Marge or Homer?

// 30 December 2008

I have just been surfing the web and came across this beauty summarising the differences between male and female biology.

women-beer.gif

What an image, eh? Good ole Matt Groening.

Comments From You

Jess McCabe // Posted 31 December 2008 at 1:39 am

Interesting, certainly. But I always wonder whether these things can be a bit misleading – I’m no biologist, but there’s plenty that male and female bodies have in common – these things tend to (over?)emphasise differences.

Jane // Posted 31 December 2008 at 11:25 am

I’m a huge fan of the Simpsons and one of things made crystal clear, in episode after episode is that Homer would be totally utterly lost without Marge and she is far too good for him. Also it’s Lisa and Marge who are the smart ones. Bart is a dumbo. There was an episode where Flanders loses his temper and shouts at Bart: “OOh don’t have a cow – man. Here’s a phrase you should learn for your adult years, Bart. ‘Buddy Can You Spare a Quarter?'” Homer is basically a dog in fat man clothes.

Abby O'Reilly // Posted 31 December 2008 at 1:00 pm

I love The Simpsons, too, (as well as a lot of other American cartoons), but I’m not entirely sure whether they work to confirm or subvert gender stereotypes. Take The Simpsons, for example. Homer is a bumbling useless oaf. He has inherited these characteristics from his father (who is likewise irrational, with the same capacity for incredible selfishness presented in a pseudo-endearing way. So these are presented as male attributes). The similarities Homer has with his father are exacerbated by the characterisation of his mother – a progressive hippy intellectual who in affect abandoned Homer as a child (considered one of the biggest taboos and crimes a mother can commit, leaving her baby). Family life is represented as having been a potential burden for her, and one she escaped in favour of a more exciting existence.

We learn that Marge (unlike Homer) was not only very academic, but artistic, and could have pursued any career she wanted if she hadn’t accidentally become pregnant. A lot of episodes are orientated around her discontentment. She runs away with a female friend in a Thelma and Louise like scenario. She temporarily becomes a police woman. She develops amnesia remembering everyone but Homer, referring to him only as Mr Simpson. But she always returns to the domesticity of the home, resuming her role as devoted wife and mother, following some lacklustre romantic gesture by Homer. While these are usually nothing special, that Homer would show her a modicum of consideration, (we are led to believe his intellectual ability denies him the capacity for empathy), is interpreted as a compassionate and touching phenomenon (not just by Marge, but by the viewers to – an episode will often end on this happy note.) He becomes somehow the hero when he is usually the reason (either directly or indirectly) for Marge’s sadness.

Marge is not happy. She takes to shop lifting, has a breakdown, develops a gambling problem as a means to expend her pent up energy, and an obsession with fast, powerful cars. She clearly feels trapped by the domesticity of family life, and while Lisa is portrayed as a particularly intelligent little girl (and the manifestation of future hopes for young women, I suppose reminiscent of Woolf’s Elizabeth Dalloway) there is the underlying fear that she may suffer a fate not dissimilar to her mothers (that of motherhood and marriage).

In Seth McFarlane’s American Dad (an incompetent secret agent), likewise, Fran is the attractive clever wife, with her attempts to develop any sort of independence through personal enterprise dashed by her jealous husband, Stan. As a result on more than one occasion she has (or at least attempts to) have sex with another man. Family Guy (also created by McFarlane) takes this a step further, with Lois appropriating a motherly role towards her husband, Peter, who is socially obtuse (and in one episode is even said to have severe learning difficulties – he is a “special Dad.”) While not a family comedy cartoon Groening’s other endeavour, Futurama, features a catalogue of male fools – Fry, Bender, Dr. Zoidberg, the professor and Hermes. While Leila is one of the more intelligent characters, she is just the ship’s driver, and in her tight white vest and skinny black trousers she is constantly assessed on her attractiveness rather than her abilities. The vast majority of her colleagues are professional men, thus exploiting the myth that qualifications and education are synonymous with intelligence.

The common thread throughout these programmes is that while the female characters are the most astute, they are not given the opportunity or capacity to reach their full potential as they are victims of traditional gender roles. While we are given the impression that Marge, Fran and Lois could potentially be professionally successful, as women they have to remain committed to the roles they have been assignedm even though the family could potentially be benefited financially if they were given the opportunity to enter the workplace. We also get the impression that their husbands would feel threatened by this. The female characters are much more conscientious and able than their husbands/colleagues who, with the exception of Stan (whose prestigious position works to highlight sexism in government), work menial jobs, have no ambitions and very poor ability.

Furthermore, Marge, Lois and Fran are, in the context of the fictional worlds they inhabit, considered very attractive women. They are complimented by other men, and are not only thin, but have curvy, voluptuous figures – traditionally desirable bodies. Their husbands are not conventionally attractive. Peter and Homer are morbidly obese, yet they do criticise their wives if they deviate from the levels of attractiveness to which they have become accustomed. Marge develops the flu, has a runny nose and sounds even more congested than usual, and as a result Homer almost has an affair with a beautiful co-worker (played, I believe, by Michelle Pfeiffer). While he decides not to the intention was there, and we almost admire him for having the willpower not to, when in actual fact he’s done nothing but stay loyal to a woman who loves him. In Family Guy, Peter imposes a sex ban which leads to Lois gaining a lot of weight. Peter, at first disgusted, finally concedes to sex anyway, and finds that he prefers relations when Lois has a lot more meat on her bones. He then continues to feed her past obesity to such an extent that she becomes ill and ends up having severe liposuction to remove the excess weight. Peter is then found trying to shag the bad of removed blubber in a cupboard. Lois was, then, a toy he could use as and when he wanted, in the same way one may cut the hair of a doll in order to make it more appealing to them at a specific moment in time. The women in these cartoons just have to tolerate whatever comes their way – they have no potential escape, which is perhaps an irresponsible message to send to viewers. The d-word should not be feared.

Maybe I am looking into this more deeply than I should be (I am horrifically bored in my office today, hehe), but I think that these cartoons are not very complimentary to women who are happy homemakers. They suggest that is not actually possible; that stay-at-home mothers have to make some awful sacrifices that will lead to a lifetime of unfulfilment. By default they imply that those women who do not resent family life are in some way less capable, or were less ambitious, than those who don’t. While some women may wish they hadn’t had children, or got married, or abandoned/scaled back that potentially lucrative law career in order to stay-at-home, I am sure there are a great number who are completely satisfied with their choices. Perhaps they find these cartoons humorous precisely because they illustrate a completely antithetical domesticity (or maybe because they do mirror their own lives so uncannily that it’s hilarious). These programmes are not particularly complimentary to men either, but maybe that is the whole premise behind their genesis. Whereas men are traditionally seen as the stoic breadwinners and family heads, they are shown to be largely incompetent and unable to function without a woman (and moreover without a woman who doesn’t point out what complete idiots they are – who fools them into believing they are in charge when, in fact, they are not). However, these programmes are satires, after all, so perhaps the point is to exploit conventional gender definitions by showcasing extreme scenarios to demonstrate how ridiculous and unrealistic that they are? Whatever the case may be, methinks New Year’s Day may now be spent watching the Family Guy box set!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 31 December 2008 at 1:29 pm

Abby, I think your analysis is bang on. I think they are funny because they are a reality for so many Americans- just watch American Wife Swap for the real life examples of The Simpsons. I often think that it is just the cartoon version of Betty Freidan! While the ideal of domesticity is increasingly critiqued in the UK, especially in light on an expectation that all women, even those married with kids, work (promoted by government policy), this expectation is not true of large parts of American society. Many women expect marriage to mean a domestic, child-rearing life. There is a wealth of popular culture- television shows, magazines etc- that promote this lifestyle.( Of course, American society is so large that there are also a wealth of alternative lifestyles.) I think there has to be a semblance of truth for it to work as satire.

I also think that the stupid, weak male characters are meant to validate women’s choices as housewives- family is important and family wouldn’t work without women holding it together- you sacrifice personal fulfilment for the greater good. This is a restyling and valorisation of domesticity where women become the heroines of the drama; men are sidelined, but can have fulfilment in the public world that still remains shut to women. The loss of the public world however is sold to you as your choice, your sacrifice, your part in society- clever marketing of the patriarchy if ever there was one.

