Those were the days

Social satire has become fodder for television cartoons.

Jenny Phan

Cartoons have gone utterly wrong somewhere.

Decades ago, children would crowd around their surrogate parent, the television, and learn as Yogi Bear or the Fantastic Four taught children about the world outside the walls that crowded their living space. Though bears don’t wear hats and ties, and men don’t have super-powers, these characters were bent on creating a better society with their skills. They struggled to be something beyond human. Not to mention promoting spandex outfits.

Then the goals of cartoons took a wicked turn toward senselessness. “Ren and Stimpy” and “Beavis and Butthead” came to the scene and showed how stupidity can be bigger than life as they destroyed one another through ridiculous antics and prompted little children to set one another alight.

Today we see SpongeBob SquarePants, with his greenish acne, striving to be employee of the month in an underwater kitchen. What does this teach children? It teaches them that a major goal in life is to cultivate a good work ethic, be a good dresser and strive to be recognized within an institution. It won’t be long till these shows are canned.

Only one television cartoon show can easily outdo this pabulum: “The Simpsons.”

“The Simpsons” was created in 1987 by Matt Groening as an occasional interstitial feature on “The Tracey Ullman Show.” In 1999, the now-familiar half-hour sitcom was named as Time magazine’s best TV show of the century.

“The Simpsons” is the one television cartoon show that can survive changing social ideals and requirements in entertainment.

With the newest “Treehouse of Horror” episode, which aired Sunday, “The Simpsons” has shown it can survive the march of time by surprising viewers with another fantastically organized, noncanonical Halloween special.

In the episod, Homer kills the Grim Reaper and is forced to assume the role. This is a fine example of the series’ penchant for satire and iconoclasm. Any average Joe would know that Homer should have no right to decide what to put in a microwave, much less who should live or die, yet the Almighty appoints him destroyer of worlds.

The major reason “The Simpsons” has survived and needs to survive is its ability to bring existing problems to the surface through exaggeration and vulgar humor. The series brings normality itself into question.

In an all-out dazzling rampage of extremes, “The Simpsons” shows the stereotypical American nuclear family through a variety of situations, which leads its audience to compare and contrast our society’s norms with those of the Springfield, USA.

Of course, we don’t have yellow, spiky hair. And thankfully, we eventually leave second and fourth grade, unlike Lisa and Bart. But we do see our own mores in the nuclear family that throws grandpa out to the retirement home as soon as we get the chance.

All societies have set up a norm: a set of rules and guidelines created through an implied collective agreement between members of the society that one thing is right and another is wrong.

“The Simpsons” questions these norms by displaying that societal negatives are actually, in some ways, positive. For example, Homer is the average drunkard who goes to work but does nothing. He drinks, gambles and eats like a madman. He is what many people would consider an idiot.

But the difference is that he assumes no consequences and is not punished for his stupidity; instead he is set up as the norm. His life is a joke, but he survives and lives happily as long he has the bare necessities of life: food and more food. He requires little else.

In an exceptionally trenchant episode, Homer was approached by the devil and asked if he would sell his soul for a doughnut. After clarifying what toppings were on the doughnut, Homer handed over his soul to the devil, who had the features of Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ holier-than-thou neighbor.

The simplicities of this one scene bring capitalism, religion and culture into the foreground. The idea of your soul having monetary value is only meaningful within a capitalist belief system. Different religions have different definitions of good and evil, and culture decides which religions will be chosen as models. These ideas form the base of our society, and the Simpson family sets out to question these categories.

Everyone else orbits Homer. The other characters are compared to Homer and at the same time have more American traits ascribed to them. Marge is the reliable housewife who ties the family together. Lisa is the child genius who excels in everything that her brother does not. Bart, the brother, is the troublemaker who always seems to bring problems.

“The Simpsons” creates a space for those who do not fit the categories defined by society. Through its comparisons, the characters show how our society’s values might be poorly idealized and how they could be adjusted. The basis of our society is mocked, and the Simpsons’ lifestyle is placed in a context where the consequences are minor and the bare necessities are idealized. Though it drags our ideals through the mud sometimes, “The Simpsons” offers a critique wholly concerned with helping our society change for the better.