Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Simpsons' Gay-Marriage Episode

The media and the blogosphere are abuzz about tonight's episode of The Simpsons, in which a character comes out of the closet and gets married in a same-sex ceremony. At the same time, Homer becomes a minister for the sole purpose of marrying gay couples, seen by the Springfield community as a good thing because it brings in tourist dollars.

As Jennifer Stuller noted in the University of Washington Daily:

"We're here, we're queer, get used to it." emphatically chant the participants in Springfield's annual Pride Parade.

"We are used to it," responds young Lisa Simpson as they pass by 742 Evergreen Terrace. "You do this every year."

Although everyone's favorite 8-year-old progressive is used to it, there has never been an openly gay character -- as a series regular -- on The Simpsons in its 16-year run. That all ends on Feb. 20, however, when someone comes out of the proverbial closet.

The Washington Times had a rather churlish reaction to the news (and not on the editorial page, but rather in Christian Toto's entertainment news compilation):
Having a character from a long-running show come out of the closet sounds like a "jump the shark" maneuver to us.

So it's sad to report that's the big news on this weekend's new installment of Fox's "The Simpsons."

Geeky Internet types the world over have been arguing just who will declare their homosexuality at 8 p.m. Sunday, but for true blue "Simpsons" fans the news will be greeted with a shrug.

It's yet another sign the once great show is settling for conventional sitcom gimmicks.

Jumping the shark? The Simpsons? Hardly. Since 1989, The Simpsons has been a remarkable reflection of popular culture. As University of Virginia English professor Paul Cantor put it in an interview with Stephen W. Carson:
That we see in the Simpsons that these people in a little American small town are in touch with India and Albania and have been all over the world and all the world comes to them. I think that actually captures something about the texture of American life in the 1990s, actually something very positive.

Cantor, author of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, which discusses The Simpsons at length, explained his view of how the series remains fresh and relevant:
One thing I try to show is that even if the work isn’t intentionally conservative or libertarian it can be used for those purposes. Or at least to open up questions. The Simpsons is my prime example of that. I know it’s mostly written by Harvard graduates. You can tell that the creators of the show are largely left-wing, or at least liberal, in their sympathies. Nevertheless, they are equal opportunity satirists. They can’t resist satirizing everybody so they attack the first George Bush for many years, eventually they went after Clinton. So, in just needing to be even handed it ends up skewering a lot of left wing pieties. I analyze that at length in my book. I tried to show that many of the issues the show raises are issues, particularly that I think libertarians are interested in.

The show ends up debunking the nation state and defending the local things. The most positive lesson of the show is that small is good. The family is good, the small town is good. It even shows that the church is good. Its general message is: the bigger government is, the worse it is. Even though it makes fun of the small town, clearly the small town institutions are preferable to all these distant bureaucratic arms of the state like the IRS and the FBI.

Q: They’re more stupid than evil.

A: Yeah, the local is more stupid than evil. The national is evil. An interesting thing is that you can get students talking about important issues by getting them talking about the Simpsons. I was particularly struck by how much students can articulate about their feelings about the nuclear family and the threats to it by talking about the Simpsons.

Q: That’s just what conservatives have been talking about.

A: Yes! My first lesson to conservatives... You are condemning this show for undermining the nuclear family. It’s the last bastion of the nuclear family on television. At the time it came out, it was after a decade when all sorts of alternatives to the nuclear family were being held up on television. The Simpsons marked a kind of return to the nuclear family. It turned out to be a significant portent in that sense. Now the Simpsons has been embraced. One of the things I pointed out is that it showed that religion has a place in average, daily, ordinary American life in a way that television had been denying for years.

Q: My father’s a pastor. My parents always talked about that. If you just watched our TV and movies, you’d think that no one in this country goes to church... Except to do something terrible.

A: Yeah, religious people are either total saints or they’re completely deranged, fundamentalist maniacs. And here’s Homer Simpson, absolutely average Joe, and he goes to church and it’s meaningful to him. He’s not the most pious guy, yet...

I really took the lead on that. I think I was the first person to go into print and now Mark Pinsky from the Orlando Sentinel [and Tony Campolo] has written a book called The Gospel According to The Simpsons.

This week, the public radio program Studio 360, hosted by Kurt Andersen, features a segment on gay TV characters, with the hook being the same-sex marriage episode of The Simpsons scheduled for this Sunday evening.

A transcript of the segment, which is 98% an interview with playwright Paul Rudnick, can be found here. (If, however, you prefer to listen to the segment instead, you can click on "Queer Eye for the TV Guide" at the "Studio 360" web site.)

Toward the end of the interview, host Kurt Andersen asks Rudnick, "And as we look forward in the next five or ten or twenty years, other than it coming to seem ever more normal - which I presume you would find desirable - are there place that Gay TV ought to go that would please you, that hasn't been done so far?"

Rudnick, who wrote The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told and Jeffrey, among other works, replies:

Space. (Laughs) I think actually on all the Star Trek shows there are characters that are rumored to be gay, often the strange robot or inter-planetary characters. But it's interesting, sort of superheroes, although now in the comic book world there are actually a batch of gay superheroes, so the barriers are crumbling all over. It will be interesting to see what develops. It's funny, in the world of literature, in books like Kavalier and Clay, gay characters are now more than commonplace. In The Corrections, one of the main characters was a lesbian, so it just feels like that barn door has now been so removed from its hinges that gay characters will no longer be seen as just specialty items.

The Simpsons' gay wedding episode will emphatically not see the series jump the shark. It will be just one more day in Springfield, one more day in America. And The Simpsons will go on.

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