“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989) and the Diminished Respect for Fatherhood

The very first episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” debuted the series on December 17th, 1989– roughly twenty-five years ago (I was there watching it live), launching the series and the family into the forever consciousness of pop-culture. I recently re-watched the episode and it shocked me how different the series was when it initially aired.

Watching an episode of today’s Simpsons reveals an entirely different show. The Homer character, while likable and endearing, is emasculated, negligent of others, and mentally handicapped.

Upon re-watching the first episode, Homer is instead presented as a sympathetic, under appreciated father whom, despite his best efforts, finds tremendous difficulty in providing a perfect family life for his wife and children.

The running joke is that Homer tries- Homer has ideals shaped by his television predecessors like “Father Knows Best” and “Donna Reed,” where Fatherhood looks effortless and family life appears perpetually blissful.

Take for example the scene where Homer tries to string Christmas lights along his roof- a ritual all Christmas celebrating suburban fathers can relate… Homer goes to great lengths to decorate his home for the holidays with pride, even falling off the roof at one point, and invites his family out for the debut of his efforts only to have the lights blow out and malfunction. The kids say “nice try, dad,” and that’s about it.

The joke is that Homer is trying his hardest to emulate what he thinks a good father should be and finds the ideal unobtainable despite his best efforts. That’s the joke- not that he sucks, not that he’s negligent, not that he’s an idiot; the joke is that his effort goes unrewarded by his family- the joke is that Homer’s failure renders his effort unappreciated.

The episode follows this structure throughout… Homer is a drone worker at a power plant to support his family while his wife is a stay-at-home mother. Despite this, Marge’s single aging sisters both despise Homer for reasons that are never apparent.

The theme is that “despite great effort a modern father is not respected nor appreciated.”

In the episode Homer is relying on his company’s Christmas bonus to buy gifts for his family and through no-fault of his own that bonus is canceled by his boss. In a scramble for the holidays to work out, Homer takes a side-job as a mall Santa to pay for the family’s gifts. To his dismay, he is only paid $13 on Christmas Eve- which leaves him short on money and time to provide his family a memorable holiday.

Homer decides to take his son to the dog racing track and let his $13 ride on a scrappy greyhound, believing the myth of a “Christmas Miracle” (again, the gag is that Homer’s Fatherhood ideals are informed by 1950s era media and the expectation of a “happy ending”).

However, “The Simpsons” take place during the realities of the late 1980s and Homer loses his paltry $13 betting on a “billion to one” odds dog. It should be noted that during this tense scene of holiday drama the women of the family, Marge and Lisa, are at home with Marge’s Homer-hating sisters and are unaware of Homer and Bart’s desperate attempt to save Christmas for the family.

These efforts are invisible only to the women of the family- Bart is deliberately paired with Homer as a right-of-passage from boyhood to manhood. Bart can now see how difficult his father’s responsibilities are for his family. Bart can be in on the secret that the women of the family will forever be shielded from.

Defeated, Homer and Bart leave the dog track to return to their family. The responsibility for an amazing, memorable, at-least-adequate Christmas fall squarely on Homer’s shoulders.

As they walk out to the car, Homer and Bart see the dog they bet on being abandoned by its owner. Homer relates to the dog’s best effort coming up short and decides to take it home. And, ironically, in getting a dog for his family, Homer has unwittingly provided a better Christmas than material possessions would have allowed. Homer saves the day.

Again, the gags in this first episode of The Simpsons aren’t that Homer is some stupid fuck ignoring his children and eating crayons- instead, Homer is a father who feels a sense of leadership and responsibility to his family; to provide for them the best life possible. His wife and children may not fully understand it, and his in-laws may not appreciate it, but Homer understands his duty and will continue to do so whether his efforts are appreciated or not.

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12 comments

  1. Pingback: “Can we make them talk about your father?”: Reclaiming Respect for the Diminished State of Fatherhood | Kill To Party
  2. DrTorch · April 30, 2015

    Two points:

    1. It was proclaimed several years ago (10-15) that changing the show FROM Bart being incorrigible, TO Homer being inept, is what gave it its staying power. People praised that change.

    2. Ever read Berenstein Bears books? The Dad there is incompetent. I think that had a greater impact on culture than Simpsons.

  3. Bill · April 30, 2015

    The show has wavered back and forth between those poles over the years. The sixth season episode “And Maggie Makes Three” has an even better, stronger pro-Homer message (along the same lines as you outline here) and is considered by many one of the very best of the “golden age” episodes. That episode does have some “Homer is a Dope” moments, but they’re basically throwaway gags. The thrust of the story is that Homer gives up his dream job – that he loves and at which he actually excels – out of duty to his growing family.

