Words || Lucy MacCulloch
Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?
If you went to the Climate Strike on the 20th September or read any recaps of it online, you probably saw your fair share of Simpsons-related protest signs: a lot of Helen Lovejoys, that’s a paddlin’, do it for her (the earth), even a few steamed hams. Despite the show celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, it’s clear it still strikes a chord with today’s youth, helped along by general meme culture and online communities like the Facebook group The Simpsons against the Liberals, and its less popular counterpart The Simpsons against Donald Trump.
Political Simpsons memes essentially serve a similar function to the political cartoons published in ye old newspapers in ye olden times. The Internet took a pop culture staple, made legendary by the powers of international broadcast television, and through the process of remixes and recontextualization made it their own. Academic analysis of political memes – which exists – describe the meme-making process as an example of “collective individuality”. For one, while a specific angle might be your own idea, you’ll be using some kind of pre-determined format, i.e. a joke, a scene, or just a previous meme you’ve decided to tweak. From the start, it’s a collaborative process.
Secondly, while your meme is hopefully the funniest, it ultimately draws its power from being part of a group. Virality and shareability is the goal, not only in terms of Internet success but also in regard to political and social movements. The Simpsons against the Liberals page isn’t just popular because it’s funny, but because it provides a sense of solidarity among leftists unhappy with Australia’s current government. Making a political Simpsons meme, or even just taking one from the page and printing it out or drawing it on a piece of cardboard, allows you to participate in the group action of protesting while also showing off your sick art skills and sense of humour.
It’s also just a fun way to participate in activism. There’s still a lot of discussion about just how truthful and dire the climate movement should be. Will people turn away from hard facts, from photos of emaciated polar bears on slivers of ice? How do we get people to engage with the unbearable? Memes don’t provide a concrete answer, but they can do a good job of getting people to understand and engage with sometimes boring, sometimes overwhelming facts. Like yeah, we should probably all read the UN report, but we can also read the summaries of Ralph Wiggum going “I’m in danger”. Coined ‘playful activism’, it’s the next logical step in being an active consumer of pop culture, and is a good way to make serious political and media analysis more accessible, spreadable and marketable (for better or worse).
Also, intertextuality is a great a visual shorthand for complex social messages, but I’m not your English teacher.
Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos
But why does this 30-year-old show – more if you include the Tracey Ulmann sketches – still have such an influence on how multiple generations interact with politics?
At this point, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Channel 10 airing The Simpsons at 6pm on weeknights literally shaped a generation or two. Even if you haven’t watched an episode, you’ve probably absorbed a line or two through osmosis, for better (“meh”) or for worse (Apu). Point is: when I say DENTAL PLAN, you say LISA NEEDS BRACES. It’s part of what makes Simpsons memes so memorable – you can hear the voices in your head when you read it, you have the jokes memorised. It helps you engage with them instantly and also makes participating in them, whether you be reacting or tagging your friends in the comments on Facebook, more fun.
The Simpsons have given us an everyday, common language to use to navigate this cromulent world, but notably in how its entered into politics. Whether it be the corruption of Mayor Quimby, the relentless greed of Mr Burns, or even Sideshow Bob using the names of dead people to help him win the Springfield election long before whispers of election fraud during the 2016 US election arose. Every election, without fail, you will hear a Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos uttered.
It’s generally accepted that pop culture, and society at large, has 30-year-cycles of nostalgia: the 80s were nostalgic for a faux-50s, the 2010s nostalgic for a neon 80s. Following that logic, the 2020s should be all about the 90s. We might have started a bit early in terms of overalls and chokers, but we’re well ahead for 90s Simpsons nostalgia.
And that’s kind of the point. No one is putting 2019 episodes of The Simpsons on protest signs. For one, The Simpsons are no longer on at 6pm, and we have more than five tv channels, plus streaming and Youtube, to watch now. Secondly, The Simpsons last attempt to comment on the Trump presidency was universally derided.
But I’d argue that the main point of the Simpsons political memes is absurdity. In 2000, the writers tried to think of the most bizarre future they could, where goodbye had been replaced by “smell ya later” and Donald Trump had been president, and 16 years later it happened. In “Bart Gets An Elephant”, which aired in 1994, Stampy walks through both a Republican and a Democratic convention and I would love for the banners on display to not become truer for both US and Australian politics to not become truer every year.
Conversely, when Helen Lovejoy proclaimed, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” it was to emphasise the bombastic moral pearl-clutching found in public debates, most recently during the marriage equality plebiscite. Protesters subvert the phrase by using it sincerely, but still highlight the discrepancy between politicians’ and older generation’s performative concern for the wellbeing of young people, except when it comes to the actual liveability of their futures. Plenty of other cartoons and comments have been made about this topic, but the ubiquity of the phrase and it’s changed functionality is worth noting.
Ultimately, a smart, satirical and yellow TV show made a lot of very astute observations about politics and society in the 90s, years before a lot of the climate protesters were born. What the makers of that show thought were caricatures, jokes for the sake of jokes and what would be absurd is now, in a lot of ways, our reality. Quoting The Simpsons points out this absurdity while also providing a degree of nostalgic comfort and comradery, but is still just funny and cool enough to let you still be a bit ironic and detached. Eat my shorts, climate deniers.