Institutionalized Stereotypes in the Simpsons

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The animated sitcom The Simpsons centers on a highly-dysfunctional, middle-class family living in the fictional town of Springfield. Since its premiere in 1989, The Simpsons has faced backlash for using racism, misogyny, cultural appropriation, and hyper-stereotypes to achieve its comedic goals. I am interested in seeing how this unconventional sitcom affects viewers’ perception of underrepresented individuals “ namely, female characters. My research question is: Does The Simpsons challenge or perpetuate institutionalized female stereotypes? I have focused my research on Marge Simpson, the matriarch of the family, in order to develop an analysis on the representation of her character on the show. I have a hypothesis that the show’s creators deliberately exaggerate her role as the housewife in order to invalidate prevalent female stereotypes and stigmas. My analysis of previous academic research conducted on this topic will be organized into four key ideas: the function of stereotypes on television, the stereotypes presented on The Simpsons, the way Marge’s character is complexified over time, and the intentions of the show’s creators.
Through researching previous analyses on the subject of stereotypes on The Simpsons, I have identified six relevant contributors. All six scholars highlight prevalent stereotypes enabled on The Simpsons and each attributes unique reasoning to this comedic convention. All six researchers utilize a Hermeneutic approach as they focus on particular parts of The Simpsons to develop a close reading of specific scenes and episodes; however, the nuances of their research differs. Daniela Virdis (2010) uses linguistic theoretical frameworks, conversation analysis, and stylistics to assess Marge’s representation as it fits into the traditional discourse of family dynamics, while John Alberti (2003) approaches The Simpsons with theoretical lenses, such as cultural studies, gender studies, and queer theory to evaluate the self-reflexive and hyperconscious nature of The Simpsons that exposes oppositional culture on the show. On the other hand, Edward Fink (2013) refers to psychoanalytic theory “ specifically relief theory “ to explain the importance of comedy in facilitating audience’s laughter to function as a kind of catharsis of hidden feelings. Similarly, Paul Cantor unpacks popular elements of comedic writing to illustrate how The Simpsons is a self-aware, postmodern show that simultaneously focuses on the traditional representation of American family while presenting a paradox with its untraditional characteristics.
Matthew Henry (2007) and Ruth Teer-Tomaselli (1994) both utilize feminist theory in their analysis of the female experience on The Simpsons as they deconstruct Marge’s fantasies of independence and freedom in the context of her role in the domestic realm. Despite the 20-year-range of these sources and the varying nuances of their research, all six analyses come to a similar conclusion involving an intentional exaggeration on the part of The Simpsons creators in constructing the show’s characters. To begin a cohesive look at these six pieces of research, we must start with each researcher’s perspective on the function of stereotypes on television. Since the invention of television, programming has faced limited availability of space for content. This time constraint necessitates that narratives establish characters’ identities as quickly as possible; to fulfill this requirement, creators often use stereotypes in constructing their cast of characters (Cantor, 1999).
A stereotype is an oversimplified image or idea intended to present viewers with easily recognizable kinds of characters; stereotypes can pertain to age, sex, job, culture, race, and position in the family. These stereotypes perpetuate preconceived notions about specific groups of people (Alberti, 2003). Comic writers often rely on stereotyping in the construction of quick gags when they lack the time or space in the narrative to create nuance through subtle characterization (Fink, 2013). Humor depends on identity, and while humor is based on real people, it often depends on stereotypes “ reduced representations of characters that are generally conceptualized by a dominant cultural viewpoint (Teer-Tomaselli, 1994). In the television industry, stereotypes become a shorthand for presenting character traits as a source of humor (Cantor, 1999). In terms of female stereotypes, sitcoms rarely challenge gender-related traditions through the characters and situations presented. Since its inception, The Simpsons has engaged with the very political topic of ??family values, and therefore has provided countless examples of institutionalized stereotypes (Henry, 2007). The Simpsons has had multiple media identities (Fink, 2013).
