Tag Archives: The Simpsons

My Frustrations And Fondness With Bumbling Dad Tropes

ventilador-griffin-750x500-750x500

We know them, love them, laugh at them, and cringe at them every now and then. They entertain us. They educate us. They amuse us in any number of ways, both with real-life antics and those only possible through animation. They are the clumsy, bumbling, oafish father figures of popular culture. Compared to many other tropes, they make up a sizable chunk of the overall comedy footprint in our media landscape.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t write that with disdain or dismay. In fact, I’m quite fond of the bumbling father figures that make up a sizable chunk of sitcoms, animated shows, and movies. I grew up on a steady diet of “The Simpson,” “Family Guy,” and “Married With Children.” Characters like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and Al Bundy have had a profound impact on my world and not just in terms of laughter.

As I get older, though, I find myself scrutinizing the dynamics of these faltering father figures more and more. I also find myself paying more attention to the context and circumstances surrounding them, especially as our media and culture evolves in accord with changing trends, some less positive than others.

Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now. Maybe it’s because, as both an adult and a man, I have too much experience with the larger complexities of the world. I can still laugh every time Homer does something foolish or Peter does something stupid. However, a part of me can’t help but contemplate the larger implications of bumbling dads.

Some of it has to do with double standards, which I’ve talked about many times before. Some of it deals with the struggles/inexperience in developing complex fatherly characters who aren’t blatant rip-offs of Superman, John McClane, Jack Baur, or Ward Cleaver. Most of it simply reflects a sentiment that I find frustrating at times.

Think, for a moment, about the dumbest, most hilariously idiotic antics in a show featuring bumbling dads. “The Simpson,” alone, should give plenty of content to draw from. With those antics in mind, contemplate what those antics say about the bumbling dad as a character and what it says about male characters, as a whole.

Whether he’s Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, or a guy you know in real life who once threw up in a kiddie pool after doing shots of habenero sauce on a dare, the themes are fairly consistent. At the heart of every conflict in the story is a selfish, moronic, thick-headed guy who, if he didn’t have his wife and kids, would’ve been dead by now.

The bumbling dad isn’t just the catalyst for most of the conflicts in the show. He basically embodies the inherent ineptitude of men, as a whole. Whereas strong, independent women are celebrated as a trope of their own, the bumbling dad acts as a case study as to why men can’t function on their own. Unless they have a woman and a family to restrain them, they’ll collapse under the weight of their own stupidity.

It doesn’t just reflect poorly on male characters. It sends a pretty frustrating message to female characters as well, saying that women basically have to act as referees on top of being spouses and mothers. Their role, in the context of the bumbling dad trope, is to either clean up the mess or reign the man in before he does some serious damage.

In a sense, the bumbling dad is the catalyst for the nagging woman, a character not nearly as hilarious that can be every bit as frustrating. One causes all the chaos and problems in a story. The other whines about it and tries to limit the damage, often while failing to teach the bumbling dad any meaningful lessons that’ll help him be less bumbling.

Granted, there are some exceptions to that dynamic. Compared to Marge Simpson and Lois Griffin, Peggy Bundy from “Married With Childrencompletely subverts this trope. Then again, that whole show went out of its way to undermine every standard sitcom trope that ever existed. As I noted before, it’s the kind of show that could never be made today.

Those exceptions aside, the bumbling dad represents another point of frustration that has more to do with the implications of character development, as a whole. It’s a frustration that even plays out in other forms of media that don’t involve idiot married men who only still have their limbs because their wives won’t let them near fireworks.

When you take a step back and look at the kinds of roles bumbling dads have in so many narratives, you notice a number of recurring themes that don’t just reflect poorly on them as men and fathers. They also help enable a lot of the themes that reflect poorly on certain female characters as well.

Essentially, the bumbling dad is allowed to be an idiot with flaws, ineptitude, and shortcomings of all kinds. It’s okay that he make a fool of himself, getting hurt and causing all sorts of damage with his antics. When Al Bundy and his idiot male friends keep falling off a roof, it’s funny and entertaining. If a female character did that, though, that just wouldn’t have the same impact.

