Animation, I believe, is art’s most revealing medium. Like all scripted entertainment, cartoons can tell insightful stories informed by the observations and experiences of their writers, but it’s the unique visual demands of animation that give it unparalleled cultural power. Since nothing in a cartoon exists naturally — every character, prop, or setting, no matter how fleeting or minor, must be invented from scratch — a good work of animation can reveal, through stylized recreation, the fullness of its subject in a way no other art can.
The Simpsons is a cartoon about life in the United States that last week achieved the heroic distinction of being the longest-running television series of all time, whether measured by years on the air or by episodes produced. Even if the show were not as hilarious as it is, or as sharply written, or as visually imaginative, it would remain the quintessential artifact of modern American culture — merely by virtue of the sheer number of times it has recreated the iconic experiences of American life in a way Americans have found relatable.
Playing Japanese video games as a child, I remember being struck by how many curious tropes seemed to consistently reoccur — say, how popsicles were always blue, or how this cyclops umbrella monster seemed to show up a lot. It was only after I went to Japan years later that I was able to fully appreciate how much of what originally struck me as deliberately bizarre was just shorthand for things everyone in the country took for granted: blue popsicles were the dominant brand, cyclops umbrella monsters had served as generic goblins since Samurai times, etc. In short, much of the weirdness was never intended to be such; it simply mirrored common cultural knowledge that appeared alien to outsiders.
It’s easy to take for granted the degree The Simpsons performs this function for our own society. How so many of its goofball characters, settings, and plot premises exist as stylized caricatures of familiar aspects of American life that collectively form the distinctive essence of American culture as commonly lived.
Lisa Simpson loves jazz. The family attends a generically Protestant Sunday service. The driver of the yellow school bus is a burnout metalhead. Marge’s useless sisters are surly DMV clerks. The obese, breakfast-burrito-eating comic-book guy has an Asian girlfriend.
The Simpsons have dabbled in every American sport, from company softball to YMCA basketball to ladies’ bodybuilding. They’ve sampled indigenous food from five-alarm chili at outdoor cook-offs to pizza fingers at a family restaurant boasting “good food, good fun, and a whole lotta crazy crap on the walls.” They’ve known hillbillies, hippies, disco studs, and oil barons, and have been preached at by Jehovah’s Witnesses, tent preachers, and a Scientology-esque cult. They’ve visited Hollywood, New York, and Amish country. They’ve joined the Navy, gone trick-or-treating, and been abducted by flying saucers. They’ve attended PTA meetings, elected congressmen, taken membership in the NRA, and been infiltrated by Eastern-bloc spies.
No social, political, or technological development that has hit America over the last 30 years has gone unnoticed or unrepresented. Presidents have rotated, the Internet has risen, characters have come out of the closet, others have turned politically incorrect.
The series has aired for so long it’s even starting to become a museum of American anachronism: Krusty the Clown is a subversion of a style of children’s entertainment that hasn’t existed for ages, as are Itchy and Scratchy. The fact that wicked Mr. Burns is head of a nuclear power plant is a dated remnant of the anti-nuke hysteria of the 1980s. Given their stagnant ages in the show’s always-current setting, it is increasingly implausible that Grandpa Simpson fought for the Allies in World War II and Principal Skinner served in Vietnam, yet writers have said they intend to keep vet status part of their official biographies because it adds so much to their character.
It is a portrait of a flawed country, but if the show makes one consistent argument, it’s that plenty of good comes in flawed packages.
The Simpsons’ ambitious premise, simply to tell as many tales of American life as possible, also helps explain why the series is a great deal less overtly progressive in its politics than are so many other works of American pop culture. It is not a show inclined to lie by omission or only tell half the story — a recent episode featuring Burns visiting his alma mater was as much a mockery of the softness of the contemporary campus Left as of Burns’s extreme Republicanism (“You’re worse than Hitler!” cries a triggered student after Burns calls him a “fellow”; Burns replies by waving him off — “too late for flattery.”) While The Simpsons has been framed as cynical, or even nihilistic, its commitment to genuine satire and social commentary has made it one of the most compellingly honest warts-and-all depictions of America. It is a portrait of a flawed country, but if the show makes one consistent argument, it’s that plenty of good comes in flawed packages.
I don’t identify as a “nationalist” but rather something akin to a “culturalist,” in the sense that I believe sustaining strong communities of confident citizens with a clear sense of identity and purpose requires conscious effort to observe, appreciate, defend, and strengthen the characteristics of daily life — even the subtle or mundane ones — that define a people’s shared experiences. Observation, however, is the part of this equation that is too often lost, as even those who profess an agenda of cultural preservation frequently become too romantic, abstract, or jaded to accurately recognize what their community is actually like, what makes it unique, and what about it deserves love or repair.
For three decades The Simpsons has helped Americans answer these questions. It will be many decades more before they encounter a comparably comprehensive guide to themselves.