S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
S3: I have to tell you just initially how I even got involved in early 1989 Nancy overfilled was the head of marketing and special events for the children’s division of J.C. Penney.
S2: So I went to Toy Fair in New York. I was young and ignorant. So I went into the toy building got in the elevator. Oh my gosh it’s like how many hundreds of people can fit in one elevator at one time after it had stopped looking about 10 floors on one floor. The doors opened and there’s costumed characters hand came into the elevator to stop it right is it it was almost closing which annoyed all of us. And then the hand came back and the door closed. I looked at the guy next to me and I said What in the world was that. And he said oh it’s a character called Parkinson.
S4: Bart and his family were still relatively unknown. They had only appeared in short segments on The Tracey Ullman Show a critically acclaimed but low rated variety series airing on the then new FOX network. But ten months after Nancy overfilled some Bart in an elevator the Simpsons premiered in primetime and the spiky haired smart mouth. Bart was suddenly everywhere. Mr. boost.
S5: Literacy I don’t recall any letters. I forgot to use the Simpsons.
S6: It was Fox’s first surreal hit a ratings smash but it was also a merchandising machine.
S3: Do you have a sense of like. Like how. How much was the Simpsons stuff selling.
S7: Oh my God.
S2: During its heyday I mean millions of dollars. It was the biggest thing out there.
S8: In 1990 an estimated 15 million baht T-shirts were sold shirts that had Bart saying things like don’t have a cow man. And I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you. One in particular showed Bart pointing a slingshot and whoever was looking at the T-shirt while he was standing underneath the word underachiever in quotes saying and proud of it man.
S2: Things are going on fine. Then they come out with an underachiever T-shirt and.
S9: It was amazing. I really hadn’t fully experienced the wrath of customers. Were you getting letters like what was your letter.
S2: Oh my gosh. People to our credit project get a credit card. This grandmother called me to tell me that I was cooling kids. She explained to me that kids are going to do what Bart Simpson says and if he’s an underachiever and he is sending that message they of course are not going to try in school which means they won’t graduate which means they’re going to turn to drugs and then they were overdosing. Wow. OK. They were outraged that we would bring in something that sent a negative message to kids.
S6: This is decoder ring. A show about cracking cultural mysteries. I’m Willa Paskin. Every month we take on a cultural question habit or idea. Crack it open and try to figure out what it means and why it matters. In 1989 America came down with bar fever way more obnoxious badly behaved and oddly given that he was a four fingered cartoon more realistic than a smart Alex of sitcoms past. Bart won over the youth of this nation. Me included I was in elementary school and the Simpsons premiered and I desperately wanted a BART shirt not because I loved the show so much. I didn’t even watch it because he was just that cool. But not everybody liked Bart or the Simpsons provocative attitude quite so much. It wasn’t just J.C. Penney that was getting phone calls from aggrieved grandmothers. The Simpsons Bart and his T-shirts briefly became a chip in the culture wars banned in some schools and department stores and held up by the most powerful people in the country. As an example of America gone wrong. 30 years later getting upset about Bart Simpson his fresh language lackluster attitude and minor rebellions seems impossibly quaint. I mean if only we were fighting about whether it was appropriate to print h e double hockey sticks on a kid’s T-shirt. But what’s not so quaint is what’s lurking underneath the BART panic a set of ideas anxieties in this case about pop culture’s prescriptive powers its ability to shape the world just by showing it to us. So today on decoder ring a surprisingly complicated history who is afraid of Bart Simpson. We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family to make American families a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.
S3: That’s President George H.W. Bush speaking at a rally at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Months before he would lose his bid for a second term to Bill Clinton at the time of this speech the Simpsons had been on the air for three years averaging over 20 million viewers a week. It was Fox’s first top 10 show its first top 30 show even if had been on the cover of Newsweek Time and Rolling Stone and already won a pair of Emmys. Bart brilliantly voiced by Nancy Cartwright was the breakout star and he’s old countless pieces of official and bootleg merchandise not just shirts but toothpaste pinball machines snow boots Butterfingers and talking Bach dolls. The show was such a sensation that a 1990 record called The Simpsons sing the blues went to number three on the Billboard charts. Led by do the Bartman which featured a backup vocals by Michael Jackson fan of the show. As.