While the show has featured bitter political and social satire “ which can prove fatal to mass public acceptance “ The Simpsons has fully entered the mainstream (Virdis, 2010). The Simpsons is notably one of the only series to maintain its mass media appeal despite its countercultural and edgy nature (Alberti, 2003). The Simpsons writers utilize elements of comic theory and structure in the show, which explains why the series appeals to such large audiences (Fink, 2013). Despite the show’s creative success, The Simpsons features common stereotypes on an episodic basis; Apu Nahasapeemapetilon represents the clich of a shy, socially-isolated immigrant, and John Waters’ episodes present homophobic language and careless bigotry. The most featured stereotype on the series is, of course, Marge (Alberti, 2003). The Simpsons frames Marge’s character as the quintessential wife, mother, and homemaker who is typified by a desire to maintain order (Virdis, 2010). Marge lives in a liminal space where she exists between social categories, behaviors, and spaces; therefore she embodies the ambivalence of female identity and its relation to the public and private spheres (Henry, 2007). Marge’s responsibility to care for her family is explicitly prioritized by the fact that her role as housewife appears to be her only pastime (Virdis, 2010). Although The Simpsons does not provide a full history of Marge, we do see enough glimpses of her past to see that she was raised with a proscriptive domestic ideology (Henry, 2007). Marge pacifies her husband and children as she brings understanding and order to the Simpson clan (Fink, 2013).
While some researchers state that The Simpsons’ stereotypes demonstrate counterculture trends (Alberti, 2003), other scholars maintain that The Simpsons actually offers one of the most important images of the contemporary American family (Cantor, 1999). Although Marge is occasionally afforded the opportunity to exit her place in the home, these episodes routinely end with her being pulled out of her ??dangerous” feminist fantasies of independence and freedom to be summoned back to take care of her family (Henry, 2007). The Simpsons continuously restores this ??proper” order of the domestic realm in which Marge functions. Marge’s idealism about her role in the public sphere is ultimately tempered by a number of experiences that bring her back into the home setting (Fink, 2013). Marge is given a gendered identity based on cliched assumptions about women’s roles and priorities (Virdis, 2010). While her character seems to perpetuate the status quo, it is possible that The Simpsons’ characterization of Marge aims to call viewers’ attention to outdated gender roles. Over the many seasons of The Simpsons, Marge is given both a backstory and human flaws (Virdis, 2010). She begins the series as a simplified caricature that is then complexified over time. Her character grows into its own individual; she is uniquely Marge Simpson, rather than any old housewife (Cantor, 1999). Through this complexification, the tensions of contemporary femininity are presented on the show. The consequences that result from being in a perpetually liminal state are demonstrated in various episodes that illustrate Marge both inside and outside the home (Henry, 2007). By positioning Marge in this liminal space, The Simpsons makes her emblematic of the cultural contradictions of the female experience (Cantor, 1999).
The Simpsons appears to be self-aware in its complexifying Marge over time. By crafting Marge into a multidimensional character, the series presents more complex characterization and therefore increases the opportunity for identification for female viewers (Fink, 2013). Critics of The Simpsons contend that the show’s popularity is a testament to the decline of American family values; however, many scholars explain that these critics need to take a closer look at the series in order to understand its place in the context of television history (Cantor, 1999). Despite its slapstick nature and mocking of particular aspects of family life, The Simpsons has an affirmative side that celebrates the nuclear family (Alberti, 2003). In creating the show, Matt Groening used dramatic devices that combine elements of the bizarre and the predictable. The mix of realism and cartoon works well on television where humor is often visually-driven (Teer-Tomaselli, 1994). The Simpsons deliberately goes against the conventions of realism in order to heighten the sense of realism in others; the show is portrayed as both unreal and universal, as an archetype of suburban life (Henry, 2007).
