Hey, I was on Australian television again! Did anybody see me on the current affairs program called Today Tonight? I think the show aired while I was away in the States. This time I was talking about “The Simpsons”, media and pop culture, and fan fiction. Below is a cleaned up version, more or less, of what I said.
1. How has “The Simpsons” affected popular culture?
a) In general terms it, like other TV shows, performs a reflection of our culture, holding it up for scrutiny and discussion
b) It deals with universal issues which affect us all - families, relationships, class, commercialism, and makes us think about our identities - as individuals and as a culture
c) Specifically, “The Simpsons” - particularly when it began - has been fairly innovative in the way it dealt with subversive, edgier issues, making comments on politics, commercialism, the cult of celebrity, industrial relations, dealing with the evolution debate and so on. In the beginning it was a really novel thing for a TV show to get away with promoting subversive or transgressive ideas and that was and is a key attraction for audiences. So much so, that this edginess has since been taken up by a lot of other TV shows, so its clearly had a lot of influence.
2. What is it that makes the show so clever?
I think it is clever for a few reasons.
a) First, it uses parody and laughter to make subversive and social comments in a way that is non threatening and non patronising - it doesn’t “preach” messages to the audience but treats the audience as clever, and knowing and on the inside of the joke. No matter how many faults or problems we have, we are just never as stupid or naive as Homer, so we can laugh at his foibles.
b) Secondly, “The Simpsons” is a good example of tiered entertainment - it is pitched at multiple audiences at the one time and has a lot of layered meanings. It has jokes for children but it also incorporates humour that appeals to adults.
c) Thirdly, it frequently makes fun of itself, it often parodies advertising, media consumption, and even the Fox network, so that in itself makes it a great subject for discussion.
3. Have there been any other TV shows with the same social impact (with reference to D’Oh being put in the dictionary)?
There’s definitely been TV shows and films that have influenced us and our language - from Star Trek’s “holodeck” to Seinfeld’s “Yada Yada Yada” but probably none with quite the same global impact as “The Simpsons”.
4. Some say it is a masterpiece. Are we looking too far into it?
In many ways it has been very clever, innovative, and it has had a tremendous impact on society, so it definitely has numerous characteristics that we can appreciate. But at the end of the day, yes, it is a comedy, and its main purpose is to entertain and make the studio a profit, so it is not without its limitations. As clever as it might be at poking fun of itself and society, it still has to answer to the network, the advertisers, censorship regulations for example.
5. Why have some Universities decided to study “The Simpsons”?
Precisely because it is so multilayered, and has a lot of clever writing. I use it when I am studying narrative technique, or when I am talking about aspects of teaching media literacy in the classroom to children. I’ve also used it to talk about animation, filming techniques, and visual literacy. And its been useful when I talk about media and pop culture. Also, I am pretty safe in knowing that if I use it, 100% of the students in the class will immediately understand the reference.
6. Are you a fan? If so, what appeals to you?
I’m a fan inasmuch as it is a great teaching resource and I can use to teach multiple things, from narrative technique, to Lisa as a feminist icon to the impact of advertising on consumers.
7. Do you think it would have the same impact if it was not animated?
No! I think they are able to be subversive and deal with sensitive issues precisely because the characters are bright yellow.
8. Does the program have influential power over children and for that matter fans?
Well I think because the show is full of blatant exaggerations most kids are pretty savvy and can see through those ploys. One of the areas of my research is to explore fan fiction, and what I have observed is that part of the pleasure of being a fan of any show is to discuss it with others, critique it, and to analyse it ad nauseum.
And one of the most fascinating things that fans do is to take a show and write entirely new episodes that deal with their own issues, or correct the wrongs that they think the writers have made along the way. Some kids have written entirely new Harry Potter novels for example, because they were disappointed with what JK Rowling did with the characters or plots.
This is a new kind of participation in media - kids and fans are not just vapid or receptive, they are actively involved in the stories they love.
Having said that, I do think that the stakes for media education are higher than ever before, to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to be involved in these sorts of lively and critical discussions about the influence of media in our culture.