S10: Though the Simpsons was boundary pushing and irreverent Bard.
S11: Would you like to say grace. Dear God we pay for all this stuff ourselves thanks for nothing.
S6: It was also a show about an intact churchgoing nuclear family where the father works the mom stays at home and everyone eats dinner together. I mean they are trying to get their kids to say grace.
S3: But here was a president of the United States attacking it anyway as an example of a degraded and degrading American family. Bush wasn’t the only one. William J. Bennett the national drug czar had walked into a rehab center seen a poster of the Simpsons and ad libbed. You guys aren’t watching the Simpsons are you. That’s not going to help you. First Lady Barbara Bush had called the show the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.
S12: Though her stance had softened after Marge Simpson had written her a letter in response principles all over the country had banned Bart Simpson charts for containing the word hell and potentially making underachiever a. aspirational.
S13: This time it is Bart’s wise cracking t shirts that are in trouble. This one has been expelled from some schools for its profanity. Another underachiever and proud of it has been kicked out of classes from Orange California to Fremont Ohio. Reaction to the T-shirt Tempest is mixed.
S14: It’s just a cartoon and we won’t act like it since if you’re underachieving you shouldn’t be proud of it.
S8: And there are plenty of parents not conservative ones even who are a little wary of Bart’s fresh mouth. In my recollection my mother does not corroborate this version of events by the way. I wasn’t allowed to get the Bart T-shirt I wanted he says. Eat my shorts and had to settle very disappointingly for one year he says. Calla bunga dude while hanging 10. I rarely wore it Bush in insulting the Simpsons was drawing on all of this. The way the show had become in certain circles a shorthand for how popular culture was leading the American family astray to begin to understand how the Simpsons. Now an American institution could ever have seemed like such an alarmingly bad influence. I’m going to first look at the network. It was airing on because the story of the Simpsons is also the story of Fox the Fox broadcasting company co-founded by Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller began airing its first primetime series on Sunday nights in April of 1987.
S15: At the time ABC CBS and NBC dominated television and previous attempts to create a fourth network had failed Fox at the start was operating at a deficit. It was only available in 80 percent of homes. It was never going to be able to beat the big three networks who were richer and more established at their own game.
S1: So it decided to counter program long before cable and Netflix Fox started out by trying to find a niche Fox when they launch have a pretty bold interesting strategy of thinking that they’re not going to be a big umbrella. They’re going to go after a very specific demographic.
S8: Jonathan Gray is a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison and he wrote a book about The Simpsons.
S1: Rather than just sort of gently going after that demographic they’re going to actively exclude and sort of capitalize upon the exclusion of other demographic and what demographic is that like what do you oh older boring people. I mean outdoor that’s where they’re excluding and where they’re going after sort of younger folk who who get it who are sick and tired of the big ten. Gentle humor who wants an edge.
S3: It’s really going after that group and what that means is it’s sending clear messages that it just doesn’t care about a parental group disdain for the parental group was very much on display in Fox’s first two primetime series one of which was the raunchy comedy married with children which thumbed its nose like crazy at the uplifting family sitcom. The other was the Tracey Ullman Show which featured short interstitial videos of a googly eyed jerky drawn family called the Simpsons.
S16: Well good night son. Dad. What is the mind. Is it just a system of impulses or is it something tangible.
S12: Relax. Given how famous the characters are and how widely its style has been adopted it’s really hard to understand how new the Simpsons was when it first premiered. But when it arrived it was unprecedented. For one thing it was a cartoon. The last cartoon to Aaron primetime had been the Flintstones from 1960 to 1966 which needless to say had a very different vibe. The Simpsons in contrast was edgy adult referential satirical A.R. earnest and it assumed the people watching at home could keep up.
S8: Hari Kondabolu is a comedian and he grew up loving the Simpsons.
S17: There was one thing where the episode where I remember like Lisa was talking about Pablo Neruda Pablo Neruda said laugh giving us the language of the show.
S11: I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda and it’s just stuff like that.
S17: Like it was just so you felt cool kind of being on the inside even if you didn’t know the references you wanted to know the references it made it OK to have an inside joke.
S18: It made you want to learn more about the show.
