Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Episode Rant: Itchy & Scratchy & Marge

I'm a big fan of early seasons of The Simpsons. Hell, the entire reason my horribly named comic, El Goonish Shive, has "goonish" in the title is because of an episode from season four where the line "hired goons?" got stuck in my brain and refused to leave.

The episode I'm interested in ranting about today, however, is from season two, and is titled "Itchy And Scratchy And Marge". It is reportedly a popular episode and an example of the creators being inspired by the public's response to their own show. I have several nits to pick about its story and it's messages, however, in particular my opinion that Marge, while not really in the right, is not ultimately a hypocrite.


Marge is on a crusade against cartoon violence after she discovers her youngest daughter Maggie is imitating violent behavior from The Itchy and Scratchy Show. She attempts to convince the writers to write less violent material, and winds up protesting the show with the support of other concerned parents. Marge is invited to appear on the talk show Nightline, and while there asks other concerned parents to make their voices heard. After receiving literal truckloads of complaints, the Itchy and Scratchy writers give in and remove all violence from the show.

Sometime after that, Michelangelo's David is on display in Springfield. The same parents who helped Marge censor Itchy and Scratchy want her to lead the protest against the statue on the grounds that it portrays male nudity. Marge does not object to the statue, but is nonetheless invited back to Nightline based on the presumption that she would. She is asked how she can be for one form of freedom of expression and not for another, and concludes that she can't be. The world is once again returned to normal as The Itchy and Scratchy Show becomes violent again.

The Message

One message this episode somewhat conveys, possibly by accident, is that what's appropriate content for a child should be determined on an individual basis. Lisa and Bart watched the show regularly without incident, but Maggie was imitating the show and injured her father as a result. Instead of forcing the networks to change their shows, one should decide for themselves what's appropriate for their children. In Marge's case, she should have allowed Bart and Lisa to watch, but not Maggie.

The message the episode seemed to want to deliver, however, was about freedom of expression. I'm all for freedom of expression, but the manner in which this episode tries to get the point across gets under my skin, and it all boils down to this one question that was asked of Marge:

"How can you be for one form of freedom of expression like our big, naked friend over there, and be against another form, like Itchy and Scratchy?"

Marge's answer is "I guess I can't", suggesting that it is hypocritical of her to object to one and not the other.

My problem with this is that they're NOT THE SAME THING. One is a statue of a naked man, and another is a violent TV show aimed at children. Maggie seriously injured Homer when she imitated Itchy and Scratchy, and it's suggested that other fathers were similarly injured. Marge may have dealt with it poorly, but within the context of the episode, her objections were the result a legitimate concern. It is NOT hypocritical to object to something that is viewed as a threat to one's family while not objecting to something that isn't seen as a legitimate threat to anything!

This is nitpicking, of course. It's a funny episode and there's plenty to like about it, but a particularly big pet peeve of mine is when people over-generalize, and it seems to be becoming more common. A symptom of over-generalizing is erroneous declarations of hypocrisy, and  I've heard many "that's hypocritical" claims that may as well be based on someone eating apples but not eating oranges.

"They're both fruit! How can you object to one and not the other? They're the same!"

I could go on about this pet peeve, but let's stick to the context of this Simpsons episode. To me, this episode is an example of preaching to the choir. It has a good message, but the manner in which it's presented is only going to speak to people who are already on board with it. The final point about freedom of expression is another point entirely. One can claim it's not, but consider someone airing Criminal Minds at 3pm and marketing it to children. Is the issue as to whether that's appropriate for children really freedom of expression?

Then Again...

Of course, the meta-point of this episode was about The Simpsons itself, which is a show intended for adults. The freedom of expression argument definitely applies in that scenario, as the issue isn't, in theory, the impact it might have on children. Children do watch the show (I myself was under 10 when I saw this episode), but they also watch other sitcoms geared for adults, so whatever. Point is, a show intended for adults has a more legitimate claim to "freedom of expression", especially in the real world where the only supposed incident of a child imitating the show and getting hurt was a skateboard accident. Frankly, if someone's taking up skateboarding, there's going to be injuries with or without Bart.

As such, considered from ye-olde meta perspective, the message has a bit more weight. Even then, though, I think it would make more sense for the ultimate lesson to have been for parents to determine for themselves what is and isn't appropriate for their children to watch. It seems much more applicable than "artistic freedom! Ha ha!" To me, that sounds less like a lesson and more like the creators acknowledging that the show is bad for children, but they're gonna keep doing it anyway because it's their right to do so.

And You're Ranting NOW Because...?

I'm bothering to rant about this now because I think it's worth thinking about. I think a lot of attempts at making points like this wind up falling short for similar reasons. There are other episodes of other shows that do similar things, and when I get the chance I'll explain my feelings about them, too (consider yourself warned, Family Guy! Not that you care, but still...). As a quasi-writer myself, it's something I need to keep in mind when beating audiences over the head with my own heavy-handed views on the world.