Even in shows like “Married With Children,” the female characters were never allowed to fall off a roof, get hurt, or get into fights of any kind. Even when they’re not nagging or trying to be the voice of reason, the female characters are treated as more fragile, needing to fill a more specific role rather than explore the vast array of buffoonery that their male counterparts get to experience.

A female character can’t be bumbling, idiotic, or self-destructive. That would imply she has too many flaws. Even in the days before the recent push for more female representation, that was considered taboo.

A female character can’t be the catalyst for a problem either, unless it involves the moral crusades of Lisa Simpson. The idea of a female character causing anywhere near the problems as a man would just trigger too much outrage for daring to hint that women can be as flawed as men. That last sentence was sarcasm, by the way.

This, essentially, is the driving force behind the frustration. The bumbling dad trope basically gives the impression that men are the only ones who can be foolish, self-destructive, unreasonable, and unlikable. Women can occasionally do those things, but never to the point of the bumbling dad.

In terms of character development, that’s limiting to characters of any gender. It means all the conflict, plot twists, and memorable story elements have to come from the male characters. All the female characters ever do is react, recover, or rebuild from the male character’s antics.

The bumbling dad basically sets up the expectations alongside the comedy. We expect them to do something stupid. We expect them to make a fool of themselves, get hurt, and not think things through. We also expect the women to basically bring them back in line again because without them, they just couldn’t function.

Beyond the expectations, the bumbling dad is basically the crash test dummy for all the chaos within a plot. They’re the ones that get hurt. They bear the brunt end of the physical comedy, be it a slap in the face or constantly falling down a cliff. The idea of women getting hurt just as much, even in an era where the push for tough female characters has never been greater, still doesn’t sit right with audiences.

That says as much about lingering gender norms as it does about bumbling dads, as a whole. Beyond just relegating the comedy and the personal journey to a particular male character, it gives the impression that women aren’t capable of doing foolish things. Anyone with a stable internet connection knows that’s just not true.

Again, this is not to say the bumbling dad trope is inherently “toxic.” I’ve already made clear how much I despise that terminology. There will always be a place for bumbling dads and the comedy they inspire. There’s also plenty of room for non-male, non-dad characters to be foolish as well. When it comes to gender, age, race, and sexual orientation, stupidity is the ultimate egalitarian.

1 Comment

Filed under gender issues, human nature, media issues, sex in society, sexuality

Stereotypes, The Simpsons, And The (Empty) Complaints About Apu

season_25_icon

For nearly three decades, our society has had an unspoken, but clear understanding. For something to become culturally relevant, it has to be mentioned “The Simpsons.” Whether it’s a major plot on something like boy bands or a subtle joke about a classic novel, it’s not truly a mainstream idea until it shows up on “The Simpsons.”

I happen to be among the demographic who have always lived in a world where the “The Simpsons” existed. I honestly cannot remember a time when this show wasn’t on the air or relevant in some ways. For a show that has been on the air for nearly 30 years, it’s remarkable just how much impact it has had, despite so many changes in trends, culture, technology, media, and tastes.

There have been controversial moments, though. I still remember how controversial it was when John Waters voiced a gay character on the show. That was considered controversial in 1997. Looking back on it, I can see why. The more recent controversies, however, are a bit harder to understand.

That brings me to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Springfield’s lovable Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart. I say he’s lovable because, for the most part, he’s one of the show’s most colorful side-characters and for the right reasons. He’s smart, he’s got a unique personality, and he’s undergone plenty of growth over the years.

However, according to a documentary by Indian comedian Hari Kondabolu called “The Problem With Apu,” this established character on an iconic TV show is contributing to a serious social ill in the world. The fact that Apu exists is a factor in the many causes of social injustice, racism, and bigotry. He’s almost as bad as video game characters being too sexy. If I could write that with more sarcasm, I would.