S3: It was also uniquely disrespectful on the Simpsons. The powers that be could be stupid or worse. It was skeptical of everything Dad’s principals bosses religion and the TV sitcom itself but I’ve stumbled upon the most delicious British sitcom you shot up.
S19: It’s about a hard drinking yet loving family of soccer hooligans. If they’re not having a go with a bird they’re having a row with a wanker.
S20: There was nothing like that on prime time TV or late night TV.
S8: Bill Oakley a comedy writer became a staff writer on the Simpsons in its third season and was co showrunner of Season 7 and 8.
S20: This is what is very hard to remember. Most sitcoms were extremely corny and formulaic. Television was there was not caring at all and it was all about really formulaic things about like you know like respecting your father and the family and not using profanity and there was a mess no rules.
S3: The 1980s generally speaking was a time of cute tame middle class family shows full of sage grown ups adorable equipping kids and neat moral lessons. There were dozens of series like this full house growing pains family matters but the best example was the dominant sitcom of the 1980s the Cosby show starring the affluent genteel loving African-American family the Huxtables. Instead of acting disappointed because I’m not like you maybe you can just accept who I am and love me anyway because of my son.
S21: The Simpsons along with married with children and Roseanne which began in 1988 on ABC was a direct challenge to the idealized family show.
S22: I think you’ll find that this will win you the respect of your family and friends respect.
S12: The Simpsons for one thing were not aspirational at all. In the fourth ever episode of the show Duffy dad Homer becomes so upset about his family’s embarrassing bad behavior that he brings them to a therapist.
S3: The therapist after trying everything including having the family administer electric shocks to each other gives up. He can’t fix them. They are unfixable. He eventually refund their money which of course they use to buy a new TV.
S5: Excuse me dear. Should we be heading down to the pawn shop to get our TV back.
S23: That piece of junk. Get it. We’re gonna get a new TV.
S3: Well he wanted screen real estate close to the conflict between the Simpsons and The Cosby Show was made explicit at the start of the Simpsons second season when Fox moved the show so that would air at exactly the same time as Cosby where it bested it in the overnight ratings. This story was a very big deal at the time. Like such a big deal I remember talking about it with my classmates. And that’s not because we were ratings obsessed 9 year olds but because it was everywhere.
S24: A business story but one freighted with meaning with the Simpsons finally take down the Cosby Show. It was a moment folks were like. It is almost like a fall campaign.
S8: Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke.
S24: We gave you this wholesome version of American family and it was multicultural and diverse and said you know we did Bart Simpson in the face off between the Simpsons and The Cosbys.
S3: Neither was understood entirely as affection. There were symbols and stand ins for the American family and here was the dysfunctional rude struggling Simpsons a thorn in the side a phony American idealism toppling the Huxtables the pinnacle of highly functional domesticity.
S8: Theo could eat Bart’s shorts George H.W. Bush’s remarks about the Simpsons would have been a lot more current if he’d used the Huxtables instead of the Waltons. He didn’t because for a number of reasons the Huxtables didn’t conjure the nostalgia vision of the American past. He was trying to ply his voters with the Waltons kind of.
S25: Period TV drama that aired in the 1970s the Waltons was about a large close white family in Virginia in the 1930s and 40s. It did not represent exactly what Bush wanted it to. For one thing much of it was set during the Depression and the Waltons went through lots of hard times. Bush was attributing to it a sunnier 1950s ish sensibility the vibe you do get from the most lasting thing about the series. The sequence in which the Waltons say good night to one another my mama not bad.
S26: At everyone and my daddy Goodnight children Goodnight Daddy.
S27: Professor Jonathan Gray again.
S28: I mean Bush is really trying to go to this sort of weird nostalgia for the 50s and I think weird because it’s a nostalgia that’s always kind of been based in fact upon sort of sitcoms and suggesting like believing that Leave It to Beaver actually is how things looked in the 50s which they didn’t.
S12: So yeah back in 1992 the president of the United States was saying that America’s future ought to be more like its past when the world looked a certain way. Families were still wholesome and respectful. And times were yes great.
S28: When people talk about how the nation was great it wasn’t great for all sorts of people. And the lie that was being told to us by a lot of these sitcoms is precisely what the Simpsons are making fun of. And I think that’s why the Simpsons could be recognized as threatening because what the Simpsons are saying is is not just that families don’t look like this but that they never looked like this in the Simpsons it was a rebellious show on a rebellious network challenging the way things have been done oddly. So was its merchandise.
