On October 10th, 2010, the third episode of Season 22 of the Simpsons aired – MoneyBART. In it, Lisa becomes the coach of her older brother’s little-league baseball team; the ensuing hijinks are familiar and routine1. MoneyBART scored a 6.6 among users on IMDB; the average score for episodes released in the same year is 6.6622. By all accounts, the episode is nothing to write home about – save for, of course, one obvious exception.
Setting the Scene
The Simpsons is the longest running primetime scripted series in history3. It is a household name, its characters immortalized on t-shirts, in games, on novelty cups and band-aids. One could argue about which of Storey’s six definitions of pop-culture it fits into, but you’d be hard pressed to find somebody that objected to the term being used4.
When one talks about pop culture, and cultural products, one inevitably must broach the subject of the “Culture Industry”. The term was first coined by two Marxist philosophers – Adorno & Horkheimer – in their seminal work “Dialectic of Enlightenment”6. It refers to the sum of all creative and cultural works produced under capitalism; a gargantuan machine that uses its hulking size to justify itself ad-nauseam. It is “a mechanism of psycho-social control.”7
Which makes America’s favourite nuclear family a cultural product of this culture industry. Storey believed that these cultural products both reflected and reinforced the economic, societal and industrial environments that they were created in; they “are deemed ideological to the extent that […] they implicitly or explicitly support the interests of dominant groups who, socially, politically, economically and culturally, benefit from this particular economic organization of society.”8
- “MoneyBART,” The Simpsons Wiki, Fandom, updated July 18, 2020, https://simpsons.fandom.com/wiki/MoneyBART
- “The Simpsons – Episodes, 2010,” IMDb, accessed June 24, 2020, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096697/episodes?year=2010
- Nick Reilly, “‘The Simpsons’ has broken another huge TV record”, NME, April 30, 2018. https://www.nme.com/news/simpsons-broken-another-huge-record-2305684
- John Storey, Cultural studies and the study of popular culture (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 5-13.
- “List of The Simpsons guest stars,” Wikipedia, updated June 20, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Simpsons_guest_stars
- Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Stanford University Press, 2020)
- “‘The Culture Industry – Adorno, Horkheimer, Neomarxism and Ideology’ by PlasticPills,” posted March 3, 2020, video, 2:31, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQeHs4YVeug
- John Storey, Cultural studies and the study of popular culture (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 3.
Ideal and Ideology
So what is the ideology of The Simpsons? While the show portrays a comically-dysfunctional, reckless, fiscally-irresponsible family – and many of its jokes come at their expense – it ultimately supports and reinforces traditional American values: the nuclear family, the providing patriarch, the nurturing mother.9
The first full-length episode of the Simpsons was “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”; it showed the family running the gambit through various Christmas troubles – keeping the focus on financial anxiety and the stress that comes from parents trying to make their kids happy. In the end, Homer and Bart bet everything they have on a greyhound race – thirteen dollars that Homer earned working his second job as a Mall-Santa. 99-1 odds, “a miracle” as Bart calls it – but they lose everything.10
If the show were trying to subvert or question a traditional Christmas, this could be how the story ends. Can a family be happy without presents? Would Homer be welcomed home, having “failed” at performing his role in the family? But these questions are never asked, because despite the neck-wringing, the shouting, the “why-you-little”s, The Simpsons always holds the family unit as sacred. In a chance encounter, Homer and Bart take home the greyhound that they bet on; the rest of the Simpsons clan are delighted to meet their newest member. The episode ends with them all singing Christmas carols, and the status-quo is maintained. Speaking of…
The Couch Gag
The “couch gag” for “MoneyBART”, conceived and initially storyboarded by UK street artist “Banksy”, was the subject of much discussion when first aired – as was likely the intent. Banksy was allegedly inspired by the Simpsons prolific use of foreign-outsourced animation studio “Akom”11, located in Seoul, South Korea. While the imagery is clearly absurdist, there is a clear history of worker exploitation being rampant in OEM (outsourced-export-markets) like Akom; a 2005 report by China Daily suggests that South Korean animators were paid “about one-third what their US counterparts make.”12
So – Banksy has done it again. Another scathing critique of the powerful, a big middle-finger to Fox, calling attention to important issues, making a positive change in the world… right?
