Who the Hell is Bart Simpson?
March, 1991: Hey kids in TV land, are you being duped?
To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.
Remembered by writer Jim McClellan
“We were aware of The Simpsons, but it hadn’t quite transferred properly to the UK. I had seen a couple of bootleg episodes on video; I knew this weird hacker guy who was always getting in touch about doing a story in The Face about hacker culture – which obviously eventually ended up going mainstream. No one had spoken to Matt Groening in any depth – all you had in the media were ‘moral panic’ stories of kids being inspired by Bart Simpson to say rude things to their teachers. But we had the opportunity to interview him, and the idea was to introduce the phenomenon to the UK, but give it a more analytical spin. As it turned out, he was very keen to talk to The Face – his animators even did an actual cover for us of Bart Simpson. And he knew about the magazine and actually liked being asked lots of different questions. It transpired he was a massive fan of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, so we talked quite a bit about that and his love of dub reggae. Then we talked about video games and the fact that he really liked the old versions of Crash Bandicoot – he felt it had the kind of energy of Tom and Jerry. There was this weird perception that The Simpsons was not suitable for kids. So what we brought to it was an idea of: ‘No, this is interesting and it’s actually really interesting on a few different levels, and you should be aware of it.’ It’s hard to believe that, as a Fox show, it was created as part of the Rupert Murdoch empire.”
Jim McClellan was Contributing Editor at The Face, and at i‑D, and wrote for Arena, Esquire, Wired, The Independent, Brutus and Adbusters. After a stint at the BBC, he moved into academia. He is currently Assistant Head of the School of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster in London, where he leads the BA Journalism degree.
Why do you say “Don’t have a cow, man”? Oh man! Don’t have a fish. Don’t have a pig. Don’t have a cow. What would you say?
What is your philosophy of life? Make sure there are plenty of escape routes.
What are your views on education? You want me to tell you about the damned school system? Wanna hear something good for your story? Are you tired of homespun crapola? Wanna get to it? They hate children!
So you’re looking forward to finishing school? Man, no! Kids, stay in school! Otherwise you’ll have to go to work. I plan to stay on the education gravy train until they kick me off screaming.
What do you think of music censorship? Do you approve of the ‘parental guidance’ stickers on records by acts like 2 Live Crew? Of course albums should be labelled, man. Why waste your money on music that won’t disgust your parents?
What do you read? My sister Lisa’s diary. I make notes in the margins. Mostly, I read book reports of kids who’ve been in my grade before. Also, I once read The Boy Scout Handbook. But, basically, I don’t think anybody should willingly join an organisation where there’s a big guy with a whistle telling you what to do. Where the plus is that you learn to make knots!
Do you have a girlfriend? I don’t like girls. They don’t like me. Anybody who says different is gonna find something hot and smelly on their doorstep in the near future.
What do you have in your pocket at the moment? (Bart pulls out 300 dollars in tens and twenties, and a pop gun bought from the Carousel o’ Violent Toys.)
You could put somebody’s eye out with that gun. I should hope so, for 25 dollars!
Where did you get the money? I’m collecting for underprivileged kids. I only take a 30 per cent cut; other charities take 40. Call me a saint, man!
Do you like your dad? I like that I get to call him Homer and he hardly ever strangles me for it. He’s courageous. “Fear” is not in his vocabulary. Come to think of it, neither is “success”. For that matter, neither is “vocabulary”.
What makes you happy? There’s no substitute for the social interaction you get hurling a spitball at your unsuspecting neighbour or popping a milk carton over the dress of a well-deserving girl.
Do you have any advice for the readers? Commit the following sentences to memory; you’ll be surprised at how often they come in handy: I didn’t do it! Nobody saw me do it! They can’t prove anything!
Bart Simpson was speaking to Bill Zehme. Matt Groening, James L Brooks and Sam Simon helped him with his answers.
So who the hell is Bart Simpson?
