As much as it has been difficult to generalize postmodernism, it is vital to mention that postmodern art forms may be characterized numerous common features.
A number of contemporary types of art usually borrow several aspects of intertextuality when their contents are being developed. This also explains why pastiche and parody are used as reference points in literature and other works of art. A playful satire is common when it comes to a parody. On the other hand, an original style is mostly applied in a pastiche even though imitation is still a key feature.2
Several contemporary or postmodern works are also characterized by sell-reflexivity. The individual constructive characters of various pieces of works are exposed and clearly elaborated in any process that entails self-reflexivity. Irony comes into existence when intertextuality is used in a contemporary piece of art. Hence, conventions are broken down owing to frequent use of both imitation and irony.
The Simpsons is a postmodern or contemporary adult TV animation with numerous metanarratives that can be critiqued. The multi-faceted glory of the modern society has been portrayed through this TV program. It is possible to get a glimpse of society through the minds of the creators due to the visible and imaginary pictures that ran in the minds of viewers or the targeted audience.
From the outset, the program makes use of a large number of characters in order to bring out the events taking place in Springfield even though every scenario is purely fictional.3 Nonetheless, it mirrors down the real picture or occurrences in society. There are slightly more than 1000 characters who take part in the TV program.
The Simpsons attempts exhaust all aspects of the society being represented. This may probably be due to the staggering number of personalities acting in the play. Besides, the audience is in a position to visualize the trials and tribulations of those who are fully featured in the program. A symbolic and parodying style is evident in The Simpsons since the pluralism nature of the contemporary society has been brought out so well through the role-play of several characters. These include Abraham Simpson who is the lonely senior, local Barney Gumble, Nelson Muntz who is a neglected young man, and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon who is an Indian immigrant.4
Social classes, ethnicities or specific age groups do not limit the subject matter of The Simpsons. The diversity which is evident in Springfield has been neatly merged to create the much-needed impression of a chaotic setting of a society punctuated with binary opposites. The subject matter in its own is also another outstanding feature worth mentioning at this point. For instance, an elementary school banality may start an episode.5
However, towards the end of the same episode, gay marriage controversy is confronted. Such a change in subject matter tends to blindsides the audience owing to what may be referred to as unforeseeable change in trajectory. The creators of the film fail to pin the plot to a single genre. Nevertheless, this is a clear depiction of how postmodern paradigm has been framed by America.
Christianity receives a fair share of religious satire in The Simpsons. Nevertheless, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have also been featured in a number of episodes. As a matter of fact, the non-discriminating disposition of contemporary art forms have been demonstrated through religious satire.
The missing Historical Reality and intertextuality
Intertextuality is a key feature of most contemporary art forms or postmodernism. In any case, several narratives of postmodernism have been embraced in The Simpsons. Implicit and explicit points of references have been richly used in the comedy show. Bombardment of illusions is also evident in most episodes of the film.6
Throughout the episode, there are numerous cultural references that bring out the intended message. Maggie eventually escapes by playing past scenes. At this point, the philosophical opinions portrayed by Ayn Rand leave a number of audiences in a state of oblivion. A phrase like “helping is futile” does not portray a direct meaning to the audience. Better still, a phrase like “A is A” has a latent meaning that the audience may not readily understand or acknowledge.7 The objectivism philosophy has been well developed by Ayn Rand. Self-sufficiency and individualism are well outlined in her philosophy.
The targeted audience may not be readily familiar with several reference points used in The Simpsons even though esoteric references are usually common in most postmodern or contemporary forms of art. 8The creators of The Simpsons largely confine themselves to references that are obscure and less familiar. Hence, the adult/child demographics is critically ignored in the comedy film.
In other words, both children and adults are at one time or another alienated from the show. However, most audiences are evidently in a position to relate with the parodies of infamous celebs like Schwarzenegger. As much as Rainier Wolfcastle role-play is not supplemented by the latter celebrity, mere appearance enhances the palatability of the comedy cartoon film. Their own stereotypes are vividly brought out through fictional characters.9
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Accurate representations are void in a number of episodes of the show. In fact, popular conceptions are rife throughout The Simpsons. The overly simplistic stereotypes are portrayed when the entire cast visit other overseas locations.10 A country’s reality is also represented through the popular stereotypes associated with each setting. The latter is common in episodes taking place in foreign nations. For example, in the “Blame It On Lisa” episode, the stereotypes brought out include men are not sexually straight, tourists are robbed by children and streets serve as homes to monkeys.
References made to other pieces of literature or art forms are not the only source of intertextuality in The Simpsons.11 It is crucial to mention that its own references are also a major ground upon which intertextuality is constructed. Throughout the comedy show, acute self-consciousness is vivid.12 There are a number of its own creations that account for a large part of intertextuality. To begin with, the storyline in The Simpsons shapes the actions of characters occasionally in a number of episodes. Reconsidering actions as demonstrated by the characters is a robust self-reference point to the show.
