Progressive and Problematic: My Thoughts on The Simpsons

By, Phoenix Robertson

Hey, hey, hey, wonderful people of Springfield! Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 34 years, you have probably heard of The Simpsons. Yup, The Simpsons. Even if you haven’t seen the show, I’ll bet you a thousand Krusty Burgers and a few shares in the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant that you know a thing or two about it. Ever seen the iconic gif of a good old Ralph Wiggum rolling down a hill or heard Homer Simpson’s famous “D’Oh!”? Or perhaps a video of a sassy, young boy on a skateboard in blue shorts and a red t-shirt saying “Eat my shorts!”? You’ve seen The Simpsons. This cultural phenomenon and staple of modern-day American culture was created in 1989 and, in many ways, is still just as enjoyable today as it was in yesteryear. Its bright and witty social commentary is laced with just the right amount of comedy to be palatable, without being overly judgemental. The timeless appeal of The Simpsons, despite its charm, has begun to dwindle as some of the more problematic aspects of the show have come to light for me. This new found knowledge has resulted in my conclusion that The Simpsons is both incredibly problematic, but also quite progressive. 

The Simpsons and Me

(This is me falling down a rabbit hole of The Simpsons.)

Before I start critically analyzing one of my favorite shows, I’d like to talk about how I went from hating The Simpsons to watching it every day. A few years ago, I saw The Simpsons on Disney Plus for the first time. I was less than amazed. I said, and I quote, “This show is so dumb.” The crude shapes of the animation and the seemingly plain and average humor the scripts utilized seemed so run-of-the-mill that I could find it anywhere. Nothing seemed special. Nothing was cool. It was just another boring show. I stuck with that opinion until last year. 

I begrudgingly revisited The Simpsons when my younger sister became more interested in it. We started watching it together, and I still wasn’t wowed. She seemed to go on laughing forever when Bart would say “Eat my shorts!” and don’t get her started on Krusty. Everything Krusty said was just so funny that she had to rewatch it. I got fed up pretty quickly and was close to swearing it off for good until I saw Mr. Burns. Mr. Burns was so evil, cruel, and downright cynical that it was both disgusting and thrilling to watch him. His shrill voice was like nails on a chalkboard, and he was far from afraid to boss someone around to get what he wanted. With his minion Mr. Smithers to execute his will to a tee, and a few centuries worth of his self made fortune to last him until the end of his near immortal life, there was nothing he couldn’t do. He’s the kind of terrible human being that everyone wants to be, but also wants to hate. He was my gateway into the world of The Simpsons.

Over winter break, I did a deep dive and began watching the episodes of The Simpsons that directly related to Mr. Burns. After consuming so much content, I came to the conclusion that a show that created such a masterpiece of a character couldn’t be all bad, so I found a new character to become amazed by– a certain Mr. Waylon Smithers Jr. After Smithers it was Lisa, then Martin, then Milhouse, and before I’d realized I’d become a fan of The Simpsons

Less than Proud: Problematic Moments

A few weeks ago I watched a short documentary on HBO Max called The Problem with Apu. My first thought was “Wow! More Simpsons!” but as the film began to unveil more and more troubling information, I started thinking about how I could stand to watch the show. This movie brought a very important fact to light for me. Apu–one of the few Indian characters on The Simpsons, who runs a convenience store and speaks with a heavy, stereotypical Indian accent–is voiced by Hank Azaria. Yes, a caucasian man. Are you starting to see the problem here? If not, let’s break it down more. 

Most of the characters on The Simpsons are stereotypes of groups of people. Abe Simpson, the grandpa on the show, is a stereotype of the elderly. He’s loud, he lives in a poorly funded nursing home, and he’s got a lot of takes on the world that reflect the sexist, homophobic, and racist ideas of the world he grew up in. This doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does add a bit of explanation to the way he acts. Barney, the Springfield drunk, is a stereotype. He has no job. No life. The only thing that is important in Barney’s life is getting a few beers at Moe’s. Lisa is a stereotype. She’s your average overachiever, following every rule, grade grubbing for that A triple plus, and, of course, the least popular girl in her school. There is a stereotype for every other character featured on The Simpsons, and I could write for hours explaining all of these negative representations of different people, and surprisingly, most of the time I’m ok with these characters. Abe is a stereotype, but he is a person with power. He’s a cisgender caucasian man in America. The representation of him as a senile old man doesn’t hurt anyone. He’s got privilege. Barney is the exact same. Another caucasian man from an upper middle-class family. Privileged. Lisa is a bit different because she is a girl, but still. A young, caucasian girl from the “perfect” nuclear–Get it?– (Her dad works at a nuclear power plant. I know, I’m hilarious) family in middle class America. The negative representation of one upper-middle class, caucasian girl as a complainer and a kiss-up isn’t going to end the world. The problem with Apu–as was pointed out by the film’s narrator and main character, famous comedian Hari Kondabolu– is that he is a person of color and people of color are rarely positively represented on television. They are almost always portrayed as poor, uneducated people, just barely making the cut to stay afloat. Let’s look at Apu. He’s poor, often struggles to pay the bills, and is used as a token individual to represent the lives of an entire country of people. People of color have so few positive examples of representation that every example counts and for a show as influential as The Simpsons, which has been one of the titans of television for decades, to fall into this trap of negatively representing underrepresented people is incredibly dangerous. There is most certainly a problem with Apu. 

