Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Media: Academic Research into The Simpsons

Posted by AmishThrasher at 9:14 am
The Simpsons
The Simpsons:
What research has been done
into this family?
It would be difficult to deny the ongoing success and cultural significance of The Simpsons, and other ‘prime time animations’ like South Park, Family Guy, and Futurama. These, and other similar shows, have arguably succeeded in subverting the ‘children’s’ genre of animation into a form that is socially acceptable for teenagers and adults to watch. I have constructed this literature review to look at the academic discourse surrounding these programs, and to examine where further research is needed.

One trend in the analysis of The Simpsons is The Simpsons as a post-modern animated text. One example is the article “Postmodern Philosophy meets Pop Cartoon: Michel Foucault and Matt Groening”(1), by Margaret Betz-Hull. Betz-Hull presents Groening’s series, and his earlier comic strip “Life in Hell”, as an animated / graphic interpretation of Foucauldian philosophy; especially from Discipline and Punish. Betz-Hull also contends that Groening – either consciously or inadvertently – “expands on Foucault in a true Nietzschean manner”(2) by presenting humor and satire to subvert disciplinary structures.(3)

A similar theme – The Simpsons as post-modern text – is put forward in Brian L. Ott’s book “’I’m Bart Simpson, who the Hell are You?’ A Study in Postmodern Identity (Re)Construction."(4) Like Betz-Hull, Ott largely relies on textual / discourse analysis to construct his piece. Ott claims that a talking Bart Simpson doll prompted him to examine how Bart, Homer, and Lisa (interestingly, Marge and Maggie are not looked at) construct their identities; a central tension within the program. Bart uses a “strategic and selective” approach to piecing together his identity. Where Bart borrows from Krusty, “Bart has no desire to become Krusty… As a fan, Bart shapes his identity without turning it over to the culture industries."(5) Homer is hopelessly manipulated by television, and is “ultimately incapable of influencing an external reality, because for him there is no external and no real."(6) Finally, Ott states that in contrast to Bart and Homer, episodes centered on Lisa “Reveal and construct her values and beliefs.(7)

A question that arises from this line of academic work is ‘what values do audiences perceive The Simpsons as promoting? Do they identify with characters (like Homer), or appropriate elements from it (like Bart)?’

Another branch of research explores animated text and identity, an example being Peter Parisi’s article “’Black Bart Simpson’: Appropriation and Revitalization in Commodity Culture.(8) This article looks at an example of culture jamming within The Simpsons fandom, where African-American fans of the program began wearing bootleg t-shirts of a ‘dark-skinned’ Bart Simpson. Parisi gives an example of how, just focusing on one example (though acknowledging others in his footnotes), The Simpsons fandom takes the sophisticated approach (in Ott’s terms) of shrewdly revealing identity, like Lisa.(9)

An article that tracks the development of animation from a gay and lesbian perspective, covering (though not focusing on) The Simpsons is Jeffery P. Dennis’ “The Same Thing we do Every Night."(10) Jeffery presents a historical account of television animation from early Hanna-Barbera through to recent ‘prime time animations’. Dennis’ aim in this is to see where gay or lesbian relationships and narratives could be – either covertly or overtly – read into popular animated texts. The Simpsons was one of the first shows with overtly gay characters, themes and discourse, through which Groening admits to the existence of gay men, and ‘pretends’ to be tolerant. Yet hetero-normalcy is re-enforced by joking about how ludicrous such desire is (the example being Smithers’ infatuation with Mr. Burns).(11)

Based on this work on ‘identity politics and animation’, it would be worthwhile for us to include questions on how identity affects audience reading of The Simpsons.

