Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every month, host Willa Paskin takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speaks with experts, historians, and obsessives to try to figure out where it comes from, what it means, and why it matters.
As soon as Bart Simpson and his family premiered on television, they became overnight celebrities as well as targets in the then-fresh culture war. Bart Simpson T-shirts were banned, Bart was used as Gulf War propaganda, and George H.W. Bush attacked The Simpsons at the Republican National Convention. Today, these events seem hilariously quaint, but at the time, The Simpsons was a major sea change in how society thinks about television as a prescriptive art form—whether what Bart Simpson does is what we want our own children to do. We talk to critics, experts, and showrunners from The Simpsons to try to understand why this panic happened at the moment it did and why the show stirred so much controversy in the first place.
Among the people we talked to in this episode are: Phillip Cunningham, assistant professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University; Jonathan Gray, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison; Ross Haenfler, associate professor of sociology at Grinnell College; Al Jean, current showrunner of the Simpsons; Hari Kondabolu, comedian; Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University; Bill Oakley, Simpsons writer; Nancy Overfield, former head of marketing at J. C. Penney; and Alissa Wilkinson, film critic at Vox.
This episode was written by Willa Paskin and edited and produced by Benjamin Frisch.