Monday, May 28, 2007

The Case for Planet Simpson

Sometimes, I think that I am a bit too cynical about the state of the world. I still recall a few years ago now (perhaps 10?) voicing said pessimism in a class discussing how the fall of the Communist Bloc would usher in an era of peace, with my take being that things would actually get worse as smaller conflicts rose up to take the Great Satan’s place. And so, it was interesting to find the book
Planet Simpson by Chris Turner that seems to even exceed my own general disillusionment with the state of the planet.

While the book is ostensibly about how the Simpsons reflects modern day life, and what that really says about human civilisation, the book tends to degenerate towards the end into a nihilistic diatribe about the disenfranchisement of individuals from society.

Some of the major Simpsons-related points include:

1. Homer Simpson is everywhere. And he tends to be in positions of power. Think of the number of world leaders who take major decisions for their “family” without considering any of the repercussions, and then refuse to take responsibility for those actions. “Homer” examples include the current US President Bush (who wilfully interprets any criticism of his handling of the war in Iraq as an attack on the “troops” rather than a critique of his own performance), the head of multinationals like Shell (who, in the film the Corporation, advocated that he was not responsible for Shell’s actions as he was only doing what the shareholders wanted), and also Road Ragers (those who exact physical revenge on some inconsiderate, but not necessarily dangerous, drivers) and (of course) wanton consumers (lets all buy SUVs!).

2. Homer Simpsons may be close to incompetent, but they are personable and well liked. As they are never held accountable for their own actions (it always tends to be someone else’s fault, of course), their performance (or lack thereof) becomes secondary to their charisma. Therefore, they hang on in there, and move on to bigger and brighter things, like the World Bank.

3. Marge, as the heart of the Simpsons, is the major offender in forgiving the Homers of the world. She does it out of the best of intentions, for the sake of harmony of the whole, with the hope that Homer or Bart will eventually sort themselves out. She believes in home and hearth and almost divorces herself from everything else to make sure what she holds dear remains safe. I always imagine these people to be those who vote for George Bush, religious parties, or the extreme right parties as well, but who aren’t actually out there doing anything about the state they find themselves in. I may not be a Right-wing voter, but I have to say I am probably a Marge myself.

4. Bart is the punks of the world. He rebels against conformity while, at the same time, is one of its greatest slaves. These days, anything “rebellious” tends to be marketed and made cool and mainstream. Think of grunge, rap, Ren and Stimpy. And the book brings in Kurt Cobain’s suicide into the mix as well, inferring that this death was due to Cobain’s realisation that, perhaps against his wishes, he had become the popular, mainstream, “cool” thing that he had been struggling against.

5. Lastly, little Lisa is the principled one, the dreamer, who many lefties would like to be but in the final analysis aren’t. She battles against “evil” corporations, is vegetarian, is smart and witty. She is also cynical, self conscious about her appearance and fairly unpopular with her peers. She can be guilty of the same excesses of morality and idealism she accuses her opponents of being. She is the “Greenie” protestor who lets wild animals loose in large cities rather than see them caged. She is Michael Moore on one of his more sanctimonious crusades. Or at least she can be – as she realises every so often the dangers of extremism.

And like that, the book seems to sum up (in fairly broad strokes) how society looks today: how the individual is becoming more and more important now that there is no major evil that we need to “stand together against” and with the decline in popularity in the major religions; how the attempts to generate social cohesion on the back of the War on Terror has failed as it doesn’t really deliver a concrete enemy or the possibility of defeating it; how we tend to define ourselves in what we own rather than who we are (
Destiny Church seems more fixated in solving financial problems through prayer than attempting to spread peace and understanding); and how both our shared sense of self (a nation of Rugby supporters) and our sense of individuality (our “uniqueness”) are becoming more and more meaningless and corrupted as they are more frequently used in marketing and branding to sell us all something.

As I said, it is a fairly bleak book, and doesn’t offer any real answers, merely pointing out how the Simpsons tends to reflect all these things back at us. It seems to conclude by saying that there is no way forward as we are too busy laughing at ourselves to really do anything about it. Why change something we get so much amusement from?

Strange to think that, at the end of a book about the Simpsons, I would end up so far from finding a great many things funny.

Verdict: A pinko, lezzo, commo rant after my own heart. But not for everyone.

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