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.
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?
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.