Friday, January 08, 2010

Are The Simpsons Finally Part of the Establishment?

After twenty years, are The Simpsons finally becoming like that which they've mercilessly lampooned: Disney?

"Homer Vs. Mickey," an article on The Economist's More Intelligent Life website, traces the development of The Simpsons from counter-cultural gadflies to entertainment icons. A lot of the Simpsons aesthetic was consciously built in opposition to that of the Disney "look" and "feel" – but 20 years (and massive stardom and licensing) later, is the Simpsons brand really that different?

At the same time, the article points out, many of Disney's own properties have developed a self-reflective sense of humor about themselves that rivals even The Simpsons' own gags:

"In 2007 Disney made fun of its own saccharine tradition of animated princesses with the brilliant “Enchanted”, whose heroine enlists the help of a swarm of cockroaches, rats and pigeons to clean a New York apartment. This was a much funnier take on Disney woodland animals than the sequence in “The Simpsons Movie” where Disney-ish animals watch, appalled, as Marge and Homer have sex."

Moreover, while even the classic Disney animated features tackle tough subject matter such as dying parents and the struggles of growing up, the characters on The Simpsons have stayed exactly the same:

"There’s something comforting about the way no one in Springfield ever changes or ages. Disney loves to tangle with the travails of growing up: Mowgli, Hercules and Tarzan are all like the heroes of earnest bildungsromans, forging the difficult path to manhood. The Simpsons have no such struggles. No matter how many dramas happen to them–kidnap, imprisonment, nuclear meltdown–Bart is always ten, Lisa eight and Maggie a baby."

What do you think? Is The Simpsons a shade of its former rebellious self? Do you prefer Marge or Mrs. Incredible? Do you have more Disney or Simpsons collectables in your house? Or have you simply given up on all of it and stick with The Venture Bros.?


  1. ...the Simpsons are still on?!?

  2. The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios is the Best. Simulator. Ride. EVER.

    Way better than anything at Disneyland/world. Seriously. It actually makes you part of a Simpsons episode.

  3. Like SNL, when it comes to being subversive or edgy, it depends on whether you judge things on an absolute scale or a relative scale.

    Comparing new shows to older shows, it is no less iconoclastic or edgy than it was. However, changes in society including Disney films having more mockingly self-referential bits, a growth of other satirical animated shows, and a culture that has grown to love and accept them means that on a relative scale the Simpsons is far less edgy than it used to be.

  4. Honestly, I don't care if the Simpsons are cutting edge, hip, square, or part of the establishment; I never did. I watched, and still watch, because they are funny (yes, funny -- the last two seasons have been far superior to the dreck from season 10-18).

  5. I think it's less about The Simpsons place in pop culture than the way society has changed around The Simpsons in the last 20 years.

    When the show premiered, Homer and his clan were a decidedly dysfunctional family, cut from the same cloth as those on Married ... with Children or Roseanne. (There are huge differences between the families on those shows and the shows themselves, but they were emblematically dysfunctional.) Twenty years later, the Simpsons are a model of a functioning family — one that repeatedly overcomes adversity and their own failings to stay together.

    The Simpsons family dynamic hasn't changed, but American society sure has.

  6. The Simpsons are undeniable mainstream. About two years ago I read a very cheese full-page article in a major newspaper how awesome the Simpsons are. The sheer fanboy-attitude was painful. From that moment on I knew Simpsons had lost it. When establishment recognises you, you are establishment, and you have been for at least a decade.

  7. Anonymous5:26 PM

    Last Halloween, I was at Universal and I walked past the Simpsons Ride. I thought that I had been transported to some weird Stephen King movie due to the odd 20-foot Krusty Land entry-display. It was all lit up amongst the ghouls and it was an awesome sight.

  8. How can any single television property ever equal the towering might that is Disney?

    I guess if you want to find a thematic similarity, then you can argue that The Simpsons and Disney both have had ups and downs, based on how tired or formulaic their delivery has been, but that's the closest you can get.

    And Disney has had multiple highs and lows. Much has been said of the devastating mid-1980's, when box office disappointments like The Black Cauldron almost sunk them.

    Same thing wound up happening again, however, in the mid-90's as Pixar became ascendant.

    Anyway, no matter what, Disney is a monolithic brand, and is notoriously controlling. Don't see the correlation.