I recently finished reading Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation by Chris Turner as part of my 52 Book Challenge, and would definitely recommend it for any Simpsons fans out there! It also had a lot of interesting things to say about consumerism, materialism and American society. We all know that The Simpsons is one of the smartest shows on TV (although the more recent seasons haven’t exactly been a must-watch) and this book takes an in depth look at the main characters and discusses how the cartoon captures and brilliantly satirises modern consumer America. Here I’m documenting some of my favourite quotes from the book and some of my thoughts on them.
- Turner writes that Homer’s line “Mmmm…something” is “one of the most succinct summations anywhere of the insatiable desire lodged in the sclerotic aorta of the consumer ethos.” We as a society are made to feel by the advertising industry that that we should be constant consumers who should always be wanting more, because if you feel you have enough, then you won’t go out and spend money on pointless clutter.
- “For Homer, consumption is a kind of worship.” We see this in ‘Homer the Heretic’ (Season 4, Episode 3), one of my all-time favourite episodes, when Homer starts his own religion based on fulfilling his own whims, like staying wrapped up in bed on a winter morning like a big toasty cinnamon bun. Consumption has definitely become a modern religion for a lot of people, with such rituals as reverently liking contrived Instagram posts and binge watching Youtube haul videos.
- Homer is a “man whose virtue emerges from the trump card of Baby Boomer values: he means well. Intentions, not results, are what’s important, and Homer’s sporadic bouts of good intention are enough to outweigh his longer spells of neglect and his enduring incompetence.” This made me think of companies who ‘greenwash’ their products and also of people’s attitudes to alleviating their guilt by recycling. Most of the time we are polluting a huge amount, and doing a tiny bit of perceived ‘good’ by recycling what is unnecessary waste in the first place.e.g. biodegradable coffee cups.
- Turner discusses the episode ‘HOMR’, when Homer becomes intelligent after having a crayon removed from his brain: “Given the choice, Homer opts for a return to the blissful ignorance that has made his life so rich and rewarding, for the easier, unexamined life”. This made me think about veganism especially, and how meat-eaters have it easier in a way as they live in blissful ignorance of the suffering that animals go through to be on our plates. When you try to be a committed vegan, there is no way of unknowing what you have learned about the animal agriculture industry, which can be hard. Although this episode didn’t address food choices directly, Lisa, the sole vegetarian in the family and the show’s moral compass is saddened that Homer is taking the easy way out and reverting to his old, dumb self. Homer eats a standard American diet rich in meat, dairy and junk food, and happily continues on his “unenlightened” path.
- Turner discusses a great character, Frank Grimes, and how his untimely end represents the end of hard work and sacrifice in American society: “Consumption has become the primary focus of the American project and the lead architect of America’s value system. This is increasingly true of most of the other affluent democracies, but it’s a shift whose impact has been most dramatic in the United States, where those original producer-oriented values were most deeply held and most widely celebrated.”
- On the punny names of stores on the show: “Our own consumer culture more or less defies satirisation. It mocks itself so effectively it can’t be mocked, and it vaults into self-parody far too regularly and effectively really to need outside help.” There’s a shop in Galway dedicated to selling teddy bears for Pete’s sake. Need I say more?
- Springfield is “a grotesque mirror image of America in which smug consumption and empty-headed cultural plenty mask – only thinly – a desperation that verges on total panic.” The consumerism of American society is by no means exclusive to the United States and has definitely made its mark on all Western countries. I often feel sad for people who I see weighed down with shopping bags and tourists who are whiling away the hours of their holiday here browsing for meaningless trinkets. I feel like people engage in this behaviour simply because it is “what people do” and people love nothing more than to be told what to do because that validates them and tells them that what they’re doing is right. I think if you took shopping as an activity away from a lot of people, they would panic and be utterly lost, as they can’t imagine another way to spend their hard-earned money or time off than by trawling through the shops for cheap tat produced in sweat shops that ends up making them depressed in the end because they never use any of it. Mini rant over!
- “Our corporate leaders mean to be socially responsible, but this darn profitability thing keeps getting in the way.” I have recently tried to support local businesses more, as it feels so much better buying from small local shops instead of large supermarkets for example, as you are keeping your money in the community and feel less like a cog in the corporate machine if you opt out of buying from large chains.
- “Everyone means well, yes, but everyone’s hands are tied. Taking responsibility – taking action – would be great and all, but at least they mean well.” This relates to consuming less but also to veganism, when people try to justify their choices to buy ‘grass-fed’ or ‘organic’ meat which has been ‘humanely’ slaughtered, as if their ‘meaning well’ minimised animal suffering, when it could have been completely avoided in the first place by eschewing all animal products.
- “Even as it mercilessly mocks consumer culture and the corporate world, The Simpsons is an avid participant in both of them…Is the show a Trojan horse, invited inside the corporate gates and proudly displayed in the middle of the primetime courtyard, only to unleash a punishing barrage of satirical arrows on the authorities that brought it in? Or is it rather a court jester, invited inside the castle at the monarch’s leisure and permitted to poke a little fun at his opulent wardrobe and expansive girth so long as it keeps the people happily paying tithes? Could it be both?” I was addicted to the game The Simpsons Tapped Out for a solid two years(!) and I have Simpsons pyjamas and Simpsons games aplenty, so I’m part of their merch machine too! This was a great point that Turner made that although The Simpsons satirises American consumerism and social issues, it is itself swept up in a huge media machine that makes a lot of money off the back of cheap mass produced merchandise. Who doesn’t need a Homer Simpson tie rack though?
They were just some of the quotes that I thought were noteworthy from Turner’s thought-provoking book. As a minimalist, I minimised the book when I finished reading it but now I can look back on this post and reread some of the quotes I liked from it instead of having to keep the physical copy cluttering up my space 😀 And I can watch the show of course and a good healthy dose of cynicism!