There have been several formal studies of adult audiences, perhaps the earliest of which was the Worktown Project, undertaken by Tom Harrison’s Mass Observation unit; published in Jeffery Richards and Dorothy Sheridan’s book “Mass Observation at the Movies”;(12) with the animation comments extracted in Paul Wells’ book “Understanding Animation.”(13) The Worktown Project was undertaken during World War II for the British Ministry of Information, and was first published outside the ministry in 1987 by Richards and Sheridan. It is important to note that the survey was about movies in general, however animated films like Bambi and Fantasia were playing whilst the survey was undertaken, and thus animation was discussed. There are repeated references to these films in one particular survey which asked respondents to list 6 films they had enjoyed in the past year, and why.(14)

Carrying on from his account of the Mass Observation study, Wells presented his own survey to 435 people and asked participants for their first memory of a Disney cartoon. Wells later used discourse and content analysis to unpack the results. I found it disappointing that Wells did not include – perhaps in an Appendix – the precise questions he asked, and what the original responses were. Wells, however, did mention that he obtained his sample at “festivals, cinema showings, lectures, workshops, etc.”(15)

One of the more ambitious pieces of animation research has been The Global Disney Audiences Project, in the book “Dazzled by Disney?”.(16) The study was conducted by academics in 17 countries (including Australia) via questionnaire and interview. The study was inspired by Michael Real’s earlier work (as described in “The Disney Universe: Morality Play”(17), where real presented a questionnaire to 192 Disney fans. Wasko et. al. administered surveys to a base beyond Disney fandom. These questionnaires asked respondents for: demographics (age, gender, country of origin); degree to which they liked Disney at different ages; Disney products they’d encountered; what they understood to be ‘values’ and ‘vices’ as presented by Disney; and whether they thought Disney was ‘uniquely American’ or not.(18)

This Disney audience research gives us a point of comparison for our own Simpsons research. Has Walt Disney’s vision of animation been more successful in shaping audience expectations of animation, or Matt Groening’s? And how successfully has he challenged the Disney ‘vision’ of animation?

An early audience-centric article was Mary Strom-Larson’s “Family Communications on Prime Time Television."(19) A content analysis, the 1993 study compared The Cosby Show’s Huxtable family to The Simpsons. Of interest to Strom-Larson was how well The Simpsons communicated as a family, compared to the Huxtables. The study found that, while The Huxtables were an imperfect, child-centric family, The Simpsons weren’t the “squalid underbelly of life”(20) and were adult-centric.(21) A shortcoming with this study was Strom-Larson assuming the validity of social learning theory, and thus making assumptions of Cosby Show and Simpsons audiences. Given the controversy surrounding social learning theory, and no direct audience research to back up this claim, such assumptions seem to be too big an intellectual leap for comfort. We should attempt to verify such claims about The Simpsons audience’s perceptions of family in our research.

Another book dealing with animation audiences is Maureen Furniss’ “Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics.”(22) While most of the book concentrates on animation techniques and history, it does contain a chapter on Animation Audiences, which examines “the stratergies of American animation companies in terms of merchandising and market research, and some of the ways in which producers in other countries have been strengthening their positions in the global marketplace.”(23) In other words, what Furniss provides is an audience-focused industrial analysis. The chapter also discusses Nielsen Media research, the importance of brand and merchandising, and animation series based on toys.(24) While a key text in the area, Furniss focuses on 1980’s toy-centered animation and concludes that poorly merchandised animated products won’t work with audiences; a claim that may well have been proven false in the past decade; we should attempt to verify the ongoing relevance of this conclusion.

The most comprehensive book I came across on the subject of ‘prime time animation’ in general was the Carol A. Stabile and Mark Harrison edited “Prime Time Animation: Television Animation and American Culture,”(25) who have divided their book into Institutions (covering historical, industrial, and technical analysis), and Readings (covering political economy, textual, and audience analysis). Two authors previously mentioned contributed, with Ott’s ethnographic investigation of South Park fandom (“‘Oh My God they Digitized Kenny!’: Travels in the South Park Cybercommunity v4.0”(26)), while Wells contributed a history of ‘television-era’ animation (“‘Smarter than the Average Art Form’: Animation in the Television era.”(27) Michael V. Tueth presents a history of the sitcom from the perspective of the animated sitcom.(28) Rebecca Farley presents a discourse analysis of ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘Ren and Stimpy’ to examine what defines ‘prime time animation.’(29) Diane F. Alters interviewed parents who dislike The Simpsons.(30) Feminist perspectives are provided in Kathy M. Newman’s analysis of Daria audiences,(31) while Joy Von Fuqua presents a political economy of ‘girls’, and The Powerpuff Girls merchandise.(32) Finally, though in institutions, Alice Crawford’s discussion of animation technology suggests that ‘video games’ should be included under adult animation.(33)

After each of the themes in adult animation research, I have presented a number of questions, or areas, that I believe need to be addressed in further research. The over-arching question is ‘How do adult audiences use The Simpsons?’, with sub-questions of ‘What are perceived values in The Simpsons?’ ‘How are characters in The Simpsons used, and narratives read, in reference to identity, families, and merchandising?’ And, finally, ‘How has The Simpsons reshaped adult perceptions of animation?’

