Taking Offense to Offense
In The Simpsons’ “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” episode, Marge (voiced by Julie Kavner) writes to the producers of Itchy & Scratchy to complain about the cartoon’s violence after depicting Maggie hitting Homer on the head with a hammer. After growing protests, the studio fears losing viewership, so they give in to Marge’s suggestions, removing all violence from the show. On the next episode of Itchy & Scratchy, the two characters politely share a pitcher of lemonade and discuss friendship, which all the children of Springfield quickly dismiss as boring. When a group shames Marge for her supposed hypocrisy in refusing to also denounce Michelangelo’s David as profane, Marge concedes, “I guess one person can make a difference… but most of the time they probably shouldn’t” (“Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”).
Marge, in her defeat, comments on the apparent slippery slope of censorship—where does she draw the line in profanity, and can she? Ultimately, Marge is unable to really make a difference; any real change would lead to unintended consequences. Knox writes, “The Simpsons does not aim to destroy neutralized, closed systems of authority… for without its object of criticism, its criticism would not be possible” (78). As a broadcast show, The Simpsons can question the premises and business of television, but it cannot make a move to change it. It must live within its own system if it wishes to criticize it, so it is trapped. In the end, violence is returned to Itchy & Scratchy, Michelangelo’s David is left unaltered, and Marge is left unfulfilled. Broadcasting restricts actual change because of its need for mass appeal. The Simpsons can satirize and question these foundations, but it can never change them.
Whereas “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” questions the nature of change in the world broadcast, a number of episodes question the nature of animation. In his essay “Cartoon Realism: Genre Mixing and the Cultural Life of The Simpsons” professor Jason Mittell discusses explicitly the way in which the show’s animated format offers meaning. Arguing that the show should not be analyzed only through the lens of postmodernism—which he believes is too nonspecific and vague—he instead suggests looking at how the show works in a varied generic discourse (17). Mittell argues that the show ultimately offers commentary on the family sitcom genre through its parodic and satirical humor, but he also explains the ways in which the show critiques and challenges most audiences’ understanding of the animated cartoon genre, highlighting that which the format makes possible.
Through the use of animated parody, The Simpsons calls into question the assumptions of animation and the norms of the sitcom genre. In season eight’s “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” (1997) fictional actor Troy McClure (voiced by Phil Hartman) presents three potential Simpsons spin-offs to fill Fox’s primetime hours. The first, “Chief Wiggum P.I.”, is a gritty crime drama set in New Orleans. The second, “The Love-matic Grandpa”, features Abe Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) and Moe Szyslak (voiced by Hank Azaria) in a traditional sitcom, complete with a laugh track. The final spin-off, “The Simpson Family Smile-time Variety Hour”, stars the titular family, a number of popular supporting characters, and even special guest star Tim Conway in a hokey variety special, offering a mixed bag of a sub-par sketch comedy, dancing, and musical numbers.
The episode utilizes its animated format to showcase three wildly different spin-offs, each mocking the desperate attempts of past shows to keep an audience yet diversify its content. Such an episode would be impractical for a live-action comedy, but the rapid pacing and frequent genre changes are conventionalized by animation. Mittell writes, “By calling attention to these generic assumptions and mocking cultural conventions, the show can certainly serve as a site of opposition, treating traditionally marginalized topics… and questioning the very media system that circulates the show” (25). This episode calls into question the “reality” of sitcoms, presenting the Simpsons family as nothing but a fictionalized pseudo-representation of the average nuclear family. Their story is exploitable for shameless cash-grabs of additional programming.
In 1997’s “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase”, the McClure character notes that one family member refused to sign on for the project. He reassures viewers, “But thanks to some creative casting, you won’t even notice.” Lisa’s replacement is immediately recognizable as the new actor looks and sounds nothing like her, a not-so-subtle mockery of the industry’s attempts to extend the life of a popular show well past its prime. This episode cleverly utilizes its animated format to question the sitcom genre, the conventions of television, and the business of broadcast. The irony of this season eight episode’s mockery of a studio insisting on continuing a show by any means necessary is not lost on this writer, however, as The Simpsons is now in its 32nd season at the time of this writing. A retrospective analysis of this episode reveals an unintentional foresight, once again critiquing the nature of broadcast while trapped within its constraints. The show’s animated format, however, allows certain freedoms in its storytelling potential, despite the constraints of the broadcast medium.
The ability to utilize this animated privilege without fear of dropping in the ratings, however, varies across broadcast, cable, and SVOD. The Simpsons must stay within certain barriers in its storytelling so as not to distance itself from the expectations of broadcast, but South Park and BoJack Horseman take a significant amount of risk. Cable animation, such as Comedy Central’s South Park, can be much more controversial in its topics and strategies of storytelling. In “Contentious Language: South Park and the Transformation of Meaning” scholar Marcus Schulzke analyzes the ways in which South Park attempts to delegitimize offensive language and spark conversation and change surrounding the meaning of words.
