Wednesday, 22 January 2014

I built the set of the Simpsons and dressed up as Marge for a video performance in which I sat still to "End of The World" by Skeeter Davies.
I'm fairly fascinated by the depiction of the housewife in contemporary culture ranging from th for my essay , I think it holds resonance to the every day and pop culture, so here ilassic 1950's archetypal model to the satirical. I did a lot of thinking and researching on the matter for my essay , I think it holds resonance to the every day and pop culture, so here it is.

To What Extent is it Important that Marge Simpson Echoes the Traditional 1950’s Housewife of the Domestic Sitcom?

The traditional role of the housewife in American post-consumerist culture is clearly rooted in a mythology of a woman who cooks, cleans and dotes on her family without a single complaint.  The role of satire in the Simpsons turns a mirror on the traditional nuclear American family and presents a stereotype that we escape into for comfort.  We are offered a flawed representation of the American Dream rife with failures similar to our own in which family members conform to expected roles and live out amusing scenarios identifiable on some level within our own lives, numbing the pain of reality by offering humour as an anesthetic.

 In Nina Leibman’s book ‘Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television’ she describes the fifties familial sitcom as the “domestic melodrama”(Leibman 1995) Archetypal examples include “Leave it to Beaver”, “Father Knows Best” “Ozzie and Harriett” and generally revolves around “middle-class nuclear families living in suburbia which feature a professional father and a full-time stay-at-home mother.  Humour is found in the interrelationships of family members.”(Leibman 1995) These original sitcoms are centralised around a doting, strong father figure who forms a stable family base for a perfect representation of the American dream. The mother always fulfills the role of a housewife or has an inconsequential dead-end job; she never has much worth especially in comparison to the nobility of the father figure. The maternal figure “now held a questionable position as the operative force in domestic life, wherein they were expected to perform the necessary domestic duties but continually upheld their husbands as more important.”(Leibman 1995) This constructs a gendered divide in domesticated roles, and a clear sociological system in which the nuclear American family was known to operate. In the post-feminist age of The Simpsons there became enough distance between the gender binary American lifestyle, and because being a housewife became a choice rather than a necessary lifestyle, the fifties sitcom housewife began to be viewed as a flawed and increasingly obsolete ideal.

The satirical American family cartoon such as The Simpsons echoes the 1950s formula, the archetypal familial roles are presented clearly; the doting and attractive housewife blissfully trapped into a marriage she is too good for, a buffoonish, inconsiderate husband whose charming idiocy makes him exempt from consequence, a similarly idiotic son whose stupidity directly echoes that of his father, a lost or misunderstood daughter who dreams of an escape from her embarrassing family, and of course a baby and a dog to complete the portrait of the American dream. This portrait of eschewed conventionality provides an escape for us from the uncertainties of our own lives; we find comfort in the fact that the characters never age, and are firmly anchored in their sociological roles for us to continuously lose ourselves in. One might even say that we rely on the steadiness of these characters to anesthetize our own emotional instability in life. The Simpsons presents to us a cyclical, stuffy world into which to escape, and presents us with animated versions of our own problems, nullifying the pain we feel with humour. In ‘Life and How to Survive it’ the self-help psychology book written by therapist Robin Skinner and comedian John Cleese, it is mentioned that one of the most positive coping mechanisms available to us is humour. “You feel things to the full... but you master them by turning it all into pleasure and fun”(Cleese 1994 , 53-6). It certainly could be said that The Simpsons in this way teaches us a lot about ourselves and helps us cope with the bleak reality of life.

 The Simpsons stay the same age as the outside world ages around them, the children who were once with what would now be retro gaming gear have gained smartphones and laptops, Homer has worked in a nuclear power plant for over twenty years and still hasn’t developed cancer, and Maggie still hasn’t spoken her first word. It could even be argued that the creators satirize this lack of room for change via Snowball, the family’s beloved cat, who dies multiple times, only to be replaced by a completely identical cat (as mentioned in Lisa Simpson’s poem; “Meditations on turning eight … I had a cat named Snowball, she died, she died, Mom said she was sleeping, she lied, she lied. Why oh why is my cat dead? Couldn’t that Chrysler have hit me instead?” – a satire on becoming aware of mortality and seeing through the slippage of our parents lies to protect us) There is no opportunity for progression within the model of the beloved sitcom, the chance for change is always born and extinguished within the space of one episode, particularly in the case of Marge. We seek comfort in these well-known characters and fear change, and know that when our own lives go awry we can return to these comforting figures of familiarity.