S4: The Simpsons merchandising situation was not just robust it was unheard of. There have been some kids TV shows like teenage mutant ninja turtles that have sold a lot of merchandise but the Simpsons sold more to different kinds of people from different places of different ages of different backgrounds and a big chunk of that merchandise wasn’t even official product.
S7: I am a child of the late 80s early 90s that’s when I’m in high school actually Philip Cunningham is an assistant professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University and I am the owner.
S4: At that time of several the late Bart Simpson T-shirts at the height of Bart mania bootleg Bart Simpson T-shirts were everywhere. The most common of these reimagined Bart Simpson as a person of color Black Bart. There were T-shirts of Black Bart with Nelson Mandela of air Simpson of Bart Marley a Bart and Maggie in front of an outline of Africa under the heading. It’s cool being black.
S7: The ones I can definitely recall isn’t a hard one. Bart Simpson sort of just like Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. So you know he had the gold chain with the clock on it. I know I had this sort of roster Bart one that was fairly popular and that’s a welcome ones I can remember I’m sure ahead more. Did you have any legit like did you have any nylon. Well I had no absolutely had absolutely no legit Simpsons. None whatsoever.
S3: Black Bart T-shirts which now sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay were so popular that Simpson creator Matt Groening commented on the phenomenon. You have to have mixed feelings and are getting ripped off he said. But Barr is like Santa Claus. No one really knows what color he is.
S7: What is it about Bart that was appealing for example the flattop hairstyle. For example I mean I don’t want to overstate that. You know that the hairstyles and poor. But I had a very high flats up at that time so a reading him is you know white at that time was somewhat difficult because he wasn’t right. He was clearly yellow. So that was endearing but I think also just digital sense of rebelliousness he’s involved the skateboard culture. There’s no affinity towards hip hop at that time certainly. But he was into punk. You sort of get that again vibe of rebelliousness in that coalesces of course with the rise of really rebellious hip hop.
S12: At the time there was a huge deficit in TV representations of people of color black male teens had to make do with the guys from a different world. Theo Huxtable and Steve Urkel. So Black Bart was to some extent about scarcity about making the best a very paltry options. But Bart and The Simpsons did really seem to understand that authority could be corrupt stupid punitive that the system could be merciless and narrow minded enough to label a fourth grader an underachiever. The talking back to all of that more than just being cool could be truth telling. All of this which is why Bart was so threatening to the status quo in the first place is also why Bart looking like Flavor Flav on a T-shirt made some sense.
S7: He also knew what time it was and this is the one time I get suspended from school. I drew sort of Bart Simpson on my jeans and the Public Enemy symbol and so yeah that was being rebellious. That’s I mean you seem to fit perfectly. So you got you got suspended because of Bart. And yes. And Public Enemy. My only my own my only suspicion ever. So you’re like exactly what everyone’s worried about victims of the knew about. Exactly. Exactly. Low social panic occasionally pay they’ll be corrupt in a poorer Ohio industrial town boy.
S12: As with Bart himself there was some hand-wringing about Black Bart from within the black community. Articles about the phenomenon. I’ll quote someone who is worried that Black Bart like Bart is setting a bad example and some of the shirts it should be said look pretty offensive. One of the variations of the BART Marley shirts for example looks like a racist caricature. That wasn’t true of most of the bootleg stuff though. And Black Bart charts just like the official merchandise kept selling nothing ever got less cool for offending or alarming concern grown ups.
S8: After all Fox was of two minds about the whole thing. Unofficial merchandise lost them money but it did keep the show on the cutting edge so it was a good and it was bad.
S2: It really kept it relevant and edgy when we couldn’t be edgy.
S3: That’s Nancy overfilled again who through her work on the Simpsons with J.C. Penney ended up going to Fox very early in the Simpsons run where she oversaw the show’s licensing.
S2: It didn’t help add to the phenomenon.
S8: In fact Fox which was very canny about monetizing its black audience over the coming years would program towards black audiences even more directly incorporated elements of bootleg Barr into the official Bart merch and actually we use that very very thing to determine what some of our big sellers were going to be.