With all due respect to Mr. Kondabolu, who lives a minority in a country that has a spotty history with race to say the least,  I sincerely question his method for picking certain battles. There are many serious issues surrounding race relations in America and throughout the world. Those issues have all sorts of complexities and nuances to them.

Instead of scrutinizing those, however, he singles out a popular cartoon character to make his point. Even That doesn’t just undermine the serious issues he discusses in that movie. It ensures that his point will get lost in the collective groans of those who bemoan political correctness.

I know that whining about political correctness has become a source of whining in and of itself, but there is a continuum of sorts that separates serious issues about representation in the media from outright trolling. The separation isn’t always clear, but in the case of Apu and Mr. Kondabolu, it’s too petty to be subtle.

The idea that Apu is now problematic, a word that has gained a lot of frustrating connotations in recent years, sends an indirect message that I don’t think Mr. Kondabolu wanted to send. It’s not that racism and bigotry aren’t important issues. It’s the idea that anyone who enjoys “The Simpsons” and appreciates characters like Apu are somehow on the same level as old school, George Wallace level racists.

For most reasonable people, that notion is both insulting and absurd. Again, I doubt that’s the direct message Mr. Kondabolu was saying, but that’s the subtext of the message he sent with that documentary. “The Simpsons” and the people who enjoy it are somehow bad people and contributing to a problem.

Understandably, both fans and the creators of the show aren’t going to respond with homemade chocolates and hugs. Even though the creators promised to address it, the way they did so did not involve an extended apology about how the show has depicted Apu and paying massive reparations for all the hurt feelings it has caused.

Instead, they worked it into a side-plot in the episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” wherein Marge tries to rewrite her favorite book so that it’s free of anything that might be considered offensive in 2018. As many in Hollywood and the media are finding out the hard way these days, that’s next to impossible.

It all culminated in a moment where Marge and Lisa partially broke the fourth wall, Deadpool style, and indirectly confronted the controversy by basically saying that there’s not much you can do when old characters who weren’t offensive at first become offensive years later. Those characters exist, as do their stories. Lisa flat out asks to the camera, “What can you do?”

It’s a very relevant question that Mr. Kondabolu isn’t able to answer. In fact, I don’t think the question has an answer. At the very least, the scene didn’t mock him directly or discount his feelings. It was surprisingly even-handed for a show that regularly mocks popular trends. This is how the scene that played out.

Needless to say, that response rubbed plenty of people the wrong way, included Mr. Kondabolu. According to Entertainment Weekly, this was his response.

“Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked?” wrote Kondabolu. “Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.” In another tweet, he said, “In ‘The Problem with Apu,’ I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”

I want to be sympathetic to Mr. Kondabolu’s feelings. I really do. However, the problem with his response is that he didn’t even try to answer the question that Lisa asked. She asked what can you do. He just whined that this response wasn’t the one he wanted from the show. On top of that, he didn’t even try to explain what he’d hoped to hear.

This why I find his protest of Apu so empty. It’s also why I find a lot of complaints about offensive characters or stereotypes so asinine. It’s not enough that someone is offended. They basically set it up so that there’s no way for them not to be offended. They present a problem with no solution. If they offer one, it’s vague and easy to move the goalposts when someone doesn’t respond to their satisfaction.

For Mr. Kondabolu, he doesn’t just move the goalposts, though. He essentially tries to play an entirely different game on an entirely different field and expects everyone else to know the score. Even by scrutinizing the content of his own documentary, Mr. Kondabolu reveals just how misguided his arguments are. In another article by Entertainment Weekly, this was his justification for singling out Apu.

As Kondabolu made clear in his film, the problem with Apu extends beyond a brown character voiced by a white actor; the problem was not just with The Simpsons, but with its viewers, the drunk idiots on the street who call any South-Asian person “Apu” and who repeated “Thank you, come again,” as a mocking refrain.

