Bart Simpson Was Considered A Bad Influence, And That's Nuts
It's no exaggeration to say that The Simpsons has influenced every writer you've ever read on this site (or any other comedy site). So this week, Cracked is taking a closer look at the town of Springfield and all of our favorite residents ...
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Back in 1990, a terrible scourge was ravaging America’s schools. Was it drugs? STDs? A last gasp of communist sympathizers? No, it was Bart Simpson T-shirts.
While that video is worth watching just to see a kid mess up and say “Swart Simpson” on television, the larger story is about schools banning Simpsons T-shirts. Supposedly, seeing a T-shirt that said “Underachiever and Proud Of It” was going to send children into a spiral of shame and failure.
It’s an even-handed report—a psychologist points out that it can be good for kids to see fictional characters who struggle to behave—but it’s just a sample of the Great Bart Panic of the early '90s. A Los Angeles school board bigwig complained that Bart “represents an anti-intellectualism that is not healthy,” while a principal from a school that enforced a ban said “the show teaches the wrong things to students.” Newspaper editorials warned that Bart was “egotistical, aggressive and mean-spirited,” and he was called a bad role model for children by, uh, Bill Cosby. Well, he would know.
If that feels like an overreaction, that’s because it was, but you have to understand that in 1990 Bart was everywhere. At least 15 million Bart T-shirts were sold that year, and that was just a fraction of the Simpsons merchandise that poured out of sweatshops. 1990 was also the year we got the chart-topping “Do the Bartman,” featuring none other than Michael Jackson, from the novelty album The Simpsons Sing the Blues. The show had only aired 19 episodes when “Do the Bartman” came out! It wasn’t even that good yet!
Some parents and educators defended Bart, and the shirt kerfuffle soon died down, but Bart faced accusations of being a bad influence throughout the '90s. Even President Bush sounded off on the poor guy. In retrospect, that’s adorably quaint. Bart’s edgy brags in “Do the Bartman” include “Droppin' banana peels all over the floor” and “I put mothballs in the beef stew.” Yeah, he said “damn” and “hell” and was sometimes rude to his dad, but 11 years later, Cartman was tricking a kid into eating his own parents.
In retrospect, Bart looks like a damn role model. There’s an episode where he finally realizes the importance of buckling down and studying even as every other kid in Springfield is enjoying a snow day. Whenever he crosses from committing obnoxious pranks to actual crimes, like when he’s pressured into stealing a video game, he’s wracked by guilt and eventually does the right thing.
The Simpsons also toys with Bart having an undiagnosed learning disability; when the prospect of one day becoming a cop excites him he starts getting great grades, and he outwits his genius sister when she tries to make him the subject of her science experiment. He’s not stupid, he just … doesn’t quite fit in, despite making the effort. Damn, how could such a character have resonated with real children?
We’re not going to get a character quite like Bart again, for multiple reasons. In the futuristic year 2000, a Time interview with Matt Groening was amazed “that families watch The Simpsons together, in the same living room” despite the show airing “In an age of meals-on-the-move, three-television households, computer games and the Internet.” With the media landscape as fractured as it is today, we’re not going back to that kind of national appointment viewing; family-friendly cartoons like Bob’s Burgers are successful but not juggernauts, while adult cultural phenomena like Game of Thrones weren’t exactly shows you sat down with the kids for.
Beavis and Butt-Head was accused of taking Bart’s behavior a step further, and after South Park debuted in 1997 it soon had its own T-shirt scandal. Cartman’s narcissistic sociopathy made Bart look like a saint, but South Park always aired late and with an explicit warning that it wasn’t for kids. About 20% of its viewers were kids anyway, but that’s what most of the scandal and criticism boiled down to; while the Simpsons was called inappropriate for school, South Park was called inappropriate for minors, full stop, and that’s a different debate.
Even in 1998 the Chicago Tribune noted that the South Park debate was fueled by the fact that it went further than The Simpsons, which “once seemed on the edge with their language and behavior but now have seeped into the public mainstream.” That was also around the time the show began its slide into forgettable mediocrity. Over the course of a decade Bart had gone from a sign of cultural degradation to being about as menacing as Family Circus. He hadn’t really changed, but our standards for edginess sure did. Who gave a shit about Bart flunking yet another test after pundits tried to connect South Park to Columbine?
Today, you (hypothetically) don’t have to hang around a school for long to see a kid with some Rick and Morty gear, and that’s arguably an even darker show than South Park. But parents either think it’s okay for their kids to watch it, or they have no idea what it’s about because their kids are streaming it in another room. Rick and Morty had a sentient jellybean try to rape its 14-year-old hero, but Bart’s the character that made national news for crossing some sort of moral Rubicon by not always doing his homework. You couldn’t not know what The Simpsons was about in a way that’s not really possible now. Grandmas knew Bart; ask the average grandma about Rick and Morty and they’ll guess that they’re the latest Ticking-Tock stars.
President Bush's "Simpsons speech" called on Americans to be more like The Waltons, an almost tediously good-natured show where the cast of do-gooders always learned a moral lesson. In retrospect, The Simpsons almost was The Waltons of the '90s; the whole family sat down to watch, and they walked away with a decent message on any given night. The Simpsons arrived at a unique moment when mainstream comedy was getting edgier but television was still a monolith where you watched what was in front of you. If the outraged pundits of the day knew what was coming, their heads would have exploded.
The fact that The Simpsons—and Bart in particular—always had a weird patina of edginess is also why a show like Bob’s Burgers is still going strong 12 seasons in while Season 12 of The Simpsons felt geriatric. If you’re expecting to be as shocked by a show’s 250th episode as its 50th, you’re going to be disappointed. But if a show is merely considered good instead of groundbreaking, it can keep rolling for a while. That’s how those media reports work too, really; local news couldn’t be perpetually worried about The Simpsons, but they could move on to being worried about what came next.
But maybe the biggest takeaway here is that lazy readings of pop culture will never die. Much like the accusations that D&D and Harry Potter were magnets for witchcraft, the idea that Bart was some sort of avatar of cultural destruction was based on the shallowest possible interpretation of The Simpsons. Bart was a kid who cracked a few jokes before dutifully going to church with his family and trying his best to pay attention. If The Simpsons debuted today, the National Review would be praising it as a return to old-fashioned family values.
On the surface, The Simpsons presents Bart as an edgy rebel, and that’s the angle all those news stories ran with. But if you actually sit down and watch the show, you realize he’s a huge dork. All the girls in his class think he’s lame, bullies repeatedly kick the shit out of him, his only friends are even bigger losers, half his attention-seeking stunts backfire, and he seeks refuge in comic books and television. The irony was that Bart was actually a pretty damn good role model, because he knew that adults often had no idea what the hell they were talking about.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
Top image: Fox