S2: And we actually used that information. It influenced some of our design our graphics and our market.
S3: Black Bart proved that Bart was so popular he had slipped the bounds of TV of ownership of officially licensed merchandise and he could belong to anyone and that included the members of America’s armed forces another popular subset of bootleg Bart merch was Persian Gulf Bart the Persian Gulf War which started in August of 1990 and ended six months later overlapped exactly with Bart mania Bart showed up on tanks there were T-shirts with him throttling Saddam Hussein of him peeing on a map of Iraq of him standing in a green gas mask saying go ahead Hussein have a cow Barb’s rebellious streak his distrust of authority of tyranny was here interpreted as patriotic jingoistic pluck a devil may care attitude and violent streak that could be put into the service of the U.S. of A Matt Groening disliked all of this.
S12: He told reporters that Bart was quote very opposed to the war but Persian Gulf. BART went all the way to the top anyway. In February of 1991 President Bush posed with a patriotic Bart Simpson figurine while sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. The BART doll dressed in camouflage and holding an American flag had been sent to a staff sergeant working on a base in Saudi Arabia by his grandmother who wanted to cheer him up. He’d passed it onto then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney would promise to bring it to the president.
S8: When it came across this picture I thought ha 18 months before Bush insulted the Simpsons at the RNC he was holding in his very hands proof that Bart had become so popular he could be used towards almost any political end including the president’s own. Another kind a politician would have leaned into that. Bush did not. So why didn’t Bush make Bart into his political ally. Why do you make him into an enemy.
S29: The answer in part is the religious right when I think of my youth as a child of the 80s I got the sense that everything was dangerous.
S8: Ross Handler is a professor of sociology at Grinnell College.
S29: You know heavy metal was gonna turn us into Satanists Dungeons and Dragons was gonna have us join a call. Rap music was gonna spark violence. Videogames were either gonna rot our bleep brains or turn us into violent thugs. And so the whole Simpson Show is coming out of this context where there’s all these fears about youth and this sense that pop culture can somehow be dangerous for youth.
S27: The 1980s was an anxious time. The overt chaos of the 1960s and 70s the civil rights movement the feminist movement the Vietnam war the anti-war movement Watergate had outwardly quieted down. And Ronald Reagan had been elected president by promising a kind of retrenchment a return to order to old fashioned American values. But despite it being Mourning in America there was still so much darkness. The AIDS crisis the continued threat of nuclear annihilation the crack epidemic a stagnant economy and the large scale changes happening to the structure of the American family with the rise of no fault divorce working mothers and single parent households.
S29: And so there are these kind of shifts going on in the society both culturally and economically that just make this feel like a kind of a dangerous time for kids. And so what happens then is rather than really account for these changes and somehow enact new policy and somehow pop culture is is to blame for all the social problems that people perceive panicking about pop culture’s influence on children is not new.
S3: In the 1950s for example a widespread fear that comic books full of horror noir and violence were making kids anti-social resulted in congressional hearings and the comic book industry regulating itself with a comic book code but stressing about pop culture’s impact on kids happened before the 1980s. It also happened a lot in the 1980s and 90s.
S12: It was an anxiety about what was happening to our children when we weren’t watching them but they were watching or listening or playing with something else.
S3: Heavy Metal Prince lyrics Ice tea songs 2 Live Crew Married With Children Marilyn Manson first person shooter games in the 1980s fears about parenting were commonly expressed in terms of latchkey kids kids who are coming home after school letting themselves into the house and being raised by the television. The problem was uninvolved parents. This is in stark contrast to now where the concern is the opposite. Helicopter parents who don’t give their kids any space at all. But ironically it was still easier for latchkey parents to see and comprehend whether kids were watching even if they caught it only in glimpses because it was for one a network TV show and for the other. Playing on a big TV that you know everybody could see media habits have changed so completely the kids can now watch screens anywhere and are often doing so alone. Whatever they’re watching is probably pretty incomprehensible to the adults in their lives anyway. And however popular it is compared to network days it’s totally niche not all of the bouts of parental anxiety in the 1980s rose to the level of full blown moral panics as the Satanic Panic did. Some like the one woman crusade against Married With Children seems sillier than others like the congressional threat to defund the National Endowment for the Arts.