It’s a dumb question, but then they’re sometimes the best ones to ask. And after being bombarded by images of a spiky-haired goofball-eyed chic geek declaiming “I’m Bart Simpson – Who the hell are you?”, perhaps we’re entitled. Of course, you already know that Bart is the unruly ten-year-old son of Homer and Marge, brother of Lisa and Maggie, and that the whole Simpson family are the creations of left-leaning American cartoonist Matt Groening (previously responsible for the cartoon strips Life In Hell). You probably know that, depending on where you stand, Bart’s a bad role model, a symbol of apathetic youth, a potential Democrat, a black man under his yellow skin, the face on over 70 million American T‑shirts last year.
According to his creator, he’s part representation of his own childhood (most of Bart’s catchphrases were dreamt up by Groening as a kid), part revenge on the authority figures of his youth, part satire on the TV myths of suburban normality and happy families. Most obviously he’s the star of The Simpsons, the first cartoon sit-com to make it into the top ten American TV ratings since the fantasy suburbias of The Flintstones and The Jetsons. It’s a show which cleverly redefines family entertainment, which mixes cartoon slapstick with hip gags and smart literary references, a show scripted by writers from Letterman and Saturday Night Live, and overseen by sit-com supremos such as the Oscar-winning James L Brooks (responsible for Taxi) and Sam Simon (Cheers).
You may even have caught the Bart theory and the Bart backlash, the idea that The Simpsons is really just a hip version of the Seventies cartoon Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (not strictly true – the latter was relentlessly middle-aged and bourgeois). You may have seen Bart described as not so much radical dude as cosy rebel, naughty but nice, ugly but cute Dennis The Menace crossed with Plug from The Bash St Kids (check the archaic catapult) the American anti-hero reworked and depoliticised for a generation of cocooning boomers nostalgic for the easy pranks of their lost youth.
It’s true enough, but it isn’t the full story. Bart has come to life in all sorts of unexpected ways, and we haven’t yet closed the book on his ongoing identity crisis. It’s still worth asking who the hell he is, especially over here in Britain.
One answer is that he is the spirit of Christmas to come. If it was just about possible for the odd cultural recluse to miss the first wave of Simpsonia, no one stands a chance next December, when a floodtide of Bart Deco – toys, books, clothes, sweets, food, toiletries and consumer junk – will hit the shops. So far 82 licences for Simpson product have been granted by PSL, the company supervising the UK merchandising, from 3D bath-plugs to swimwear, radio-controlled skateboards to car sunblinds. “Bigger than ET” is how PSL’s Helen Bailey describes this Simpsonic boom. “But we are careful not to over-license. We have refused a lot of licences because we want to avoid overkill. We want to keep that cult feel.”
With more licences on the way, it’s hard to see how Bart’s cult credibility can be maintained. It’s also hard to see how his creator Matt Groening will be able to do anything about it. According to the literature that PSL sends to would-be licensees (“the resources you’ll need to make the most of this extraordinary family”), he must approve all products. In practice, that is an impossibility.
On the phone from LA, Groening admits that Simpsons merchandise has become like “the tail that wagged the dog, mainly because none of us expected it at all. We weren’t prepared.” (Last year the Simpsons industry was worth $1.3 billion in the US.) Groening feels unembarrassed by the boom, pointing out that it’s been another way for him to realise certain long-held fantasies to sneak into different areas of the media – he even got to design his own pinball machine. “My line is that the merchandising is a tidal wave. I can’t stop it, but I can surf on it.”
This flip reply sounds a little over-rehearsed. You could add that all surfers suffer a wipe-out or two. As Bart goes business, certain of his yobbier traits risk going under. Take Mattel’s Really Rude Bart, in the shops now. With its Parental Guidance sticker and leering labels, it leads you to believe that what you hold in your hands and are about to squeeze is a Bart that farts. Wrong. What you have is something that would be useful on a duck hunt. “It doesn’t say anywhere on the pack that he farts,” says Gary Cartmell, Mattel’s UK PR. Maybe not, but it implies it. “Yeah, but I can’t believe anybody would think that Mattel would release a toy that did that. They’re a family firm.”
