Review of 'Planet Simpson', Chris Turner, Ebury Press £7.99
George Bush Sr's comment that the average US family should strive to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons showed that this hugely popular cartoon can be a thorn in the side of the rich and powerful. Planet Simpson attempts to chronicle the ways in which The Simpsons reflects and comments on US society. It is not without flaws. It reads more like a PhD thesis at times, doesn't always resist the temptation to explain humour and leaves important threads dangling, like creator Matt Groening's increasing disillusion with corporate interference from Fox. However, it has some interesting, thought-provoking observations to make.
The cartoon's origins were potentially radical. Groening, a veteran of the anti-corporate press, wanted to 'entertain and subvert'. He insisted on creative control and wanted to go after the bigger issues. He certainly does this. Turner demonstrates how, through the character of Mr Burns, for example, rampant, sneering, uncaring capitalism is continually satirised. Burns's nuclear power plant plunders and pollutes the planet with impunity, while spinning itself as environmentally friendly in its 'Public Information' films. As these contain grotesque three-eyed fish, glowing uranium rods and suspicious looking material being, quite literally, swept under carpets, the hypocrisy of this spin is exposed.
The book drives its point home by reference to historical context. For example, we learn that giant oil companies like Shell and BP might put only tiny amounts (0.01 percent) of their operating budgets into developing green technologies, but they spend a hundred times more on marketing themselves as green.
In my view, it is precisely when the book embeds its analysis in such historical context that it is at its strongest in arguing for the relevance of the cartoon as political satire. To give another example, a discussion of the ways the cartoon satirises the ubiquitous nature of marketing is underscored by quoting White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card's comment on the timing of war in Iraq: 'From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.'
Indeed, the point is made that reality often outstrips the satirical attempt at parody. Sideshow Bob's electoral fraud, for example, pales into insignificance when set against the fraud that disenfranchised thousands of African-American voters in Florida in the US election of 2000.
How radical is The Simpsons? Turner sees it as both political Trojan horse and harmless jester at the court of the rich and powerful. It is certainly a Trojan horse, presenting politicians as corrupt and self-serving, the police as incompetent, the law as a slave to big business, even biting the hand that feeds it when it attacks Fox TV.
It exposes the insidious nature of a corporate world that targets children, inducing hyperactivity through frenetic entertainment and sugary fast food, and then makes huge profits out of treating resultant 'disorders' (Attention Deficit Disorder) with drugs like ritalin.
However, The Simpsons reflects, as well as critiques, capitalism. It attacks the way everything is turned into a commodity under capitalism but it is itself a highly marketable commodity - one whose production, moreover, is partly 'outsourced' to South Korea.
In the end, the book's characterisation of the political slant of the cartoon as 'liberal' is probably accurate, but at least the discussion is framed within the post-9/11, post-Iraq context of increasingly global political activism (Seattle and elsewhere) and economic polarisation. As Trotsky said, art mediates reality in complex ways.