S12: Some of these concerns were bipartisan. It was Tipper Gore the wife of then Democratic Senator Al Gore who led the charge to get a parental advisory sticker put on albums with explicit lyrics. After she listened to Princess Darling Nikki with her daughter she 6.
S10: Reinforcing a lot of this anxiety directly motivating and in some instances are just passively aligning with it in others with a heightened alarm about mainstream popular culture.
S3: There was particular to evangelical Christians who Ronald Reagan had recently brought into the Republican fold. Reagan had won the presidency in 1980 by broadening the conservative coalition to include evangelicals aligning himself with groups like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and James Dobson’s Focus on the family. Throughout the 1980s focus on the Family which was founded by Dobson in 1977 became among other things a trusted watchdog organization for evangelical families looking for guidance about mainstream popular culture of which the organization was extremely skeptical.
S30: Hollywood was this place where people were actively trying to indoctrinate your children with all of these terrible values of disrespect for parents and wanting to like swear and know smoke or something like that.
S3: Alissa Wilkinson is a film critic at Vox and she had an evangelical focus on the family kind of upbringing.
S30: It would have never occurred to me to ask to watch it because I just knew instinctively that wasn’t a thing we were going to do. People were worried that their kids were going to want to be like Bart and I think another big one was that Homer is depicted as kind of a sloppy you know loser guy. And I remember personally as a child hearing a lot about how all dads on TV were depicted as stupid and as worthless you know isn’t that discounting all the great dads who are out there you know don’t we wish this world was more like Leave It to Beaver and less like Homer Simpson.
S31: The concerns that Alissa is describing assume that TV is both very powerful and very malignant instead of influencing a person an unpredictable harmless ways. Forget about positive ones. A very concrete bad outcome is assumed men will be disheartened by what they see onscreen kids will do what they see on screen. To go back to something I mentioned at the beginning of this episode. This is a deeply prescriptive ist idea about how popular culture works. Forget whether a show is realistic. Funny clever whether it describes the world as it is. What matters is it can make the world over in its image. The Simpsons being The Simpsons has actually addressed this exact thing. In fact the show sometimes has a kind of jaded prescriptive its perspective itself. One of the running jokes of the series after all is just how bad TV is for the Simpsons. Not that anyone should do anything about it in an episode from the second season. Marge Simpson is inspired to protest the ultra violent kids cartoon Itchy and Scratchy after pacifier sucking Maggie attacks Homer with a mallet because she saw it on Itchy and Scratchy Show visions responsible.
S32: You won’t be watching these cartoons anymore. If you take a guy away will grow up without a sense of humor and be robots really. What kind of robots.
S12: The fear that pop culture might inspire us to be our worst selves. In other words is not solely a belief of evangelicals. Everyone who banned or fretted about the Bart Simpson Underachiever shirt was thinking along similar lines but evangelicals specifically were more preoccupied with mass culture’s dangerous impact and also were of more paramount concern to the Republican Party. When George H.W. Bush insulted the Simpsons is these voters in particular that he’s trying to signal. In fact the first time that he ever tried out the Simpsons line wasn’t at the RNC it was six months earlier at the convention of National Religious Broadcasters a professional organization that’s members included Jerry Falwell and James Dobson’s Focus on the family.
S33: We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons and America.
S34: It’s really unclear from this line either time he delivered it.
S3: If Bush has ever actually seen the Simpsons or The Waltons for that matter. But it’s irrelevant. The actuality of the Simpsons is besides the point. There were just a symbol Bush was using to demonstrate that he also prioritized old fashioned Father Knows Best family values that he too understood mass culture to be reflexively perverting unless was actively uplifting. And he was willing to take on mainstream popular culture’s immoral influence because he also knew to put it in the language of the famous speech Pat Buchanan would give. At the same 1992 RNC that America was engaged in a great culture war there is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war.
S35: As critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself for this war is for the soul of America.
S3: Well that was the intention anyway. The Republican strategy of attacking symbolic pop culture targets in order to motivate the conservative Christian base didn’t work. As with Bush’s vice president Dan Quayle’s near simultaneous attack on the TV character Murphy Brown. It made the candidates trying to signal how much they this stay in popular culture look totally out of it. When it came to popular culture Meanwhile Bush’s much younger opponent was playing the sax on Arsenio and answering questions about his undies on MTV a part of pop culture not someone running against it in the battle between Bush and The Simpsons.