As of this report from 2015, Akom was still a massive part of the show’s production – 120 full-time animators and technicians spending a total of three months taking an episode from initial layout to a full-colour final draft, which is promptly sent back to the US13. The episode featuring the inciting intro is entirely mundane in every other regard; there was no spike in ratings14, there was no shift in the tone or production of the show.
In fact, it seems as if some critics weren’t even sure what to make of the grim sequence. Tanner Stransky of Entertainment Weekly wrote: “How did the show get away with airing this? It puts both Fox and The Simpsons in a bad light, whether or not the reports about South Korea are true. Is this simply the rebuttal? Is this supposed to be funny? Are we supposed to laugh at this? Should The Simpsons be co-opting criticism of their show and making light of it?”15
9. Paul A. Cantor, “The Simpsons: Atomistic Politics and the Nuclear Family.” Political Theory 27, no. 6 (December 1999): 734–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/0090591799027006002.
10. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” The Simpsons Wiki, Fandom, updated June 14, 2021, https://simpsons.fandom.com/wiki/Simpsons_Roasting_on_an_Open_Fire
11. Josh Halliday, “Banksy takes Simpsons into sweatshop,” The Guardian, October 11, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2010/oct/11/banksy-the-simpsons-bart
12. “’The Simpsons’ Made in S. Korea,” China Daily, May 3, 2005, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-03/05/content_421986.htm
13. Chris Plante, “How an episode of The Simpsons is made,” The Verge, October 25, 2015, https://www.theverge.com/2015/10/25/9457247/the-simpsons-al-jean-interview
14. Todd W. Schnieder, “The Simpsons by the Data,” (blog), September 26, 2016, https://toddwschneider.com/posts/the-simpsons-by-the-data/
15. Tanner Stransky, “’The Simpsons’ airs controversial opening sequence by Banksy,” Entertainment Weekly, updated October 11, 2010, https://ew.com/article/2010/10/11/the-simpsons-banksy-opening-sequence/
“Is this supposed to be funny?”
Imagine instead: the camera pulls back from the family on the couch, and we see a South-Korean woman drawing over lineart. She works in a cubicle, not a dungeon: she is overseen by deadlines, not men in sharp uniforms. She works until late, boards a full train, and arrives home exhausted. She dips her hands into a container of ice-water, puts bracers on her wrists before she goes to bed. When she arrives at work the next day, she sits back down to a new frame – and the camera pulls back to show the other hundred-or-so people working on the same sequence as her.
In his use of absurdist imagery, in his cartoonish displays of violence and despair, the sequence entirely avoids the true discomfort of its subject matter. How must it feel to storyboard a sequence where rows of identical South Korean artists draw cartoon cells in a dungeon, and then send that very same storyboard to Korea? How must it feel to receive that storyboard?
In the end, nothing changes. Once we pan back from the dystopian Fox logo, the Simpsons fanfare blares loud as it always has; a few minutes in, we’re joking about gluten-free coffee and how unpopular Hall Monitors are16. Reports of horrific overtime, terminated contracts and manipulative workplaces continue to arise from the animation industry, but Detective Pikachu still grossed over 400 million internationally17.
And, as an aside, the animation studio that worked on Pikachu, 2019’s the Lion King & 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog closed down in late 2019, leaving untold numbers of employees jobless right before Christmas18. Maybe they should head to the greyhound club too.
Walter Benjamin believed that mass culture, though typically a degradation, offered “the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction” – that it could be a force of “emancipation”, a tool used by the people for the people’s liberation19. While this is a decidedly more optimistic outlook than that of Adorno & Horkheimer, and a much more palatable one – Benjamin likely wouldn’t look to The Simpsons for his revolution.
16. “MoneyBART,” The Simpsons Wiki, Fandom, updated July 18, 2020, https://simpsons.fandom.com/wiki/MoneyBART
17. “Pokemon Detective Pikachu,” Box Office Mojo, accessed June 24, 2020, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt5884052/?ref_=bo_se_r_1
18. Kara Dennison, “MPC, Studio Who Worked on Sonic and Detective Pikachu, Closes Its Doors,” Crunchyroll, December 14, 2019, https://www.crunchyroll.com/anime-news/2019/12/13-1/mpc-studio-who-worked-on-sonic-and-detective-pikachu-closes-its-doors
19. Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, (Penguin UK, 2008), 6-7.
(Full bibliography on second page)