The Simpsons. . .Christian role models?
February 2002 – Ten-year-old Bart Simpson sailed into his 13th season last fall with 14 million fans and a cheerleading squad of Christian and conservative commentators. It seems the irreverent little rebel of Fox’s The Simpsons sitcom has captured their hearts lock, stock, and barrel.
It took more than a decade, but writers who have jumped on Bart’s bandwagon include Frederica Mathewes-Green in her regular column; Barbara Curtis in The Plain Truth magazine, Mark Pinsky in Christianity Today, and Tony Campolo in his foreword to Pinsky’s book on the series.
AFA reviewers, however, find Bart Simpson and company sadly lacking in their handling of family and moral values. The cheerleaders must have missed a few games. Major players in the 30-minute animated series include the clueless Homer and Marge Simpson; their children Bart, Lisa (about 7) and baby Maggie; Ned Flanders, next-door widower and “super Christian,” and his children; and Rev. Lovejoy, the boring, apathetic pastor.
Granted The Simpsons’ characters are intentional caricatures, the writing is often clever, and the satire is sometimes amusing. But politically correct themes, frequent profanity (especially by Bart), and unresolved moral issues abound, wiping out whatever positive impact a given episode might have offered.
Pinsky is religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel. Last year, he authored The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family. In an October 6 interview with Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Pinsky said, “...I found most of the sexual references went over [my children’s] heads, and most were between husband and wife. I found nothing objectionable as far as my children were concerned.”
Campolo wrote in his foreword to Pinsky’s book, “As an evangelical Christian, I find that The Simpsons provides me with a mirror that reflects my own religious life. … the Simpsons are basically a decent American family with good values.”
“As a religion writer,” said Pinsky, “I noticed how favorable and frequent were the references to God, faith, and spirituality.” Ironically, Pinsky, who describes himself as a “committed Jew,” is now working with Westminster John Knox Press on a Simpsons Sunday school curriculum.
It is difficult to perceive how viewers extract positive moral lessons and good role models from The Simpsons. In the series, prayer and faith are taken lightly, usually bordering on mockery and often clearly crossing the line into outright disrespect. Through the years, Homer Simpson’s boozing ways have been the subject of much “humor.” Furthermore, he is clearly not the spiritual leader in the Simpson home; that honor is shared by his wife and 7-year-old Lisa.
Flanders, the goody-goody Christian, is often the butt of ugly jokes and, though strong in his faith, is basically a simpleton. Bart Simpson is without doubt prime-time’s most foul-mouthed 10-year-old. Still, Pinsky and friends cite several positives they claim to find in the series.
Claim #1: Sexual references go over kids’ heads.
According to Pinsky, his eight- and 11-year-old children don’t catch the sexual innuendoes which frequent The Simpsons. It’s hard to miss something like Homer’s hiring a homosexual secretary who kisses Homer on the mouth (June 6, 1991). That episode began a pattern of upholding homosexual activism. Jokes insinuate homosexual conduct between Bart and his friend Milhouse in the September 27, 1998, episode.
In the February 16, 1997, episode Homer overcomes his homophobic attitude, then assures Bart, “Any way you choose to live your life is okay with me.” Are those things “over the head” of today’s 11-year-old?
Claim #2: There is no objectionable content for kids.
Bart’s persistent use of gutter language is enough in itself to refute this argument. And there’s a lot of it, and much more: August 12, 1990 – Bart uses profanity, and he and Lisa take money from their mother’s purse; February 3, 1991 – A man asks, “...what’s your name, son?” Bart retorts, “I’m Bart Simpson! Who the he-- are you!?”April 18, 1991 – He uses profanity and curses at his dad; May 16, 1991 – Bart curses in the lyrics of a song he and Lisa sing.
February 21, 1991 – Bart and Homer both use the word bast---, and Bart makes up a chant using the word repeatedly. His parents are either helpless or apathetic, never even trying to control or discipline him; September 10, 1992 – Homer takes Bart and a friend to a rock concert where Bart mimics the band’s salute to the devil: “We salute you, our Dark Lord;” February 21, 1993 – Homer coaches Lisa and Bart on how to lie about their age at the ticket booth to an amusement park. At the park, the kids join in a chorus of “Duff Beer for me, Duff Beer for you; I’ll have a Duff, you have one, too!” Seven-year-old Lisa gets drunk; September 27, 1998 – Bart’s friend Nelson steals carnival tickets to redeem them for a prize. More often than not, these kinds of behavior produce no negative consequences.
Claim #3: References to God, faith, and prayer are favorable.
While prayer is not uncommon in the series, it is certainly not treated respectfully. For example, the February 3, 1991, episode had Bart saying grace at the table: “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing!” In another episode, December 29, 1996, Marge prays for an end to a storm. When it abruptly ends, Homer gloats, “He fell for it!” When Ned’s home is destroyed in the storm, the Christian goes berserk, curses his neighbors and is committed to a mental hospital.
In the February 13, 1992, episode, Flanders is upset that his son learned profanity from Homer. When Flanders calls the pastor to discuss the problem, Rev. Lovejoy curses at Flanders. The minister is consistently a bore and a self-serving hypocrite.
Claim #4: The show reflects how Christians really live their faith.
Pinsky says, “It more accurately reflects the faith lives of Americans than any other show.…” Consider these examples: On March 17, 1994, super-Christian Ned goes ballistic and interrupts a worship service, screaming at Homer (who’s snoring), “Breathe through your da-- mouth!” In the February 10, 1999, show, Ned asks Homer to help him give in to temptation. Homer takes him to Las Vegas where they gamble, get drunk and marry two showgirls. Homer uses a Bible reference as a number for betting at the roulette wheel, wins and says, “The Bible’s finally pulling its weight.”
In a fantasy sequence on the December 5, 1999, episode, the Simpsons exit church to discover the Rapture in progress. Lisa begins to ascend toward heaven, but Homer grabs her and demands, “Where do you think you’re going, Missy!?” The whole family then descends the stairway into the flames of hell, laughing all the way.
Claim #5: The show is pro-family, and morality usually triumphs.
In an August 23, 1990, scene, Bart and friends spend Sunday afternoon reading porn magazines, shoplifting and throwing rocks at a statue in the park. Homer tells his son, “Being popular is the most important thing in the world.” Lisa performs miserably at the school talent show in the November 7, 1991, episode – because Dad stopped by the bar for a few drinks before bringing the reed she needed for her horn. On November 12, 1992, Marge delivers a “Welcome Wagon” basket to new neighbors, including an XXX video for the man of the house. In the same episode, Homer gets drunk while trying to talk to Bart about sex. And on June 6, 1999, Homer gets drunk and crashes his car. Awakening the next day, he remembers none of the episode.
The case for The Simpsons as a vehicle for teaching moral values is weak indeed, when one looks at the big picture. The very nature of a sitcom makes it an unlikely candidate to be a morality tale. It has to try to be “funny” again next week, and on prime-time TV, hardly anything is funnier than sin.
Does anyone really believe children clamor to watch The Simpsons so they can learn a moral lesson or find positive role models? No, the role model that draws them to the show is the rebellious, disrespectful, trash-mouthed Bart, the series’ central figure.
Yes, there may be occasional episodes in which a moral victory is evident. But it is certain that the next week, the characters will muddle through the same or similar dilemmas, apparently having learned nothing from experience.
Perhaps commentators are grasping at straws in search of pop culture icons to impart the faith. It is a worthy goal to try to build a bridge between faith and culture. But The Simpsons is not that bridge. Somewhere in the prime-time haystack, there may be a prize needle to find, but The Simpsons is only another straw that will be blown away by the winds of Truth.