The company’s talking Bart might also disappoint hardcore Bart fans. The fear of possible objections by fundamentalists means that the doll won’t say “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” It also won’t belch, despite the fact that Bart belches all the time on the show. “There is a Homer that belches, I think, and there may be a Bart in the works,” Groening laughs. “Jeez, I don’t really know, though. There have been so many of these things. Perhaps we did back down a little. But the talking Bart does say, ‘Kids in TV land, you’re being duped.’ The manufacturers didn’t want that. They said that the kids wouldn’t understand what duped’ meant.”
Adults still suffering from shell-shocked bank balances might have an idea. It is tempting to say Bart will be 1991’s lean green profit machine for the toy trade. But he isn’t such a cynical phenomenon as the Turtles. In their original comic-book form, the Turtles were all the same. For the toys, four discrete identities were designed and coloured in to offer more collecting possibilities, and then the TV cartoons were put together just to premiere and promote new toys. The Simpsons TV show will never be similarly tailored to the merchandising, according to Groening, who also points out that, while most other toys are “fantasies of glamorously violent empowerment”, the Simpsons are ordinary and weak and stay that way, are anti-glamorous and, if not non-violent, are at least not quite so concerned with breaking heads.
Certainly the collectable seven-inch figures plus accessories that Mattel is producing do offer an ironic alternative to their green equivalents. In contrast to numerous elaborate killing machines, Simpsons addicts can get to play with a cranky lawnmower, a barbecue, a car that breaks down, the family sofa – all the junky residue of suburban life. However, the ‘satirical wit’ that Groening attempts to include at all levels is still ultimately aimed at the same end. For example, on the repacks of collectable figures, Marge Simpson urges you to “buy us all – don’t break up the family”. And no matter how sharp the TV show is (like the Christmas show, which portrayed Homer’s misery at not being able to buy his kids the toys they wanted), merchandisers will continue to see it as a disguised ad for products yet to be made.
That’s if they see it at all. With the show only screening on BSkyB, and only reaching 2.29 million homes, Bart is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. He’s on advertising posters and bootleg T‑shirts, on trailers before 20th Century Fox films and videos, on magazine covers and in gossip columns (incidentally, Groening says there’s no truth to the rumour that Madonna will play Bart’s girlfriend), on bags of Golden Wonder crisps and soon on everything from fast food to cheese and yogurt. But with the exception of Do The Bartman video, he isn’t available on most people’s small screens. Nor will he be, while BSkyB continues running new episodes.
This doesn’t bother the merchandisers (“It’s probably helped us in a way,” comments Helen Bailey), but it upsets Groening, because it has helped move The Simpsons closer to the spiralling commercial logic of the Turtles where, as he puts it, “all that was really being merchandised was merchandise”. The show is crucial for Groening. It’s where his characters get real. Deprive them of that, and they wind up as a diffuse media event, serial advertising, with Bart himself not as the archetypal underachiever, but as Mr Marketing 1991.
Most people think they know who to blame for this. Another answer to the question, “Who the hell is Bart?” is that he’s Rupert Murdoch’s toyboy, saviour of Fox TV in the States, the face that sold a thousand dishes (at least). Numerous cultural critics have already picked over the ironies of Groening’s left-leaning suburban anarchy being used to prop up the tottering business of a reactionary right-wing media tycoon. Over here Murdoch has obviously used The Simpsons to get more viewers for his satellite network (BSkyB has no hard figures for how many new subscribers Bart attracted, but the show gets around a million viewers a week). And with its £1 million multi-media campaign to launch the show last September, the network did the most over here to change Bart from the star of a smart TV show into a Day-Glo doorstepping salesman.
