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Twenty-five years on, Fox’s hit animated series "The Simpsons" is still forcing us to reexamine the world we live in through raw, subversive and often zany humor.
From pop culture to politics, no issue has proven too out of bounds for Homer and his dysfunctional, yet loveable, clan of misfits to tackle. In doing so, they’ve made friends, enemies and even a few frenemies. Their response to critics has always been the same: “Eat my shorts!”
Here’s a look back at some examples of their wildest antics.
"The Simpsons" creators have written episodes that dealt with homophobia several times, perhaps most notably when prominent film director John Waters played a flamboyant gay man in "Homer’s Phobia," the 15th episode of the eighth season.
The episode opens with the Simpson family befriending an antiques dealer named John (whose voice is provided by Waters). Homer takes a liking to John’s taste in campy toys and gizmos but is shocked and sickened to find out about his new friend’s sexuality, fearing that his closeness to the family will turn Bart gay.
Homer thus forces Bart to go on an excursion meant to solidify his manhood. They stop at a steel mill, which Homer thinks will show Bart the epitome of masculinity — but the steel workers all turn out to be gay.
Homer then takes Bart to hunt deer, but they fail to find any prey so Homer breaks into a reindeer farm and tells Bart to shoot one. The reindeer attack Homer, and John shows up just in time to save him. In the end, Homer tells Bart that he would accept him no matter what.
The episode was widely praised by gay rights activists and even won a GLAAD Media award. In 2005 the show tackled same-sex marriage, in an episode in which Marge’s sister turns out to be a lesbian.
The show has received some criticism for occasional homophobic language, especially after the character Nelson used the phrase “that’s so gay.” But “The Simpsons” has generally been in the good graces of the gay-rights movement.
'The Cartridge Family'
"The Simpsons" took potshots at American gun culture when Homer sought to practice his Second Amendment right to purchase a firearm in "The Cartridge Family," episode five of season nine.
After a quick trip to Springfield’s local gun shop, “Bloodbath and Beyond,” and a five-day, government-mandated waiting period that made him so angry he felt as if he could shoot the store clerk, Homer became the proud owner of a Revolver handgun. Marge wasn’t nearly as thrilled.
Homer’s reckless use of the weapon — from shooting dinner plates for practice to dislodging items off the roof with bullets — culminated in a number of near fatal accidents that temporarily drove his family away and even got him kicked out of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Still, the six-shooter came in handy when Homer found himself witness to a robbery and assault that he quickly foiled using the weapon.
While the episode steered clear of taking a position on the contentious issue of gun control, it was criticized by both advocates and opponents. The former claimed it trivialized their concerns, while the latter said it mocked gun culture. Some NRA members even complained to Fox that the episode lampooned their organization — a claim they repeated in 2012 when video game developer Electronic Arts released "The Simpsons: Tapped Out," which fired more directly at the gun advocacy group.
'Brother's Little Helper'
In "Brother's Little Helper," the second episode of season 11, "The Simpsons" took a jab at the prescription drug industry.
Bart’s typical shenanigans at Springfield Elementary prompt the school to call in his parents, and Principal Skinner tells Marge and Homer that Bart must go on a new ADHD medicine called Focusyn (a play on the real drug Ritalin).
Bart protests taking the medicine several times, but his family pressures him and he finally relents. At first it seems to help Bart concentrate, but he quickly becomes obsessive about his studies — and eventually starts having paranoid delusions.
By the end of the episode, Bart believes Major League Baseball is spying on Springfield citizens. He wanders onto an Army base and steals a tank, then drives it through town to his school where he fires its cannon into the sky in an attempt to shoot down the MLB’s satellites.
While Bart’s conspiracy theories end up being partially validated in the episode, Marge decides to take him off Focusyn, in favor of “hugs, fresh air, and good old-fashioned Ritalin.”
The episode did not make a value judgment on the use of drugs in helping kids focus on school, but its timing placed the episode smack-dab in the middle of a burgeoning debate. The late 1990s saw skyrocketing use of ADHD drugs in young children. The episode tapped into parents’ fears about kids’ performance in schools, as well as their concerns about a still-unfamiliar class of drugs.