In the “Bart Gets Famous” episode, The Simpsons theme is hummed down the street by Bart as part and parcel of making self-aware comments. He also tells the viewers that the story will end after twenty-three minutes and five seconds. In any case, this is the actual duration taken by the episode less the commercial time. In “The Simpsons’s 138th Episode Spectacular”, there are additional allusions that the film makes to itself whereby the future of the family is reflected upon by Troy McClure.
Numerous points of references are also evident in terms of self-reflexivity in The Simpsons. For example, the film exhibits connection to other animations besides its position as a cartoon program. According to Lisa, cartoons are not supposed to be watched by adults.13 If so, they could be screened during prime time when everybody is watching television. She also asserts that throughout the history of animation in America, The Simpsons is the first ever adult cartoon show to appear during crucial television time.
The Simpson family also reiterate several times that animated shows are not worthy as entertainment gigs. A case in point is the statement that cartoons are merely silly crafts that generate cheap laughter. Some actors in the show even complain that it is humiliating to play roles as cartoon characters. These are some of the self-parodying pronouncements that appear in various episodes of The Simpsons.
Several cartoon peer programs have been parodied by The Simpsons besides alluding itself an adult animation series. Examples include Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, The Road Runner Show, Tom & Jerry and Family Guy.14 The fat idea was presumably borrowed from The Flintstones owing to the frequent references made along this line. The Family Guy’s debt has also been meta-acknowledged by The Simpsons.15 Other animated series created by Matt Groening have also been referenced severally in the comedy film.
These are clear instances on how the film has employed parody and self-referencing in various ways. Nevertheless, other styles and cultural works as well as repeated imitations best exemplify intertextuality in a broader sense. Contemporary theorists may also tag the latter aspects as pastiche. A major symptom of the contemporary era has been developed by Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation. This also creates a hyperreality theory that rapidly and vastly infiltrates into the masses through modern-day technological platforms.
Postmodernisation and contemporary television have indeed displayed in The Simpsons in the most articulate manner. From the comedy cartoon film, there are a host of prominent and formal features displayed in The Simpsons that actually depict pastiche, fragmentation and self-consciousness. Other crucial aspects that stand out in the animation include opposition to hierarchy, disrespect to authority, multi-layered irony and hyperrealism. The themes found in the show can also be said to be highly diversified. When the themes are combined with the adequate use of the aforementioned elements, it is no doubt that the desired outcomes or objectives are attained with a lot of ease.
It is also evident that the creators The Simpsons have deliberately mixed the genres with the aim of achieving certain effects. As the postmodern television airs The Simpsons during prime time, there is no doubt that it is a very formal show in spite of the multitude instances of irony. The footsteps of The Simpsons have indeed been followed by myriads of cartoon shows.
Perhaps, the non-linear narrative format followed by the comedy film is a major strength that attracts other developers to pursue the same style. Such strategies are used in adult cartoon networks to attract attention of the viewers by elevating the degree of suspense either within or between one episode and another. Some of the adult cartoon films that have adopted a similar trend include Drawn Together, South Park and Family Guy. These animated adult films make use of the same developer styles in order to attain a more rigorous postmodern effect.16
The superb general likeability is the main factor that differentiates this production from other types of comedy shows that fall in the same genre.17 The Simpsons is highly rated compared to other adult animations. In any case, the show is beyond any local or international demographic barriers or conflicts bearing in mind that it has for a very long time as a sitcom. It has recorded a widespread appeal across the board.
The non-linear narrative style may sometimes create undesired results such as confusion and overall misunderstanding depending on location and time.18 By using intertextuality, the creators of the show have indeed strived to print mental images and meanings by using several references and of course a large team in its pool of characters.19
Referencing other texts is a very formal way of ensuring that the piece of art produced is both professional and self-supportive. For example, Tom and Jerry are used as reference points in the animated film. We also get to learn that Lisa likes watching Itchy and Scratchy. Intertextuality in art is vividly evident in The Simpsons. As a matter of fact, Mona Lisa has been painted in The Simpsons. This has been used as a strategy of gathering a notion from another text. The actual piece of art also is also described through parody as a primary strategy.
Mainstream television never had a lasting impact in esoteric segments of society. Through this piece of comedy, the boundary is completely broken to an extent that FOX Broadcasting fades away as the sole platform of airing such animated shows. The logo that belongs to FOX is ripped off during one of the trips by the Simpsons’ family.20
Although it appears as a subversive act, it communicates a clear message that corporate conglomerations such as FOX have been unfair to society for a long time owing to outright dominance of the animation industry (both in terms of content development and transmission or broadcasting). It is the most aggressive instance of anti-foundational postmodernity in a society that has been used to mainstream media and familiar norms.