Using a case study of a season 13 episode, “The F Word” (1989) and the negative responses it received from notable organizations such as GLAAD, Schulzke argues that South Park often uses offensive language in such excess to lessen the harm or shift the meaning of those words (30). Noting that South Park is often explicitly political and satirical of current topics, he notes the consistent trend South Park has had in speaking out in favor of gay rights (23). Schulzke suggests that, while the episode missed the mark in actually reducing the harm that slurs can cause, it nevertheless opened up a conversation about the constantly changing meaning of language based on historical, social, and cultural context. He makes clear reference to the explicit political commentary that South Park frequently offers and the risk that the show takes in speaking to such causes (26). This implied risk in subject matter is an aspect of the specificity of narrowcasting, a characteristic of cable which allows shows to take more risk because of a lessened demand of massive audiences.
Language use is again brought up in season five’s “It Hits the Fan” (1993) and season 11’s “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” (1999). In the former, the residents of South Park become excited when the network television show Cop Drama is about to air someone saying “shit” for the first time. As the restrictions on the use of profanity are relaxed after the episode’s airing, everyone in South Park begins to say the word as much as possible, which releases an ancient curse upon the city. Over the course of the episode, a counter is kept in the corner of the screen that counts the utterances of “shit” or any variance, totaling 162 uses total. Stan Lee (voiced by Trey Parker) says in the closing scene, “Too much use of a dirty word takes away from its impact” (“It Hits the Fan”). Through the intentional overuse of an otherwise profane word, South Park suggests that the language is totally meaningless unless we categorize it as taboo.
In season 11’s “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, character Randy Jackson comes under fire for using the N-word on Wheel of Fortune to solve the puzzle “People who annoy you”. Over the course of the episode, Stan wonders why Token Black (the show’s token black character) is so upset by the word, while Randy is labeled as the “N*****-Guy” by the town. Randy is refused service at stores, mocked on the street, and threatened by truck drivers, all of whom refer to Randy as “N*****-Guy”. Eventually, Stan realizes that he will never actually understand the impact of the word because he is not black, and he apologizes to Token for his ignorant comments. The episode highlights the effects of hate speech and the social expectations regarding the word.
Given the medium’s restrictions, South Park is something that would never be allowed on broadcast television. “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” episode uses frequent profanity to diminish its power, while “N*****-Guy” uses it to emphasize its power. Schulzke writes, “South Park argues that some bad words have no effect (usually those that are not used as group-specific insults), whereas words that are offensive because they attack particular groups should be reduced to the level of nonoffensive [sic]speech by being disempowered” (27). Schulzke statement regarding specific attacks is in conversation with the episode “The F-Word”, not “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, so it cannot be considered a blanket statement on the show’s overall commentary on language usage.
Indeed, the show’s understanding of language is far more complicated than a single episode can depict, but it nonetheless highlights the substantial freedom cable animation is allowed in its storytelling. In most episodes of South Park, what begins as a normal sitcom setup is quickly turned into an outrageous commentary made capable in the medium of animation. South Park’s combined status as both a cable program and an animated show allows it the double freedom of more transgressive subject matter and a greater possibility for narratives than live-action shows.
As with the rest of entertainment, animated television is constantly transforming. Producers notice trends in popularity and attempt to emulate its success. The nature of television is characterized by the seemingly impossible task of innovating while simultaneously delivering content that is tried and true. There are, however, notable differences in adult-orientated animated television across time and across broadcast, cable, and SVOD. As the progenitor for most expectations of adult animation, The Simpsons established the possibilities of animation in offering storytelling unique from its live-action sitcom counterparts. The show, however, is continuously limited by its broadcast format, capable of critiquing its medium without ever diverging from its formula.
On cable, South Park is free from many of the least-offensive programming restrictions placed on broadcast programs. The subject matter is more transgressive, and its animation pushes the expected reality of sitcoms far past its breaking point. On Netflix, however, BoJack Horseman is far more experimental in both its storytelling and use of animation. The show offers a narrative complexity previously unseen in adult-oriented animation but otherwise expected for streaming services. Moving beyond questions of legitimacy, conversations surrounding animation should instead focus on possibilities. The medium has the potential to offer unique narratives. Across the spectrum of programming formats, there is a consistency in the use of animation to question our understanding of storytelling.
Falvey, Eddie. “Situating Netflix’s Original Adult Animation: Observing Taste Cultures and the Legacies of ‘Quality’ Television through Bojack Horseman and Big Mouth.” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 15, no. 2, 2020, pp. 116-128.
“Free Churro” BoJack Horseman, season 5, episode 6. Netflix. 14 September 2018.
“It Hits the Fan” South Park, season 5, episode 1, Comedy Central. HBO Max. 20 June 2001.
“Itchy & Scratchy & Marge“. The Simpsons, season 2, episode 9, Fox, Disney Plus. 20 December 1990.
Knox, Simone. “Reading the Ungraspable Double-Codedness of The Simpsons.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. vol. 34, no. 2, 2006, pp. 73-81.
Mittell, Jason. “Cartoon Realism: Genre Mixing and the Cultural Life of The Simpsons.” Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television. no. 47, Spring 2001, pp. 15-28.
Schulzke, Marcus. “Contentious Language: South Park and the Transformation of Meaning”. Journal of Popular Film and Television. vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 22-31. 2012.
“Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase“. The Simpsons, season 8, episode 24, Fox, Disney Plus, 11 May 1998.
“With Apologies to Jesse Jackson“. South Park, season 11, episode 1. Comedy Central, HBO Max. 7 March 2007.