The series debut, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” could have stood alone as a one-off episode. The Simpson’s pilot told the story of a father striving for a positive male identity by maintaining an idyllic home life that mirrored the classic television sitcoms he was raised on. Homer Simpson found this hallmark impossible- real life could never replicate television, and this inevitable failure lead to a lack of respect and appreciation from his family. His normal, boring, every day struggle to keep food on the table was rendered meaningless.
The reality of emasculation and disposability was heavy for men at the tail-end of the last decade at all concerned with family values. The new role of father was to be something of a bumbling and dutiful employee of his family; open to their intense criticism at his slightest misstep.
Although The Simpsons first-season writers, nerdy Hollywood outsiders, were acutely aware of the changing value of Fatherhood, they happily accepted the modern definition of marriage as relying entirely on the fickle whims of female happiness. While Homer deserved more than his family had to offer in exchange for his struggle with modern Fatherhood, he rightfully was a slave and workhorse for his wife.
“Life on the Fast Lane” opens as Marge is celebrating her thirty-forth birthday which her sisters immediately note is “time enough to start over with a new man.”
Homer had forgotten his wife’s birthday and runs out of the house in order to secure a gift… and he instead decides to buy himself a gift for Marge’s birthday, a monogrammed bowling ball, which provides Marge with enough ammunition to rationalize trading-up.
Marge decides to take the new bowling ball down to the alley alone. When she gets there she is approached by a handsome French bowling instructor who takes an immediate sexual interest in her. Marge loves the attention and decides to start taking nightly “bowling lessons” with this European pick-up artist.
Bowling lessons quickly become non-bowling dates.
In the brief scenes of Marge at home, between dates, she shows guilt for being in the process of replacing Homer and she over-compensates for this by being extra attentive to her children; women love children. Homer is treated with bitter resentment as she understands that his usefulness is waning.
Lisa points out, “… this is overcompensation; Mom is racked with guilt because her marriage is failing.”
Marge’s mental state transitions to overdrive as she fantasizes that meeting this man was fatalist destiny, allowing her to feel a moral detachment from her actions, while she clings to a flimsy sense of justification for disposing of her husband- after all, he forgot her birthday.
In “Homer’s Night Out,” Homer attends a bachelor party at a restaurant which features typical rowdy male behavior: drinking and a belly dancer (fully clothed). Homer gets caught up in the moment, hops up on a table and dances along-side the entertainment.
In an ironic twist, Marge and the kids happen to be having dinner at the same restaurant and Bart manages to snap a picture of his father next to the belly dancer, and when the picture goes locally-viral, Marge kicks Homer out of the house.
According to the arbitrary rules maintained by his wife, Homer committed a transgression punishable by the loss of his family. Again- as the story is written, Marge is intended to be the sympathetic victim and Homer is cast as the negligent husband. The very same woman who can rationalize an emotional affair and marital branch-swinging can demonize harmless fun and male sexuality.
So, what did Homer do wrong… Was it his spending time in a male-only space? Was he having too much fun? Were his interactions with a more-attractive woman cause for Marge to feel badly about her own declining appearance?
Marge, like most women, would never admit to any of the above so she quickly falls back on her Feminist playbook- Homer’s misdeed is that he objectified a woman. His punishment? Shame and emasculation; to find the woman and apologize, in front of his son… only then could Homer re-enter his home and rejoin his family, even if he returns a more diminished man for it.
Homer happily accepts his punishment, grabs a hold of Bart, and is off to find the belly dancer; hilarity ensues.
While The Simpsons writers were able to find empathy for Homer’s plight as a father, they only demonstrate scorn for his role as a husband. Their overt sympathy for Marge paints a clear picture of the narrow role men are given when dealing with women: a man should provide endlessly, and selflessly, for his family while understanding that his presence, and the extent of his participation, is entirely up to the whims of his wife.
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