This revolution will be televised

GayPatty.jpgThe New York Times‘ coverage of Patty Bouvier’s coming out party on The Simpsons follows a familiar script — the religious right is the sole aggressor in the culture wars — and, in a breathless search for Ultimate Meaning, manages to drain the episode of every moment of humor.

Alessandra Stanley writes in a review/essay:

A few years ago, the coming out of a prime-time character would probably not have caused much of a stir. But in the current climate, with the issue of gay rights spiking in the public discourse, the episode stood out. What could have seemed like a sweeps month gimmick became instead an aptly satirical comment.

The debate over same-sex marriages, and the way the conservative right inflated that debate into a wedge issue during the presidential campaign, is one factor. At the same time, growing fears about the possible spread of a rare strain of H.I.V. that is resistant to virtually all of the standard drugs has revived concern about unsafe sex among gays.

Stanley also wins honors for editorial whiplash of the week for this segue from the Doug Wead-President Bush tapes story back to the imaginary world of Springfield:

. . . On the tapes, some of which were played for The New York Times, Mr. Bush explained to Mr. Wead that he told a Texas minister, James Robison: “I’m not going to kick gays, because I’m a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?”

Patty decided to wed her girlfriend, Veronica, after the town of Springfield legalized gay marriage to boost tourism and Homer Simpson became an ordained minister over the Internet to marry gay couples for cash.

In her news report for the Times, Sharon Waxman seemed incapable of finding a conservative who watched the episode, so she turned to L. Brent Bozell III. Waxman also writes about the show being a rebuke to the cultural right:

“It’s saying to those who demonize homosexuality, or what they call the homosexual agenda, anything from ‘Lighten up’ to ‘Get out of town,’” said Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and host of a media show on the talk radio network Air America. “It sounds as though they’re saying that what the religious right calls ‘the homosexualist agenda,’ as if it were creeping Satanism, is: these people are your neighbors in the Springfield that is America.”

Indeed, in some ways the Simpsons’ fictional hometown, Springfield, has become a surrogate for mainstream, small-town America, with Homer its bumbling working-class hero. The closest parallel may well be the endearing though intolerant Archie Bunker, who became a symbol of working-class America in the 1970′s show “All in the Family.”

Odd, isn’t it, that the animated equivalent of Archie Bunker ended up obtaining his minister’s credentials through the Internet and then presiding at all of Springfield’s gay unions?

Against all odds, Kathryn Masterson of the Chicago Tribune found a well-known conservative activist who watched the program:

Peter LaBarbera, head of the conservative Illinois Family Institute, wasn’t too riled about gay marriage and a gay character coming out on “The Simpsons.” LaBarbera thinks the public may be tired of seeing gay characters and gay situations on so many TV shows.

“Every TV show has to have the ‘gay episode,’” he said. “I just think the ‘all-gay-all-the-time’ is generally wearing on people.”

In her final paragraph, Stanley announced:

The episode was not the funniest in “Simpsons” history, but it was a tonic at a moment when television seems increasingly humorless and tame — fearful of advertiser boycotts by the religious right and fines from the Federal Communications Commission.

Thanks, mighty Times, for the definitive ruling on the history of Simpsons humor — and the pedantic reminder that the only thing we have to fear is a conservative Christian who’s involved in politics.

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  • dw

    I guess I was the only one to watch it last night. Some thoughts:

    1. I don’t think it was damning of Christianity, other than Lovejoy, and honestly, Lovejoy isn’t considered a good model of Christian thought. Lovejoy’s role was brief, anyway.

    2. Who is the model Christian on the show? Flanders. How many times did Flanders appear in the show? Zilch. Surprising, but I think I know why, since…

    3. …this wasn’t a show about “gay rights.” The theme was “morality is mutable when money or family get involved.” Why did Springfield go for gay marriage? Tourist money. They see gays as giant wads of disposable income, and who cares if they’re gay so long as they’re spending the cash? On the other side, Marge is all liberal about homosexuality until her sister comes out, and then she flips. It’s one of those “You’re OK with it until it’s family, then it’s not OK” sort of arguments. It’s a back-handed slap at squishy liberals.

    The lack of Flanders is troubling to me, but I think they were trying to make a 30 minute comedy, not a two hour debate of the issues of homosexuality and Christianity.

    On the whole, an uneven episode, though the TV commercial advertising Springfield as a gay marriage haven was a soda.spew moment.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I watched the episode as well, and enjoyed some of its punchlines. My post, though, is less about the episode than about The New York Times’ tendentious reporting and commentary on the episode.

  • dw

    I know. I think what I was trying to say was that the NYT writers didn’t watch the show themselves, because there was almost no rebuke of the “conservative Christians,” since they saved it for the “I’m don’t have any problems with gays and gay marriage, but…” crowd.

    Doesn’t it seem like that describes a measurable chunk of the NYT readership?

  • Terry Mattingly

    We studied the episode today in my “Exegete the Culture” seminar. It was a classic Simpsons shoot-at-everyone script.

    But there is no doubt that the key moment, in terms of the religious doctrine involved, came when Pastor Lovejoy uses the church bell to drown out Marge when she tries to get him to defend his conservative beliefs with specifics from the Bible.

    As the bell tolls, you can hear her bravely quoting from the gospel according to Bishop Spong, et al., starting with the mantra, “But scholars disagree…” and words about how the compassion of Jesus would place him on her side in the debate.

    This was not played for laughs. It was the serious moment in the show. The thesis statement.

    Then again, you gotta love Homer being ordained online as an ePISCOPAL minister, complete with a .jpg of a clerical collar to print out and wear.

  • Stephen A.

    “A few years ago, the coming out of a prime-time character would probably not have caused much of a stir.”

    Really? Remember Ellen? She disappeared for quite a while afterwards, as I recall.

    I agree with the comment that the “coming out” episode on every show – now every cartoon – is getting tedious.

    Of course there was NO political/social agenda with this Simpson’s episode. Ohhhh nooo.

    The scene with the minister and the bells is ironic, since it’s in fact the other way around. When anyone criticizes the message being portrayed as OBVIOUSLY boosting a social agenda, it’s denied vociferously. Meanwhile, the accuser gets shouted down and ridiculed mercilessly in the media – from Jay Leno and Jon Stewart to CNN as just being symptomatic of another “uptight conservative religious bigot” outbreak.

    An Orwellian nightmare.

    Also check out what the pope had to say about gay marriage being “forced” on Europe by the EU in his newly released book:

    “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.”

    Watch what happens next and see if I’m right.

  • Mark D.

    Sorry I didn’t see the episode – on mission in Africa. But I need to post this somewhere, to the whole GR crew: on this browser at least (IE 6.0) the lead picture often obscures the first sentences of your story. Can you fix the layout functions? Or, skip the pix? They’re nice, but hardly essential. Thanks!

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    >>on this browser at least (IE 6.0) the lead picture often obscures the first sentences of your story. Can you fix the layout functions? Or, skip the pix? They’re nice, but hardly essential. Thanks!<<

    Just loaded it up in IE 6.0 and it looks fine.

  • Charlie

    The entire cycle of pre-release tease and comment (which Simpson’s character will the creators out?) to post-release analysis and comment has become a sort of Kabuki Theater, entirely predictable, entirely meaningless. Every “brave” and “artistically daring” step of the media to push society towards greater cultural liberalism must be framed as a battle between the forces of enlightenment and the forces of pre-modern Puritanism. I don’t think anyone is being swayed one way or the other, and few of us even bother to take notice of these staged debates.