1 Betz-Hull, Margaret, “Postmodern Philosophy meets Pop Cartoon: Michel Foucault and Matt Groening”, Journal of Popular Culture, Bowling Green, Fall 2000, Vol. 34, Issue 2, pp. 57 - 68.
2 ibid.
3 ibid.
4 Ott, Brian L., “‘I’m Bart Simpson, who the Hell are You?’: A Study in Postmodern Identity (Re)Construction”, in Journal of Popular Culture, Bowling Green, 2003, Vol. 34, Issue 1, p. 56.
5 ibid.
6 ibid.
7 ibid.
8 Parisi, Peter, “‘Black Bart’ Simpson: Appropriation and Revitalization in Commodity Culutre”, in Journal of Popular Culture, Summer 1993; 27, 1; Academic Research Library, p. 125.
9 ibid.
10 Dennis, Jeffery P., “The Same Thing we do Every Night”, in Journal of Popular Film and Television, Washington, Fall 2003, Vol. 31, Issue 3, p. 132.
11 ibid.
12 Richards, Jeffery, and Sheridan, Dorothy, “Mass Observation at the Movies”, 1987, Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc., London and New York, NY.
13 Wells, Paul, “Understanding Animation”, 1998, Routledge, London and New York, NY.
14 Richards, Jeffery, and Sheridan, Dorothy, Op. Cit.
15 Wells, Paul, Op. Cit.
16 Wasko, Janet, Phillips, Mark, and Meehan, Eileen R., “Dazzled by Disney?: The Global Disney Audiences Project”, 2001, Leicester University Press, London and New York, NY.
17 Real, Michael, “The Disney Universe: Morality Play”, in Real, Michael, “Mass Mediated Culture”, Englewood Cliffs, NJ., Prentice Hall.
18 Wasko, Janet, et. al., op. cit.
19 Strom-Larson, Mary, “Family Communication on Prime-Time Television” in Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Summer 1993; 3, 3; ProQuest Telecommunications, pg. 349.
20 ibid.
21 ibid.
22 Furniss, Maureen, “Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics”, 1998, John Libbey and Company, Sydney, NSW.
23 Ibid., p. 217.
24 ibid.
25 Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, editors, “Prime Time Animation: Television Audiences and American Culture”, London and New York, NY, Routledge, 2003.
26 Ott, Brian L, “‘Oh My God they Digitized Kenny!’: Travels in the South Park Cybercommunity v4.0”, in Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, pp. 220-42.
27 Wells, Paul, “‘Smarter than the Average Art Form’: Animation in the Television Era”, in Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, pp. 15 – 32.
28 Tueth, Michael V., “Back to the Drawing Board: The Family in Animated Television Comedy”, in Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, pp. 133 – 146.
29 Farley, Rebecca, “From Fred and Wilma to Ren and Stimpy: What Makes a Cartoon ‘Prime Time’?”, in Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, pp. 147 – 64.
30 Alters, Diane F., “‘We Hardly Watch that Rude, Crude Show’: Class and Taste in The Simpsons”, in Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, pp. 165 –45.
31 Newman, Kathy M., “‘Misery Chick’: Irony, Alienation, and Animation in MTV’s Daria”, in Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, pp. 185 – 204.
32 Von Fuqua, Joy, “‘What are those little girls made of?’: The Powerpuff Girls and Consumer Culture” , in Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, pp. 205 – 19.
33 Crawford, Alice, “The Digital Turn: Animation in the Age of Information Technologies”, in Stabile, Carol A., and Harrison, Mark, ibid., pp. 110 – 30.
34 Smoodin, Eric, “Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era”, 1993, Oxford, Roundhouse Publishing.