 Characters in the archetypal American sitcom seem to be anchored to their roles within the mechanics of the American dream. The housewives, in particular, may deviate from normativity as the plot of an episode unwinds, but by the end they are charmed back into the arms of their family and deterred from any hope of a career or affair. The most archetypal example of this formula is in Lucille Ball’s “The Lucy-Desi comedy hour” in the 1959 season 2 episode 4 entitled “Lucy wants a career”. The episode opens with Lucy doting upon her husband and son, asking them what they want her to cook for them to only be met by male brutish apathy. In reaction to her complaining about the stuffiness of domesticity her husband describes it as “The popular record ‘The Housewife’s Lament’ by Lucy Riccardo, I know the last line; ‘For two cents I go out and get myself a job’” Rebelling against her husband’s disbelief, Lucy goes out into the workplace, at first finding it liberating, but, of course, after a number of incidents proving her incompetence away from her family she is found in a hysterical state by the end of the episode, sobbing “I don’t like having a job, I’m lonesome without you and little Ricky, I wanna be a housewife again!” This demonstrates that a life outside of housewifery or secretarial work was so unusual in the 1950s that the very notion of escaping normativity into this world of progression was a joke for all the family to laugh along to on TV. Now, in post-feminist post-choice society, this stuffy portrayal of a career as a home-wrecker is an absurd caricature of an increasingly obsolete societal norm.

 The archetypal 1950s housewife was born in post-war consumerism; new technologies and progression in industry meant that household labour saving appliances like the vacuum cleaner became commonplace. As televisions became the centerpiece to any American family household and advertisements and sitcoms burgeoned into ubiquity, the American Dream, and the image of the perfect housewife, became a sellable commodity. In her essay entitled ‘Housework’, Germaine Greer argues that these labour saving devices create more work, and that new, almost neurotic standards of hygiene brought to our attention by advertising are “tightening the headlock on the ‘housewife’” (Greer, 1999 p166) and with the excessive amount of appliances being available in the home, they have “brought anything but increased leisure for the houseworker.” (Greer, 1999 p166)  The presentation of a housewife is often one of constant drudge with little reward, but with the indication that the household will fall apart without her.
 The Simpsons repeatedly displays these patterns of non-escape from drudgery. By her repeated return to her regular state of dissatisfied ennui, Marge Simpson becomes a caricature of the lamentation felt universally by housewives. As was written in the 1947 Modern Woman: The Lost Sex; “the social development which created the physical slum also created throughout society what may be termed the emotional slum.”(Lundburg, 1947) In other words, the environment in which she is trapped causes the mental and sociological dissatisfaction of the housewife. The ennui becomes apparent enough to be rife for turning a caricature presented within a satire for universal post consumerist society to relate to.

 In The Simpsons’ Season 8 Episode 2 “You Only Move Twice.” We are presented with the alternative to the suburban Springfield trap. Homer gets offered a job in Cypress Creek, a Utopian, futuristic town where everything seems perfect. At first, Marge is reluctant to make the move, defending her love of her stuffy life; “Homer, I don’t want to leave Springfield. I’ve dug myself into a happy little rut here and I’m not about to hoist myself out of it.”. This shows Marge’s own comfort in her routine which echos our own comfort that we find in watching The Simpsons. They move to Cypress Creek and everything seems perfect, Homer’s job is perfect, there’s plenty of beautiful wildlife for Lisa to enjoy and the school system seems unflawed, however the characters are just unfit to function outside their own comforts. Lisa becomes allergic to everything around her, Bart gets moved into a special ed class, and, although Homer is enjoying his new job, Marge finds the self cleaning futuristic kitchen to leave her bored and without purpose, so she turns to alcohol in the hope it will fill the time she would usual fill with drudgery. Some might argue that this proves that Marge as a character cannot exist without her role as a housewife, and outside of her domestic hyperactivity she has nothing to justify her as a character. “I’ve been so bored since we moved here that I’ve found myself drinking a glass of wine every day.” She laments, “I know doctors say you should drink a glass and a half but I just can’t drink that much.” So of course, order is restored and The Simpsons move back into their rut in Springfield and once again thrive under their own comforting dysfunctionality.