I highlighted those bold parts because they’re the most revealing part of Mr. Kondabolu’s argument, as well as the greatest flaw. He links the depiction of Apu to the “drunk idiots” who harass people like him of South-Asian descent. From his perspective, the problem isn’t the drunk idiots doing the harassing. It’s the cartoon character.

In that context, it’s understandable why even a bleeding heart liberal like Lisa Simpson, a notable lover of cartoons, wouldn’t take up Mr. Kondabolu’s cause like she has so many others. It’s not just empty. It completely overlooks the actual source of the problem, namely the drunk idiots.

Are they drunk idiots because they watched “The Simpsons?” Are they drunk idiots towards people of South-Asian descent because of Apu and the stereotype he represents? Well, if that’s the argument Mr. Kondabolu is going to make, then he’s got a much bigger problem. “The Simpsons” are full of so many other stereotypes that to single just one out as “problematic” isn’t just asinine. It’s petty.

Homer Simpson is a stereotype of a dimwitted, drunk middle class working stiff.

Lisa Simpson is a stereotype of a whiny, bleeding heart liberal social justice lover.

Marge Simpson is a stereotype of a nagging housewife.

Groundskeeper Willie is a stereotype of an angry Scotsman.

Barney Gumble is a stereotype of a fat, drunk alcoholic slob.

Cletus Spuckler is a stereotype of a white trash hillbilly.

Luigi Risotto is a stereotype of an Italian chef.

Fat Tony is a stereotype of an Italian mobster.

I could go on, but with nearly 30 years of characters, “The Simpsons” has such a huge cast of characters that there’s no way I could list every character and the stereotype they represent. In fact, it’s because “The Simpsons” has so many characters and so much history that it’s possible to find a character that embodies an offensive stereotype of some type. The only requirement is that you have to be really petty.

That’s what Mr. Kondabolu had to do. He had to get really petty to single out Apu, which also required he ignore the real, non-animated people who were harassing minorities. Again, none of this is to say that racism and harassment aren’t problems. They are. However, when highlighting this issue requires a level of pettiness that involves singling out cartoon characters, then there’s something wrong with that approach.

1 Comment

Filed under Current Events, media issues, political correctness

Appealing To The Masses: The Simpson Filter

ct-homer-simpson-live-pizza-debate-met-0517-20160516

I was going to make this part of my last post where I gave some tips and advice to the people behind the Women’s March. I am serious about being on their side on most major issues. I want them to succeed in protesting the current regime in Washington DC. I think it’s good for freedom and democracy when there’s a healthy opposition to established power structures.

At the moment, though, I don’t think their message is getting through. I also think their approach needs refinement. The tips I offered in my last post were fairly basic. This tip requires a bit more explanation because it applies a mix of caveman logic, sales techniques, and good old fashioned cunning. It’s basically the same technique people use to sell time shares and get laid. If it works for that, then it works for politics as well.

I’ve even given this bit of advice a name, one that I hope is easy to remember. I call it “The Simpson Filter.” It’s not quite as original as “Caveman Logic” and not just because it deals with something that is heavily trademarked and protected by an army of Fox’s lawyers. I promise there is a legitimate reason behind this label and I hope to make that reason abundantly clear by the end of this post.

So what exactly is the Simpson Filter? Well first off, in order to understand it, you need to know who the Simpsons are. If you’ve been near a TV it all in the past 30 years, that should be the easy part.

Most everybody on each side of the political spectrum knows who the Simpsons are. For the purposes of this tip, I’m going to focus on what they represent. By and large, the Simpsons are not the Waltons. They’re not happy, wholesome, and functional. They’re not the Bundy’s either. There is a sense love, sincerity, and family. On the spectrum of cartoon families, the Simpsons are somewhere in the middle.

Why is this important? Well, despite being fictional and full of exaggerated dysfunction, the Simpsons perfectly embody the sentiment of the average American. In fact, the show itself even acknowledged this in Season 2, Episode 16, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” where Homer’s brother, Herb, wants him to design a car for the average American.