S8: The Simpsons won. Bush lost the presidential election and the argument The Simpsons became such a part of mainstream American culture that it was eventually embraced by everyone even the cultural conservatives who had once despised it.
S3: The week after the RNC the Simpsons reworked the opening of the show to respond directly to Bush’s remarks. We’ll drift on the fact that the Waltons were set during the 1930s a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.
S16: Just like the Waltons we’re praying for an end to the depression too.
S36: I actually felt he had never seen it and it was a stupid analogy to say Waltons and Simpsons because the Waltons weren’t that happy.
S3: You know Al Jean was a member of The Simpsons original writing staff. He was a co show runner of seasons three and four and has been the show runner since Season 13. They’re on Season 31 now.
S36: They were trying to score cultural points then and now I mean we were being called out and you know it’s something if addresses us in a form that big and you’re a satirist you kind of cowardly if you don’t at least see something funny. Bush’s
S3: line instead of opening up a new front in the Simpsons controversy ended it. The show got the last word and really started to settle into establishment status. Homer and not Bart became the series focus and the show got better weirder and more adult as a kid centered Bart mania died down.
S36: So do concerns about Bart as a role model and I hit home my daughter attended handbook said teens and forbidden to wear T-shirts e.g. Bart Simpson in specific and not too many years later they’re asking me for shits themselves to raise money at the school auction. So it was a pretty quick transfer. Where does it say proceed this is subversive. But we were so popular.
S3: Thank goodness and we went from the counterculture to the culture helping matters was a string a provocative cartoon degenerates who inadvertently buffed Bart’s reputation starting in 1993 with a pair of mouth breathing masturbator as well as something we could do yes thank our monkeys no dumb ass compared to MTV Beavis and Butthead to Team dimwits who waste their whole lives hanging at the TV bar and the Simpsons critique of American culture was positively tame.
S12: Soon there was American family. King of the hill and South Park especially South Park that further recalibrated our tolerance for provocation and that lends some credibility to the original concerns about Bart. These shows and characters wouldn’t have been possible or conceivable without Bartholomew J Simpson. He might not have been that bad but what has come since has been coarser wilder more violent a slippery slope that hasn’t reached its bottom yet.
S37: We’re back. Yeah right. You better get back to school a little boy. Yeah.
S12: In the fullness of time though it turns out it probably wasn’t Bart who was the Simpsons most original character anyway. It took decades for everyone to catch on but Bart sister Lisa was the new challenging archetype a smart moral feminist a social justice warrior in a good way.
S38: While Bart was just another variation on the bad boy the police you protect your voice that maintains the status quo for the wealthy elite. Don’t you think we ought to attack the of social problems instead of jamming people into overcrowded prisons.
S3: Though Lisa is the show’s conscience. It was the initial Republican reaction to the show more than anything that helped frame it as specifically liberal left wing as the show stopped being politicized. Its willingness to make fun of everything and its more traditional setup could shine through eventually.
S8: Even evangelicals came around on it. By 2001 there was a book called The Gospel According to Bart Simpson. That same year Homer’s neighbor Ned Flanders landed on the cover of Christianity today with a cover line. S. Flanders the Simpsons Ned Flanders is the most visible evangelical to many Americans and that’s just ogling Dockery and though it’s true that in 2018 James Dobson could still start a parenting lecture like this.
S39: Have you ever seen those Bart Simpson T-shirts around the one that says underachiever and proud of it.
S8: In real life most focus on the family’s pop culture assessment site plugged in reviews the show positively describing it as being in some ways countercultural the old fashioned as all of this suggests.
S3: The Simpsons political signification has changed a lot since it first started. Over the last 30 years the Simpsons has stayed more or less the same. But we’ve moved around it and the distance we’ve covered basically describes the transformation of the Republican Party. Thirty years ago the Simpsons was a conservative bet noir derided as a show about a moral degenerate trashy people. Today that same show is embraced by conservative politicians as being about a politically incorrect yet traditional white working class family. A tweet from Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz proudly claimed that all the Simpsons except for Lisa would have voted for Trump. This tweet was roundly mocked by the Simpsons writers who tend to be liberal leaning themselves. But as silly as it is to assign political affiliations to cartoon characters it’s true that in recent years the most sustained critique of the Simpsons has come not from the right but from the left. The comedian Hari Kondabolu is a 40 minute documentary. The problem with Apu critique the Simpsons characterisation and commitment to Apu. The Indian immigrant Quickie Mart owner was being used to tease and stereotype South Asian American kids for decades and as voiced by Hank Azaria a white man doing a bad Indian accent. Thank you come again.