 Another important episode in which Marge satirizes the limitations of the life of the housewife is in the episode entitled “A Streetcar named Marge” in which Marge lands the part of Blanche Dubois in an amateur dramatics rendition of “A streetcar named desire” and homer is profoundly unsupportive vocally refusing to feign interest in her “kooky projects:” (i.e., endeavours outside of her familial role). During the casting process, the director disregards all people auditioning for Blanche, but catches Marge crying on the phone to Homer (“You were right, Homer, Outside interests are stupid”) and within her finds his star. Marge approaches the role with her trademark bumbling feminine gingerness and when asked to threaten her Co-Star with a broken bottle she sighs; “I’m sorry… I just don’t see why Blanche should shove a broken bottle in Stanley’s face… couldn’t she just take his abuse with gentle good humour?”. At this moment the satire is used as a plot device to gain empathy for Marge’s character and we are left to feel pain for Marge and her uncompromising passiveness. The formula of the Simpsons portrays the female characters as kind and moral and the male characters as buffoons. Joan Williams writes in “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About it.” That themes in domesticity are “men are selfish, women are selfless, women are more moral than men.”(Williams, p149 1999) Could this vulnerability intrinsically written in to Marge’s character be a ‘by the women, for the women’ comment of collective empathy and understanding? By the end of the episode, of course, Marge is fueled to do well under her husband’s negativity so much so that she reduces him to tears as he sees the error of his ways, they make up and normativity is restored.
  Marge Simpson breaks the mould of the perfect housewife figure, she’s beautiful, yet she’s got these unusual trademarks of her big blue bouffant and her gravelly voice. In Jessamyn Neuhaus’ essay ‘Marge Simpson, the Blue Haired Housewife; Defining Domesticity in The Simpsons’ it is stated that in the moments of defeat at the end of an episode at which she returns to normativity, she shows discontent and disheartenment, meaning that she “pointedly refutes the myth of the TV housewife; she belies the image of the eternally cheerful, content, utterly domesticated wife and mother.”(Neuhaus, 2010) She is emotionally sapped by the limitations of housewifery yet must continue on to return to Homer’s unconditional yet dissatisfying love. He consistently soothes her in her defeated state of acquiescence with lines such as “You’ll always be the best cook in our house.” which once again limits her to domesticity and presents the satire of the stuck American family to the viewer to which an alternative life exists. The Simpsons is progressive in the way that it satirises the role of the traditional gender roles, making us question their validity in everyday society, and although they stifle change, each return to normativity provides us with great comfort and a happy ending which distracts us from the pain of real life.

 Nina C Leibman (1st June 1995). Living Room Lectures: Fifties Family in Film and Television. Texas: University of Texas Press.

53Skynner, Robin; Cleese, John (1994). Life and How to Survive It. London. pp. 53–6. ISBN

Germaine Greer (1999). The Whole Woman. Great Britain: Double Day. 164-173

Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham (1947). Modern Woman: The Lost Sex . -: Harper and Brothers. -.

Joan Williams (1999). Unbending Gender: Why family and work conflict and what to do about it. -: Oxford University Press. 149.

NEUHAUS, J. (2010), Marge Simpson, Blue-Haired Housewife: Defining Domesticity on The Simpsons. The Journal of Popular Culture, 43: 761–781. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5931.2010.00769.x

Jennifer Reed (2003);  Beleaguered Husbands and Demanding Wives:

“A Streetcar Named Marge” The Simpsons, Fox, 1992, television
“You Only Move Twice” The Simpsons, Fox, 1996, television
“All’s Fair in Oven War” The Simpsons, Fox, 2004, television

“Lucy Wants a Career” The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Desilu Productions, 1959, television

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