As for The Simpsons, they got better at this over time. MUCH better. I'm nitpicking an episode from late 1990 here, for Pete's sake. I may as well pick on someone for liking a cheesy band in elementary school. As I've said, though, it's still worth analyzing in retrospect and keeping whatever lessons one might take away from it in mind.


  1. Well I do kind of agree with you. Though I got from the episode when I watched it was that you can't change what is going on. You can control what is going on with you. That it is a choice the parent should make to turn off the tv or go do something else.

    If I remember correctly the episode ended with Marge turning off the tv with Itchy and Scratchy and taking the family to see the David statue. Illustrating, if you don't like it you should change things rather then forcing change on others. If you don't like the show in your house you you should turn the channel, turn it off, or do something else like turning about.

  2. The actual ending was Marge and Homer going to see the David statue while Bart, Lisa and Maggie stayed home watching Itchy and Scratchy. Maggie even imitates one last act of violence at a photo of homer. Marge laments the fact that she and Homer were at the museum and the kids are missing it, while Homer gleefully informs her that the school is forcing their students to go and see it.

    But that was *sort of* my point as well. I was saying that she didn't HAVE to let Maggie watch the show. Forcing Bart and Lisa not to when they had done nothing wrong was making an issue where there wasn't one, while keeping Maggie away was dealing with something that genuinely was an issue.

  3. My memory's a bit fuzzy on this particular episode, but was Marge crusading to have the government "crack down" on TV violence, or was she just petitioning the writers to tone it down?

    If it's the second, the episode becomes even sillier, because Marge isn't trying to undo the First Amendment by having the government unilaterally ban violence in kid's shows, she's basically complaining to a single company about a particular product, and the company does not have to heed her.

    See, that's the thing ... a network yanking a show or altering it in response to viewer outcry is not necessarily breaking the First Amendment, as the right for someone (in this case a corporate entity) to _not_ publish or broadcast something they do not want to is also covered by the First Amendment. And the Supreme Court said so, at that - I believe it was a case where a newspaper refused to run an advertisement backed by a known KKK member. A network yanking/altering a show in response to public outright might be 'cowardly', silly, just, stupid, smart or any number of things - but its within their right to.

  4. Petitioning the writers, basically, so yeah. Nobody genuinely FORCED them to change anything. They just gave into pressure from all the mail they got.

  5. It's definitely an interesting point to talk about. As a preface to whatever else I'm about to say, keep in mind that I'm very anti-censorship across the board; I'm of the opinion that anybody has the right to say anything and that they have the right to say it anywhere so long as it doesn't constitute a public disturbance or an invasion of privacy.

    I think the message for the episode works better for me because I disagree at the point where you say that the statue of david and the itchy and scratchy show are totally different things. They're both just another statement made by an artist (or a team of artists with a support staff) and it's up to the individual to decide whether or not to view the work as well as how to respond to it.

    The tricky part is that the Itchy and Scratchy show is being broadcast into the home of the viewer, while the statue waits patiently for the viewer to arrive. This makes it a slightly more gray area, but in the end it's up to the network to decide what they air and it's up to the viewers to decide what network (if any) they will watch.

    Itchy and Scratchy never posed any threat to the Simpson family; Maggie's decision to imitate it threatened the family. If you don't belive such a young child can be held responsible for her decisions, then the parents and siblings are responsible.

    You're correct that the point does not also imply that Marge should let Maggie watch the show; I didn't really get that message, but I see how others might. Personally, though, I don't think I would have liked to see the episode end with Maggie not allowed to watch the show. I think the best ending would have been the parents watching Maggie while she watches the show; Maggie then tries to imitate something violent and they gently discipline her and remind her that it's not okay to do dangerous things, even if you see someone do them on TV.

    Basically, separating Maggie from the show solves nothing because the show isn't going to go away. She may or may not learn the lesson as she gets older, and the consequences will be worse if she doesn't. Teaching her how to handle the show definitely solves the problem immediately and permanently.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I never said they were TOTALLY different things. That's part of the issue here and one of my main points. Having similarities and things in common do not make two things identical. One can object to one and not the other without it being hypocritical so long as the reasoning behind the objection doesn't apply to both. It doesn't here.

    Again, that doesn't make Marge right; it just means she's not a hypocrite for objecting to one and not the other.

    As for getting Maggie to understand that the behavior is wrong, I still argue that, in the context of the show, it's best to just not let her watch it. Based on what was shown and her age, I'm not sure how they could get her to understand and stop the bad behavior.

    Of course, this is a cartoon. A baby her age in real life would be a non-issue, and a child old enough to be an issue could likely be taught not to imitate the show. Within the context of this episode, I didn't see a solution that simple, and that could potentially translate to real life in SOME cases.

    Again, how it's handled needs to be based on the individual child. If parenting was as simple as "this is always how you should do it", there'd be a handy manual that every parent would own and all those smug people without kids who claim they know exactly how to raise them would probably be right because, hey, it's in the universal parenting manual.

  8. I agree with this post!

    Furthermore, I gotta say, I have no problem with people complaining about things in retrospect; I wish more people did so, as I find many of the best-thought-out criticisms come from it.