But if Bart is the front-man for a new televisual order, in which the shared experience of national networks has been replaced by a fragmented culture of niche markets, blips, ads and video clips, BSkyB didn’t do it all on its own. Just because The Simpsons belonged to the American end of Murdoch’s TV empire didn’t mean it would automatically go out on Sky. It was offered to the BBC first. As with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, as with the original Simpsons shorts in The Tracey Ullman Show, the Beeb said no (too American). From there it went up for auction, with Sky triumphing because (surprise, surprise) it was prepared to spend more on advertising the show.
Groening seems resigned to certain compromises. “It’s not as if there are any noble, upstanding left-wing TV corporations I could have gone to. The big networks have all turned down my ideas before. At least Fox took a chance.”
Whether Groening will remain comfortable as Bart becomes a global playboy, an international bright young thing, is another matter. So far The Simpsons has been sold in over 50 countries, from Japan, Iceland, Bermuda and Brazil to Zimbabwe and The Philippines. According to William Saunders, head of international sales at 20th Century Fox, no dubbed versions have been transmitted yet. “They’re being rewritten to suit the country and the language. The problem is finding a way to say things like ‘Don’t have a cow, man’ in French. ‘Ne prend pas un vache, man’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
Bart’s catchphrases probably wouldn’t sound so smart in Afrikaans, certainly not to Groening. However, the show has been sold to South Africa. “I’ve made my position clear. I have told people I would rather the shows weren’t sold there. But what can I do? Not a single Hollywood studio subscribes to the cultural boycott.”
If his creator isn’t in a position to draw the line here, others have tried to add a little political colour, notably the Black Bart bootleggers. Confessing that he isn’t bothered about the rip-off industry in general (unlike 20th Century Fox, which sued 150 companies and individuals in July last year for breach of copyright), Groening says he thought that Bart Marley, Bart X and co were great, “a quirky compliment, and a real spontaneous response”. He also agrees that they make good an imaginative debt. “Obviously white suburban slang is definitely a watered-down version of black slang. However, Bart’s haircut is more based on punk, and on my haircuts when I was eight.”
Not everyone is pleased by Black Bart, with some drippy critics bemoaning the fact that Bart has lost his innocence and charm now that his rebellious snarl shows some real political teeth, and with 20th Century Fox stating that Bart isn’t political. Groening comments that every political and subcultural group in the country has tried to unofficially co-opt his characters, but that he has resisted attempts to turn Bart into an official all-purpose spokesman. For example, Bart won’t be just saying no to drugs. “That’s missing the point. It’s out of character. As for Bart’s politics, if he had any, they’d be destructive. People have been asking me what Bart thinks of the war. Well, he doesn’t want there to be a war, not until he’s old enough to start one himself. But that’s not what I think. I’m against it. But I’m also against using Bart to propagandise my opinions.”
This may sound like a principled attempt to remain true to the characters. It’s also good business sense, picked up from another cartoon tycoon. “When we think about Bart merchandising, we do look at how Disney uses Mickey Mouse,” Groening comments. “They don’t lend him out to particular causes.”
Perhaps that is Bart’s ultimate identity and destiny – the new Mickey Mouse, a cartoon corporate logo for a multinational media and leisure corporation. There may seem to be a world of difference between the two, but it’s worth remembering that in his early days Mickey Mouse was mischievous, anti-social and violent, just like Bart. And just like Bart, he was appropriated and reworked by pop artists and street-level subversives. So, with a film already planned, will families in future troop off to Bartworld wearing their spiky haircut hats?
“I loved Disney as a kid. And I’ve had fantasies about designing theme park rides,” Groening laughs ominously. “But the plan is not to make Bart the next Mickey Mouse. Although I would like him to be around a long time.” He pauses. “I just hope that Bart Simpson isn’t on my tombstone. I have done other stuff. I don’t want to be remembered just for this show.” If he had the choice, though, Groening would probably prefer to be remembered for the show and not (as looks likely over here) the spin-offs that it generated.