[Written by Maya McDowell-Uppal]
[Image Credits: Amara Coelho]
I don’t know how many of you reading this have had the chance to visit Yuri Suzuki’s ‘Furniture Music’ at The Lighthouse yet, but even if you have it’s not really supposed to be about cartoons. The thing is though, art can speak to you in many ways and my takeaway from the show was mainly how much I enjoyed standing in a comic strip room. It felt like that episode of the Simpsons where Homer falls through a portal to the 3D world, and suddenly encounters a whole mass of strange creatures, people he shares a vague resemblance to but who ultimately look nothing like him. It’s an eerie setting, but that episode like Suzuki’s work highlights our physical presence in the world around us and encourages us to question how we relate to our environments. So, it’s no wonder Suzuki uses a cartoon setting to question the relationship between ourselves and the world – the Simpsons has been doing that for years.
The Simpsons offer us a version of reality: one that’s bright and shiny. Marge, Homer and their kids are designed to reflect the lives of the audience watching it. The type of family with fixed smiles you see in supermarket adverts or sitcoms; the type that doesn’t really exist. The Simpsons takes people that are supposed to be perfect and undermines them to reveal the problems that occur when striving for this artificially spotless life. Think about the relationship that Marge has to the rest of Springfield and the fact that she’s constantly worried about what others might think. In ‘Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield’, she cuts her Chanel suit to shreds trying to constantly remodel it – and herself – to fit this perfect mould imposed by the other, richer, mothers. Homer in comparison is blissfully unaware of his relationship to the rest of the town, which infuriates the other characters. As kids we see it as a light-hearted show with funny, relatable characters, but as adults we might resent being compared to any of them. Because in reality they exaggerate the worst parts of the aspirational family model provided to us repeatedly in the media.
Animators break down the idealised moulds we build up in society, and instead create versions of reality that expose and ridicule the social structures we establish in the real world. Even earlier cartoons like Betty Boop or Looney Tunes use their camp and gaudy imagery to animate societies that simultaneously mirror and warp real life. I think this is why cartoons can be used so effectively in contemporary art. Take Keith Haring: his use of cartoons to express serious concerns around social matters could be seen as a juxtaposition of themes. However, considering his work alongside a history of animation, contemporary art practice, embracing cartoon imagery should never be a surprise. It is easy to ask questions about your social determinism through the guise of non-threatening caricatures.
The problem with the perfect family model is that nobody fits the description. Even the Simpsons – TVs classic example of a nuclear family, seemingly rejects any notion of perfection. After all, the idea that a cis, straight, yellow couple with 2.5 kids living somewhere in unidentified middle America should be the normal way to have a family is ridiculous, and Matt Groening knows it. Cartoons are the perfect way to question our role within the modern world; the mundaneness of life can be bent to absurd extremes because drawings are allowed to be fantasist and encouraged to be nonsensical. They’re so often dismissed as being just for kids but shows like the Simpsons often shape the way we look at the world.
The Simpsons family life in its flawed reality, doesn’t fit the perfect prototype. And yet, due to their appearance, it is assumed that they do. They become a parody of what they believe they are, and anybody watching the show that doesn’t meet these standards can see that the show is poking fun at this artificial normality. This light hearted, silly cartoon emphasises the differences between us as a good thing—we shouldn’t want this template of uniformity to be the only way we are supposed to experience the world.
Our relationship to art, the media and the rest of the modern world is not a fixed mould, it is bound to change and develop as we grow up. But for me, one thing that will remain constant is the ability of art and animation to question our social positions in the world. Not everybody is going to have an idealised version of a perfect life and shows like the Simpsons are incredibly important to deconstructing that social narrative, especially for young children. Its popularity has also paved the way for more animations to continue criticising the modern world and media, and shows like Daria and Bojack Horseman couldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for the influence of the Simpsons’ deconstructive social lens.