S18: I absolutely think they haven’t really aged with the times that there’s one thing to be said about the characters no aging but as a show that’s supposed to be relevant. You know that aspect of it I think is certainly lacking. I mean they use these stereotypes kind of as props for these early characters and at the time it was kind of the only place where you had a diverse world. That was the irony of it. What other place can you imagine what other TV show had a world that diverse with so many different types of people.
S17: I think now we can talk for ourselves people of color women maybe we can talk for ourselves.
S8: The Simpsons writers have essentially stonewalled about uphill not wanting to change anything about him and defending his presence in a matter episode about the controversy something that started decades ago and was applied to how fans is now politically incorrect. Like
S40: Kenya now I think it is kind of lazy and it’s stubborn and you know it’s it’s really kind of status quo. The Simpsons is the status quo. That’s what happens if you stay on the air for 30 years even as the world changes around you.
S3: So when I started looking into the Bart Simpson panic I was coming from a place of let’s investigate a moment from not so long ago chronologically speaking that somehow feels like it could be from a bygone era. How can people have been truly concerned about Bart Simpson in my lifetime. That is crazy. I was thinking about it as a story about how much we’ve changed and it is that story but that’s not all that it is. Yes getting upset about Bart and The Simpsons seems like a ludicrous overreaction now. And yes the Republican Party that saw the show as an enemy of family values and decorum has itself transformed so completely unquestioned of family values and decorum as to make hating Bart specifically a politically illegible position. And yet so many of the anxieties and tensions and ideas animating the original upset are still with us. Just you know 30 years more complicated 30 years further down the slippery slope so no one is getting upset about hell anymore but debates about what kind of language conveys authenticity and is appropriate to use in public on television and in places where polite language was once the norm. Yeah we’re still having those fights.
S10: We aren’t likely to get anxious about our kids well-being when they watch a yellow cartoon character. We’re just really anxious about what’s happening to our kids when they’re watching any screen at all. And the idea of prescriptive US television has more adherents than ever before because it’s been fully embraced by liberals who instead of fearing the TV might change the world hope that it will or positive prescriptive this instead of doomsday ones. We want TV shows to be descriptive to represent the world as it actually is in all of its diversity. But then we’re committed to the idea that diversity can make the world over in its image as a less bigoted less racist less homophobic more open minded place. What are the BART panic tells us anything it’s that it’s very difficult to know what any cultural product is doing to any of us in the moment 30 years later. It’s pretty hard to credit the fears about the Simpsons. The idea that what a kid would take from something so funny and complicated was only a monkey see monkey do. Kind of bad behavior.
S41: It seems so much more likely that instead of making kids rebellious Bart was an outlet for expressing their feelings of rebellion which doesn’t mean he didn’t personally popularized the phrase Eat my shorts or make it a little cooler to be rude to your parents as a Simpsons a show that has chronicled the hundreds of ways that TV can mess people up knows as well as anyone if pop culture can do good things to us it can do bad things to us too. So I like to think not exactly in equal measure. She got against me she says you’re a bad influence influence my. Decoder Ring. I’m Willa Paskin. You can find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin. Do you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode. You can email us at decoder ring at Slate dot com. If you haven’t yet subscribe and rate our feed and Apple podcast or ever you get your podcast. And even better tell your friends. This podcast was written by Willa Paskin And was produced and edited by Benjamin fresh who also does illustrations for every episode. Cleo Levin is our research assistant thanks to James Poniewozik Isaac Butler Rebecca Onion Ruth Graham Stephanie Manheim Derrick Johnson and Crystal zouk Matthew to phlegm. Bill Wyman John Ord vet William LaRue Nicholas Haynes and everyone else who gave us help and feedback along the way.
S42: Thanks for listening. We’ll see you soon.