It is irrefutable and indisputable that The Simpsons has let an indelible mark in television viewership in spite of the rebellious and subversive attitudes. In addition, it is fundamental to observe that such an adult animated program could have only materialized in a postmodern era where elements of variety and diversity are readily accepted.
Alberti, John. Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory (2nd ed). Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Beck, Jerry. The Animated Movie Guide. Springfield: Chicago Review Press, 2005.
Blakeborough, Darren. “Old People are Useless”: Representations of Aging on the Simpsons.” Canadian Journal on Aging 27, no. 1 (2008): 57-67.
Brown, Alan, and Chris Logan. The Psychology of the Simpsons. New York: Benbella Books, 2006.
Cartwright, Nancy. My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy. New York City: Hyperion Books, 2000.
Considine, John. “The Simpsons: Public Choice in the Tradition of Swift and Orwell.” Journal of Economic Education 37, no. 2 (2006): 217-228.
Cooper, Steve, Damien McLoughlin, and Andrew Keating. “Individual and Neo-Tribal Consumption: Tales from the Simpsons of Springfield.” Journal of Consumer Behaviour 4, no. 5 (2005): 330-344.
Deneroff, Harvey. “Matt Groening’s Baby Turns 10”. Animation 14, no. 1(2000): 10- 12.
“Disney Confronts World of Change.” Strategic Direction 16, no. 2 (2000): 5-7.
Easthope, Antony. Postmodernism and Critical and Cultural Theory.” The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. Ed. Stuart Sim. London: Routledge, 2001.
Gray, Jonathan. Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Groening, Matt. The Simpsons Beyond Forever!: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family… Still Continued. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002.
Kellner, Douglas. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.
Keslowitz, Steven. The Simpsons And Society: An Analysis Of Our Favorite Family And Its Influence In Contemporary Society. Oxford: Hats Off Books, 2003.
Kobland, Clifford. “The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’Oh! of Homer.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 78, no. 4 (2001): 871-873.
Pinksy, Mark. The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Rhodes, Carl. “D’Oh: The Simpsons, Popular Culture, and the Organizational Carnival.” Journal of Management Inquiry 10, no. 4 (2001): 374-383.
Thernstrom, Abigail, and Henry Fetter. “From Scottsboro to Simpson.” Public Interest no. 122 (1996): 17.
Turner, Chris. Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation. London: Ebury Press, 2005.
- Antony Easthope, Postmodernism and Critical and Cultural Theory,” The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Ed. Stuart Sim (London: Routledge, 2001), 18.
- John Alberti, Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003), 108.
- Matt Groening, The Simpsons Beyond Forever!: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family… Still Continued (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002), 28.
- Mark Pinksy, The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 33.
- Jerry Beck, The Animated Movie Guide, (Springfield: Chicago Review Press, 2005), 65.
- Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 102.
- Darren Blakeborough, “Old People are Useless”: Representations of Aging on the Simpsons,” Canadian Journal on Aging 27, no. 1 (2008): 59.
- Clifford Kobland, “The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’Oh! of Homer,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 78, no. 4 (2001): 871.
- Chris Turner, Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation (London: Ebury Press, 2005.
- Jonathan Gray, Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (New York: Routledge, 2006), 54.
- Nancy Cartwright, My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy (New York City: Hyperion Books, 2000), 73.
- John Considine,”The Simpsons: Public Choice in the Tradition of Swift and Orwell,” Journal of Economic Education 37, no. 2 (2006): 221.
- Alan Brown and Chris Logan, The Psychology of the Simpsons (New York: Benbella Books, 2006), 39.
- “Disney Confronts World of Change,” Strategic Direction 16, no. 2 (2000): 7.
- Harvey Deneroff, “Matt Groening’s Baby Turns 10,” Animation 14, no. 1(2000): 11.
- Carl Rhodes,”D’Oh: The Simpsons, Popular Culture, and the Organizational Carnival,” Journal of Management Inquiry 10, no. 4 (2001): 379.
- Steve Cooper, Damien McLoughlin, and Andrew Keating, “Individual and Neo-Tribal Consumption: Tales from the Simpsons of Springfield,” Journal of Consumer Behaviour 4, no. 5 (2005): 339.
- Abigail Thernstrom and Henry Fetter, “From Scottsboro to Simpson,” Public Interest no. 122 (1996): 17.
- Peter Barry, Beginning Theory (2nd ed), (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 83.
- Steven Keslowitz, The Simpsons And Society: An Analysis Of Our Favorite Family And Its Influence In Contemporary Society (Oxford: Hats Off Books, 2003), 49.