Yes, Homer Simpson fails miserably in that effort, but that only further highlights what makes him the perfect archetype for the average guy. He’s not an expert in a given field. He’s not smart enough to understand the complexities of big issues, be they social, political, or economic. Unless it involves beer and donuts, it’s not going to be a priority for Homer Simpson.

The same applies to Marge Simpson, the more thoughtful and less obnoxious part of the family. Marge also embodies an important component of the average American in that she’s focused primarily on keeping her family intact and semi-functional.

Given the various antics of her family, this is a herculean task, even on a good day. Her uncanny ability to manage her family often shows when she’s not around. This is best shown in Season 3, Episode 14, “Homer Alone,” in which Marge decides to go on a vacation and her family struggles mightily in her absence.

In that sense, Marge embodies the side of American society who struggle daily to keep their family intact and functioning for another day. It’s not that big issues involving the economy, politics, or social issues don’t interest her. It’s that she doesn’t have the time or resources to prioritize them. She can only focus on her more immediate concerns, namely preventing Homer from freaking out about the boogeyman.

Given this context, we can create the particulars of the “Simpson Filter.” If we’re going to use this fictional, animated, overtly dysfunctional family as a model, then any message we craft has to resonate with them. If it’s too much for Homer and Marge Simpson to handle, then it’s too much for most Americans.

For the Women’s March, this is vital. They don’t need to appeal to affluent, college-educated people living in cities and earning more than the median wage. They need to appeal to the vast swaths of less-affluent, less-educated people that occupy the non-urban parts of the country. In short, they need to cater their message to many Springfields of this Country and the Simpson families who live in them.

To appeal to them, it’s not enough to just shout anger and outrage at major protests. It’s not enough to hold large public lectures to inform these people either. Homer Simpson doesn’t do lectures and Marge is too worried about her family to even show up at one.

For any message to work on Homer or Marge Simpson, it can’t just have hard facts about the harsh realities of the world. It’s not enough to list, detail by detail, why the principles and policies they favor are worth supporting.

Homer Simpson doesn’t care for details. Marge can only care so much, given her many other concerns. So for every message about every issue, the contents need to go through a filter to make sure they’ll resonate. That filter includes the following provisions:

  • Get the attention of the Homer and Marge Simpsons of the world, but do it in a way that doesn’t shame or denigrate them for not supporting the message in the first place

  • Don’t assume that the Homer and Marge Simpsons of the world are racist, ignorant, or misogynistic and presume, by default, that they are decent people who just want to get by

  • Keep the message incredibly simple in that if it can’t fit into a commercial between a football game, then Homer and Marge aren’t going to care enough about it

  • Craft the message in a way that appeals to the feelings of Homer and Marge as appealing to emotions is the primary method of generating interest

  • Keep the facts secondary, but never let them be tertiary because in the long run, substance will help strengthen the emotions

  • Make sure the simple, emotional message inspires hope because Homer and Marge are more likely to support something that makes them feel hopeful

  • Link the more complex issues in your message with the simpler issues that affect Homer and Marge directly, ensuring they can associate these issues with their own lives

  • Avoid using language and rhetoric that Homer and Marge don’t understand or makes them feel alienated from those you want them to support

  • The message shouldn’t require that Homer and Marge change who they are, but it should make them want to be better

There are probably many more components to this filter that I haven’t articulated yet. Like Caveman Logic, I hope to refine it in future posts. In following the events of the Women’s March and the issues that will likely be more prominent over the next four years, the Simpson Filter will be a good way of revealing how successful or how flawed a message is.

At the end of the day, how right or valid your message is can only ever be secondary. If it fails to resonate or convince anyone, then it has as much impact as a history lecture by Ben Stein.

It’s an unfortunate, but unavoidable aspect of the human species. It’s not enough to be right or moral. You still have to communicate that message in a way that gets flawed, uninformed, and sometimes misguided humans on your side. If you can’t get Homer and Marge Simpson on your side, then your message has no chance.

9 Comments

Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights