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Like Watching an Itchy and Scratchy Episode
on July 8, 2006
"The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people--that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature."
-- James Thurber
In the world of American television no other animated series, or any sitcom for that matter, has endured as long as "The Simpsons". What started out in 1987 as a few animated shorts featured on "The Tracey Ullman Show", "The Simpsons" quickly became an essential icon of American popular culture and has served as a prototype for future adult cartoon series to come such as "Family Guy", "King of the Hill", and "American Dad".
Perhaps one reason for Matt Groening's overwhelming success with the show's sixteen seasons is his ability to present relatable human truths and paradigms absurdly and to their exaggerated ends. The community of Springfield parodies modern American society in a humorous fashion. In part, that is the reason for the common name, "Springfield". Though the state in which Springfield exists is never established in the series, Springfield in reality can be found in thirty-four states throughout the United States in a way that suggests a reflection of common society as we know it to be.
Beyond the laughs and humor of the television show a deeper understanding of psychology can be applied in quite a creative way. This is the basis for the book, The Psychology of The Simpsons edited by Alan Brown, PhD. and Chris Logan. Nearly every aspect in psychology is covered in a compilation of essays written by credible experts in their respected fields. Topics range from the effects of alcoholism in Springfield to the application of the Big Five personality theory to a host of regularly featured characters.
On the surface a reader's first impression might be one of skepticism in the book's scientific merits as the subject matter is based on a fictional world. That notion is quickly dismissed in the first essay, "The Family Simpson: Like Looking in a Mirror?", which focuses on comparing the family for which the series is named with the traditional family structure in America. In brief, the Simpson family is made up a married heterosexual couple with three mixed-gendered children where the husband is the breadwinner and the wife is the homemaker . This sets the tone for the rest of the book. Before delving into the finer points of psychology the editors appear to have a desire to establish a credible relationship with the reader by making the case that we have more in common with this family and community than first meets the eye.
The true magic of this book is that it never lets the reader down. Just when a particular topic of psychology seems dry, and too over-analyzed, then comes an application from the show that makes sense of it all and leaving the reader wanting to be more of a fan of the show and psychology.
Casual viewers of the show will still get a kick out of the material presented but it is the diehard fans who will be the most entertained. Throughout much of the book many of the same episodes and situations are referenced in future essays. For a series with well over three hundred episodes, it is not quite clear whether the editors instructed the essayists to focus on a select few episodes and situations instead of the series as a whole or if it was pure coincidence as some instances throughout the series tend to have more merit in the field of psychology than others. In either case it can be rather annoying but is dealt with more easily each time the situation is referenced to in a different context of psychology. For example, a recurring reference is an episode in which it is discovered that Homer's cognitive deficiencies are a result of having a crayon stuck in the front of his brain and upon its removal Homer is actually found to be brilliant. Unfortunately he's brilliant to a fault where his family feels they no longer know him and he willingly reinserts the crayon to be "normal" once again. This episode is actually the basis for the most entertaining contribution to the book entitled, "Stupid Brain: Homer's Working Memory Odyssey". The format is a series of journal entries initially written by Homer chronicling his experiences after the removal of the crayon and is packed with an immense amount of information on the inner workings of the human brain. The latter part of his journal are his spoken words written verbatim by his daughter Lisa as Homer becomes too depressed over his newfound intelligence to write and has the crayon reinserted. It is easily understood the stark contrast the crayon had on his intelligence before and after. Of course, having a crayon stuck up in one's brain seems a bit unrealistic but the underlying information "Homer" gives in regards to the frontal and parietal lobe areas of the brain, memory development, and decision making seem to be deeply rooted in neuroscience and psychology.
Though not nearly as entertaining, the application of the Big Five personality theory to characters in The Simpsons is the most scientific and technical of any other essay presented within the work. In this analysis, thirteen heavy viewers of the show, varying greatly across their demographics, were asked to rate a list of twenty characters from the show based on the Big Five. David A. Kenny and Deidre T. Kenny pay exceptional attention to detail in the survey and are very thorough in their quantitative and qualitative observations . The results are well-presented in various tables, graphs, and statistical charts. It is easy for the average reader to get lost in the complexity of the data but the most interesting aspect is realizing the endearing quality that in spite of it all these statistics are based on a fictional cartoon show.
If the Simpsons series is an exaggeration of real life then the application of psychology to it is the medium to bring it back to reality. Or perhaps an alternative view can be considered: whereas psychology applied to the Simpsons is an exaggeration and real life is the only constant. Can it really be concluded without absurdity that Maggie, the Simpsons' baby, is "at serious risk for conduct problems and alcohol/substance abuse dependence later in life. "?
The places where this book fails are the same places where psychology fails. Psychology is not a perfect science nor are the Simpsons a perfect family. Somewhere between perfection and complete utter failure lie innumerable human variables to which science cannot predict or control. And although the writers of the series maintain creative control over the characters and their interactions with another, they cannot completely control the viewers' perception on the psychological state of their favorite fictional characters by comparing it to their own. What results is an endless game of cat-and-mouse or as the world of "The Simpsons" would have it, a gory episode of Itchy and Scratchy.