The Queer Journey Of Waylon Smithers
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There are many long-running mysteries surrounding The Simpsons, like "Where exactly is Springfield?" or "Which Fox executive are they blackmailing to stay on the air for a whole Jesus lifetime?" or, most inscrutably of all, "What is the real deal with Mr. Burns' assistant, Smithers?" You know what we're talking about.
For many years, Simpsons writers answered that question by claiming that Smithers isn't gay: he's "Burns-sexual." Meaning that he's only sexually attracted to his boss, not that he has some sort of fetish involving burning flesh (which would actually be more understandable). Showrunner Al Jean further distanced Smithers from the LGTBQ+ community by saying that if Mr. Burns was a woman, then Smithers would be into women. Yes, he's a non-gay man who vacations in all-male resorts, frequents Springfield's gay district wearing rainbow-colored shorts and roller skates, and recoils at the sight of stripper boobies.
But, to be fair, "Burns-sexual" does describe the Smithers from the early seasons pretty well. The earliest jokes about Smithers' "crush" simply consisted of him occasionally telling Mr. Burns he loved him, but it was the typical love of a sycophantic employee. He flatters Burns by telling him he's "distracting the female employees" and freely admits he "values every second" he's taking care of that miserable animated skeleton. At this point, Smithers seems perfectly happy serving as Burns' stomping mat and just spending time in his general vicinity.
But the fundamental laws of the universe state that the longer a comedy show is on the air, the more its characters become parodies of themselves. In Smithers' case, that meant that his obsession turned decidedly sexual. We found out that he fantasized about Burns "sniffing his crotch," flying in through his bedroom window, and popping out of a big (erotic?) birthday cake in the nude. It was also at this point that the show first started hinting that Smithers didn't particularly care for women (except for little plastic ones, of course).
But, with the sexual component also came Smithers' growing frustration. The once casual romantic confessions are now tortured and tinted by regret ("Who am I kidding, the boathouse was the time"), and instead of telling Burns he's a catch for the ladies, he acts jealous as he helps him write love letters clearly inspired by the old geezer. Smithers is no longer content with scraps -- his body yearns for Burns' soft touch. His sexuality is a source of angst and even rage. In fact, we learn that he was once married to a woman, but the relationship collapsed under the weight of his Mr. Burns fixation.
The first time Smithers' homosexuality was seen under a truly sympathetic light was in season 6 when he helps sabotage Sideshow Bob's political campaign because Bob's (and Burns') "ultra-conservative views conflict with his choice of lifestyle." One has to wonder how many jokes about Smithers being Deep Throat ended up on the cutting room floor. Soon, Smithers' interest in men expanded outside Burns as he started going on very non-heterosexual vacations and having an off-camera relationship with Homer's gay friend, John (Waters). However, he was very much still in the closet, even if the only one who really bought it was the object of his affections.
As The Simpsons entered the 21st century, literally and figuratively, the show increasingly treated Smithers as a technically-not-out-but-still-proud man (aside from a non-canon gag about taking "straight injections" in the future). In a 2004 episode, he's listed as a member of Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays, and there's no doubt about which one he's supposed to represent. In 2011, he co-starred in an episode where he helps turn Moe's Tavern into a gay bar and gets mad at Moe for appropriating his culture by pretending to be gay for profit. The two end up making up and making out in public.
Smithers was practically out by then, but the show only made it official in a 2016 episode where he briefly dates Homer's other gay friend, Julio, only this time out it all happens on-camera (well, not all, but enough). Last year's episode "Portrait of a Lackey on Fire" seems to bring Smithers full circle as he starts going steady with a billionaire who doesn't treat him like trash. Unfortunately, they break up when "Mr. Perfect" triggers a gay Chernobyl (even The Simpsons knows there's no such thing as an ethical billionaire).
Smithers has probably had the clearest long-term evolution of any Simpsons character, from simple lackey to miserable closet case to someone who's allowed to have actual boyfriends, even if they don't last. In short: the real deal with Waylon Smithers is that he's Mr. Burns' assistant. He's in his early forties, is (still) unmarried, and currently resides in Springfield.
Top image: 20th Television