  4. Jack · April 30, 2015

    Astute analysis. You’re describing what launched the series to international acclaim — the eternal struggle of a well-meaning but perhaps dispositionally under-equipped married man, trying his best to handle the modern world. At the end of a long day, he just wants his doting wife to reciprocate his efforts with the femininity, pose, and grace that he sought out in the first place. Whether that’s dinner on the table, a cold beer, or a surprise beej in the doorway, that’s the subtext here — getting what he deserves for what he does. Not grief from her spinster hag sisters.

    Whenever I feel the pull of non-monogamous temptations, I’m reminded by the fact that my own wife is all of those things — feminine, doting, graceful, and submissive — and I’m drawn back to her every time, without regrets of what could have been. That’s the essence of a healthy married life — in addition to marrying a significantly (7+ years) younger woman, preferably with a prenup. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT marry a woman your own age or god forbid, older. All things being equal, it’s a recipe for disaster and your kids will be the collateral damage. Bat for the stands, and bag the much younger girl.

    The time-honored folk tail of the vain old crone seeking beauty through the blood and vital essence of a younger woman is actually an exquisite example of female projection — it is not women who benefit from feeding off the vitality of a younger woman, but men. Date, love, and if you find yourself so compelled, marry a younger woman, and you shall know the fountain of youth yourself.

  5. Mike · May 1, 2015

    Nice article. TV, movies & music from the late 80’s & early 90’s are surprisingly un-P.C. compared to today’s garbage.

  6. Lord Janner · May 1, 2015

    The reason Homer’s sisters hate him is obvious: they are ugly. They hate men for ignoring them. Deep down they are shocked that even a low status man like Homer isn’t attracted to them and prefers their prettier sister, tho Marge has less of a career. I find them to be great cgaracters and all-too-common among the bitter, twisted and deluded post-wall women of today.

    • Harland · May 1, 2015

      Patty is a straight-up lesbian. Her sister Selma thinks so highly of herself that she cannot find a suitable husband (a man who is greater than her). A man could possibly work on lessening her opinion of herself…but why? At the end of it, he’d only have Selma. Why would any man want to follow such a path?

      • whorefinder · May 1, 2015

        Patty became a lesbian on the show only when the writers wanted to move the Overton window on homos and thought it acceptable for the show to make her one. It both “diversified” the show and gave a pop-psych explanation for her misery (“why can’t she get a man? She was in denial about her true sexuality, you bigot!”)

  7. whorefinder · May 1, 2015

    Never was a fan of the Simpsons, although I’ve watched most of their (hit) episodes as they were in constant rerun for a while.

    George Bush Sr. (Bush 41) was mocked for castigating the show as portraying bad families as good families: bratty Bart as heroic, Homer as incompetent, stupid, and superfluous, Marge as amazing super-woman, precious, lefty female child Lisa as the smartest one. Yet the show, as many have noted, has evolved to more and more Homer-bashing (and other members of the family have their personality quirks enhanced) as time has gone on—as with most sitcoms, the characters’ stereotypes have become more and more pronounced with time.

    Bush was definitely on to something, but no one acknowledges it: the Simpsons has been a flagship show for promoting cultural decline.

    In short, if you’ve watched the show or bought the merchandise, you’ve contributed to the decline. I count myself as part of that sad multitude, since I’ve watched it, if only in reruns.

  8. whorefinder · May 1, 2015

    Never was a fan of the Simpsons, although I’ve watched most of their (hit) episodes as they were in constant rerun for a while.

    George Bush Sr. (Bush 41) was mocked for castigating the show as portraying bad families as good families: bratty Bart as heroic, Homer as incompetent, stupid, and superfluous, Marge as amazing super-woman, precious, lefty female child Lisa as the smartest one. Yet the show, as many have noted, has evolved to more and more Homer-bashing (and other members of the family have their personality quirks enhanced) as time has gone on—as with most sitcoms, the characters’ stereotypes have become more and more pronounced with time.

    Bush was definitely on to something, but no one acknowledges it: the Simpsons has been a flagship show for promoting cultural decline.

    In short, if you’ve watched the show or bought the merchandise, you’ve contributed to the decline. I count myself as part of that sad multitude, since I’ve watched it, if only in reruns.

  9. Pingback: Marge Simpson, Hypergamy, and Male Disposability in “Life on the Fast Lane” and “Homer’s Night Out” (1990). | Kill To Party
  10. Tarnished · November 26, 2015

    I loved this episode where Homer got them Santa’s Little Helper, it was a hearkening back to old-time values in animated form. And you’re correct, the Simpsons has become far more inauthentic and frankly disturbing in the intervening years. Homer is now a buffoon, Marge is under perpetual stress, Bart is rather unintelligent and gets literally choked by Homer, Lisa is very intelligent but generally ignored…the only fairly normal one is Maggie. Although if one takes into consideration she still can’t talk, even that may not be true.

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