Fran // Posted 31 December 2008 at 2:24 pm

I also think that the stupid, weak male characters are meant to validate women’s choices as housewives- family is important and family wouldn’t work without women holding it together- you sacrifice personal fulfilment for the greater good. This is a restyling and valorisation of domesticity where women become the heroines of the drama; men are sidelined, but can have fulfilment in the public world that still remains shut to women. The loss of the public world however is sold to you as your choice, your sacrifice, your part in society- clever marketing of the patriarchy if ever there was one.

I think you’re right. When the stock ‘stupid man’ character is deployed, he’s usually particularly stupid and inept at domestic chores and childcare, leaving the woman to clean up after him and justifying the restriction of women to domestic roles — because hey, men are just naturally bad at these things, right?

Anne Onne // Posted 31 December 2008 at 4:55 pm

I agree with the above in that whilst the Simpsons as a series subverts many things slightly, in the end it merely reinforces the status quo. Female characters might usually be more sensible and smart and capable, but they are in a situation where this is not rewarded, and leaves them looking humourless and held responsible for the upkeep and actions of male characters.

As for the diagram: love it. Whilst I agree that there are many, many similarities between male and female bodies, medicine has been too focused on the white male body as a default, and I find reminders that not all bodies are male, and that this DOES matter to be good on the whole. The differences in these pictures aren’t the standard ‘men are better than women because’ or ‘women should control men because’ tropes pointed out normally, and they kind of balance out overall. I don’t think that all medical or social lessons should be taught with the Simpsons as examples, but since it’s overall low on the evo psych ‘men and women are different so women are inferior’ themes, I’m willing to give it a pass as being amusing. Not representative of the bodies in any great detail, but a small distraction.

JenniferRuth // Posted 1 January 2009 at 4:08 pm

Abby – I think most of you analysis is spot on, but I don’t think Homer is in the same group as Peter from Family Guy or the Dad from American Dad.

Family Guy and American Dad have a very broad and very juvenile sense of humour (if you can call it that). The joke is often how offensive they can be. The jokes are often sexist, racist and homophobic – and this is somehow considered to be “edgy” and modern, rather than being the retro throwback it clearly is. Neither Peter or American Dad suffer consequences for anything they do. I don’t think you can compare these shows to The Simpsons. I think you made some really excellent and true points about the Simpsons (I believe that everything deserves criticism under a feminist lens) but The Simpsons is a satire on modern life – something which neither Family Guy or American Dad can claim to be. The humour is often insightful. Also, Homer, whilst sometimes being a complete arse, actually loves his family. Neither Peter or American Dad show any real love for theirs. Homer may make mistakes but he is, in general, supportive of Marge, takes time to listen to Lisa and spends time with Bart. The episode when he helps Lisa expose Jebadiah Springfield as a fraud, or the episode when he helps her break into a museum to see the exhibit she missed, for example. There have also been episodes when Marge has been tempted to cheat on Homer, but changes her mind at the last minute.

I am not trying to refute your point. There is a common thread between these shows and there are many things in the Simpsons that are problematic, as you pointed out. But Simpsons is the only satire. As a couple, Homer and Marge always made sense – there is love, support and honesty between them. Peter and Lois? I couldn’t give you one good reason why they are together. I don’t think Family Guy is interested in exploring that either – it is only interested in how many domestic violence and rape jokes it can fit in one episode.

(One last thing, I hate Futurama, but Lela is the CAPTAIN of the ship, not the driver! She runs the show!)

jesswa // Posted 1 January 2009 at 5:46 pm

Don’t you every watch these cartoons and wish we could watch a female character being unintelligent, anarchic and wacky? Seems we always have to be the more intelligent, caring and sensible ones in contrast to the daftness of the men.

I’d like to see an intelligent, likeable male cartoon character. I’d like to see a female character allowed to be an idiot.

Might be a nice change…?

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