It also came at a time of increased awareness about mental health in the United States. Five months after the episode aired, then-President Bill Clinton held the first White House conference on mental health.
'Blame it on Lisa'
The Simpsons caused international furor when in season 13, episode 15 — "Blame it on Lisa" — the family embarked on an adventure to Brazil, highlighting a mess of stereotypes that earned them a real-life chiding from then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Among the comments and antics that landed the family in hot water was Lisa’s claim that the brightly colored slums of Rio de Janeiro were painted that way by the government so that “tourists wouldn’t be offended.” The episode also portrayed Brazilian street children as thieves, described the country’s pink and purple currency as “gay,” and culminated in Homer being kidnapped and held for ransom by his taxi driver.
The ironic humor of a stereotypical American family poking fun at another country's gross stereotypes was lost on Brazilian media, which rushed to condemn the show. Aghast, the Rio tourist board even prepared to sue Fox for what it claimed was damage caused to Brazil’s national image and loss of tourism revenue. Cardoso also weighed in, charging that the Simpsons “brought a distorted vision of Brazilian reality.”
Plans to sue were eventually dropped and executive producer James Brooks issued a Krusty the Clown-style plea for forgiveness: "We apologize to the lovely city and people of Rio de Janeiro, and if that doesn’t settle the issue, Homer Simpson offers to take on the President of Brazil on Fox’s Celebrity Boxing."
Of course, that wasn't the first or last time "The Simpsons" raised foreign eyebrows. The family has also offended Australians and Frenchmen — coining the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to describe the latter.
'Much Apu About Nothing'
In "Much Apu About Nothing," the 23rd episode of the seventh season, "The Simpsons" weighed in on anti-immigrant sentiment — and on Americans’ perception and knowledge of their own history.
The episode opens with a bear strolling down the streets of Springfield, panicking residents and prompting them to protest for Mayor Quimby to create a Bear Patrol. The city starts one and imposes a tax to pay for it — prompting Homer and other citizens to protest again. Quimby blames high taxes on undocumented immigrants and creates a bill to deport them.
The town begins harassing immigrants including Apu, who owns the Kwik-E-Mart and is of Indian descent. Apu reacts by getting fake citizenship papers and “acting American” but feels bad about distancing himself from his family’s heritage.
He turns to Homer for help passing a citizenship test, but quickly finds out that he knows significantly more than Homer about American history.
TV critics and academics have lauded the episode for its nuanced look at how some Americans rationalize their xenophobia. Fans say it shows how many Americans experience cognitive dissonance when it comes to thinking about immigration: appreciating immigrants’ contributions to society but still feeling that they shouldn’t be part of the community. Most criticism of the episode, and Apu's portrayal in general, has come from South Asian immigrants, who say Apu is a reductive character based mostly on stereotypes.
'Weekend at Burnsie's'
The Simpsons are no strangers to marijuana. Springfield Elementary School bus driver Otto Mann is a regular smoker, and stoner icons Cheech and Chong once starred in an episode. But never was the issue more pronounced than when Homer puffed the cheeba himself in "Weekend at Burnsie's," season 13, episode 16.
After an attack by crows leaves Homer with an eye injury, he is prescribed medicinal marijuana for the pain. At first, he worries that smoking dope get him in trouble with the law, but Dr. Hibbert informs him that it’s only illegal “for those who enjoy it.”
That’s enough for Homer to become a regular toker, which, despite Marge’s objections, actually seems to work out for him. He becomes friendlier, mellower and even gets a promotion at work.
But when Homer seeks to defeat a ballot initiative aimed at recriminalizing medicinal marijuana, he’s stifled by short-term memory loss, a side effect of smoking too much weed. He forgets the date when the vote is scheduled to take place, organizing a protest against the measure for the very next day.
The initiative passes, and Homer agrees to stop smoking pot to set a better example for his kids.
While the episode showed both the pros and cons of smoking marijuana, Fox was apprehensive about airing it — fearing the sight of a cartoon father smoking pot in primetime would elicit significant backlash from American families.
The show's writers agreed to edit the episode so as not to show Homer taking a drag, and Fox warily agreed to let it air.
To everyone's surprise, the episode garnered little to no criticism — a testament, perhaps, to American’s changing view on marijuana use.