Keepin’ It Real: Progressivism on The Simpsons

The Simpsons does have some major flaws, but there are some things that it does pretty well. One thing that I respect about The Simpsons is the way that they have been able to intertwine brutal honesty with comedy. An example of this is how frequently the show criticized American society’s favoritism towards the wealthy and how often the poor are stepped over to accomplish the goals of the upper class. The show does this through the exploration of characters like Mr. Charles Montgomery Burns, Krusty the Clown, and Richard “Rich” Texan, all of whom represent the wealthy members of American society that use often illegal means, which go frequently without reparations, to seek and grow their wealth. Instead of painting them as “Oh, hello, rich man who will solve all of our problems with your beautiful, pure money,” they portray them as evil people who can use their money for good, but 9 times out of 10 make the choice to use their money to cover up their evil deeds. I’m not saying all rich people are bad. They aren’t! Rich people have just as much opportunity as everyone else in the world to be good, bad, or indifferent. However, it’s important to highlight the fact that the wealthy can do bad things because oftentimes people fall prey to the cloud of wealth that surrounds them and then ignore all the bad things they’ve done. Not all that glitters is gold, and The Simpsons shines a light on this. 

The Simpsons is also progressive in the area of being fairly feminist– I say fairly only because there are a few sexist jokes made about women, but they are made to make fun of sexism, not to actually perpetuate the ideas. The series features a variety of strong female characters, whose power is not based on their spouses or their appearances. This is especially seen with the characters of Patty and Selma Bouvier. In season 33, episode 5, titled “Lisa’s Belly” Selma and Patty help young Lisa, who recently had to be placed on medication that made her gain weight, understand that a woman’s worth is not dictated by her appearance or what others think of her. One of my favorite lines from this episode is, “All these things that’s wrong with women, it’s all good, just go on livin’”. Women are often judged by society based on arbitrary factors such as compliance to traditional beauty standards and willingness to sacrifice their own wellbeing for the sake of others and the ideas expressed in this episode work to contradict these ideas. The consistent characterization of Selma and Patty, two unmarried, working, middle-aged, large, independent women, as important, worthy, funny, and interesting people who have value that is not based on their weight, age, or appearance combats this idea. Selma and Patty also give frequent advertisements for MacGyver, making them even more cool. 

It’s hard to find anything to watch or be interested in because of the internet. With the click of a few buttons, I can learn a near infinite amount of information to make me rethink my decisions of supporting any artist, tv series, or celebrity. When I learned about the controversy surrounding Hank Azaria and Apu, I was taken aback and didn’t know if I could continue to watch The Simpsons. I’ve gone through similar events with Little House on the Prairie, David Bowie, and countless other things that I’ve come to enjoy over the course of my life. I don’t know how to completely sever the art from the artist or how to gauge what is “too problematic” and what can be considered a minor offense. I  believe, however, that in order to continue to appreciate these people or creations you should be aware of their more problematic aspects and keep these faults in mind when you consume the content. Yes, I watch The Simpsons. Yes, the show can be problematic, but it can also be a great megaphone for progressivism and voicing important issues and ideas. No, it isn’t perfect, but neither is anything. Everything has its faults and highlights and in order to appreciate one you have to understand the other. 

Thank you for reading this article and I hope that you learned a thing or two about The Simpsons. I urge you to take this opportunity to research and watch The Simpsons for yourself, so that you can make your own judgment on the show’s problematic or progressive tendencies. Thanks again for reading, stay safe, stay healthy, and stay excellent!


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