The Simpsons effectively combines parody with mass media appeal to critique postmodern society (Alberti, 2003). Defining Marge by her domestic role, the series brings light to the societal expectations that determine what is normalized in television (Fink, 2013). The hyperbolized housebound wife represents a generation of women who were defined by their position in the home. Popular culture is a site of constant conflict “ a place to create meaning for subordinated groups rather than the hegemonic groups producing the content (Teer-Tomaselli, 1994). The Simpsons’ representations of female identity are nuanced with a feminist sensibility (Alberti, 2003). The series offers an intellectual defense of an ordinary family against the elites, which explains the show’s popularity and broad appeal to American viewers (Cantor, 1999). Even today, progressive representations of families in American television are rare (Henry, 2007). The Simpsons merits attention for its ability to complexify Marge and provide her with a sense of independence rarely found in female characters (Virdis, 2010). Although The Simpsons does not constitute a feminist text, it does demonstrate the way feminine culture can assert its values within and against patriarchal structures (Henry, 2007). The Simpsons offers a female identity that is a complex combination of strength and weakness (Cantor, 1999). The series is both a protest against and an acquiescence to male dominance (Henry, 2007).
While The Simpsons creators might have positive intentions in their presenting institutionalized stereotypes, that does not necessarily lead audiences to interpret the narrative the way those creators intended. Given the substantial academic analyses of The Simpsons conducted over the last 20 years, I will continue this research with an in-depth study of textual evidence on The Simpsons. Like the six scholars cited above, I will also use a Hermeneutic approach to explore the details of particular episodes to find concrete examples of Marge’s character and how that representation challenges or perpetuates institutionalized stereotypes of the American housewife. To differentiate my research from previous analyses, I will draw on Stuart Hall’s Encoding/ Decoding model of communication to further identify creators’ intentions with the construction of Marge Simpson and to discover how viewers interpret her character. The differing responses from audiences illustrate how the series is polysemic “ not fixed in meaning “ and can be interpreted in different ways. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall discusses this type of equivocality in the Encoding/Decoding model which provides a theoretical approach to analyzing how a particular text is encoded at the production level and then decoded by viewers (Hall). As Hall highlights in his communication model, it is the media markers “ the producers, writers, and directors “ who construct the message of a media text, often deliberately implanting a preferred meaning intended to be meaningfully decoded in a particular way (Hall).
In my research, I will find out if this preferred meaning is the dominant reading of The Simpsons or if an oppositional decoding is more common. I hypothesize that The Simpsons media makers have constructive intentions with their exaggerated stereotypes, but I am interested to find out if audiences find the stereotypes distasteful and offensive or inflated and humorous. I will also refer to Reception Analysis in constructing my research method. Rather than using a standard questionnaire format in my research, I will use more small-scale, qualitative methods such as focus groups and in-depth individual interviews to deconstruct the interpretations made by viewers. Therefore, I will not create a complete set of categories such as the uses and gratifications list, because the reception and the production of meaning cannot be separated from the particular contexts in which they occur to be understood meaningfully. I believe that further research into The Simpsons creators’ intentions and a deep dive analysis of viewers’ interpretations will allow me to conclude whether Marge Simpson’s character challenges or perpetuates institutionalized stereotypes.

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The Simpsons: Atomistic Politics and the Nuclear Family. Political Theory, 27(6), 734-749. Retrieved from Fink, E. (2013).
Writing The Simpsons: A Case Study of Comic Theory. Journal of Film and Video, 65(1-2), 43-55. doi:10.5406/jfilmvideo.65.1-2.0043 Hall, S. (1980).
Encoding/decoding. Culture, media, language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 128-138. Henry, M. (2007), “?Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl’: Feminism, Female Identity, and The Simpsons”, The Journal of Popular Culture, 40 (2), 272-303. Teer-Tomaselli, R. (1994).
The Simpsons. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, (22), 52-56. doi:10.2307/4065736 Virdis, D. F. (2010). Marge’s Private Conflict in The Simpsons: A Linguistic Analysis. Caliban, 27. 2010, 295-304 Brunsdon, C., J. D’Acci, L. Spiegel (1997).
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Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. Waltonen, K., & Du Vernay, D. (2010).
The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. Maas, ?‘., L. Arcuri, Language and Stereotyping, Stereotypes and Stereotyping, C. N. Macrae, C. Stangor, M. Hewstone eds., London and New York: The Guilford Press, 1996, 193-226. Macrae, C. N., C. Stangor, M. Hewstone eds., Stereotypes and Stereotyping,London and New York: The Guilford Press, 1996

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