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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(March 10, 2005)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

We have e-mail, e-sanghas, e-markets, and, via the Piscopal religion, e-ministry. And that is why, by the grace of God and a clerical collar printout, we now have the Reverend Homer Jay Simpson. It was bound to happen sooner or later.

The Simpsons, Patriarch of social sit-coms, has weighed in on the subject of gay marriage. We were well warned of the scheduled debut of the show and prepped to allow any acerbic opinions to mellow.

Is what The Simpsons says on this or any other subject relevant? You bet it is. Meet The Press and Face The Nation do not together influence American public opinion - and foreign opinions about the U.S. - half as much as Homer does. The show is seen and appreciated all over the world. Whatever it says is relevant.

The problem is that we cannot be sure that we'll like or respect the treatment of the subject. There are exceptions to the program's routine excellence. Usually, a basic fairness informs the series; wit that is self-deprecating, guilt that is forgivable, goodness that inspires. But sometimes the show takes on a nasty edge as, for example, when Homer and family leave the U.S. (Bart's adventures in Australia and Brazil are discomfiting. Bart in France, however, is a tonic.) So we wait to watch.

The plot is launched in a curious way.


Yet once again, the antics of Bart and Milhous have set in motion events of grave significance to Springfield and the world. The boys have played cruel pranks upon an American Innocent, Howell Huser, a turnip-truck "on the road" yokel TV commentator; and he has cursed the town.

Bart scoffs at the anathema. "I don't think we'll be hearing from him again," he sneers. He's wrong. Howell Huber lambastes Springfield from the tube. Lisa wonders if such bad publicity will hurt the town's tourist industry. It does. Within a month downtown Springfield becomes a boarded up ruin. "Coming Soon.... nothing" gasps the movie marquee.

Mayor Quimby, knowing a financial crisis when he sees one, calls a town meeting to ask for suggestions on how to win back the tourists. The citizens quickly respond, "Stronger beer!"; "Gladiator fights!"; "Poetry slams!"; "Giant rats!" "Legalize same sex marriage!" The last suggestion, having been given by Lisa, has an undeniable pecuniary appeal, and, she points out, it has the additional merit of striking a blow for civil rights. Nobody in Springfield is much interested in the additional merit. Gays have money and Springfield needs it.

There follows a TV advertising pitch and website and a parade led by a banner which proclaims: "Springfield - Welcoming Gays Since 2005." But how, we wonder, will Homer react?

"Death before Gay Marriage" says the placard he carries in a church sponsored protest.

It is a knee-jerk response - as is Pastor Lovejoy's assertion that though he personally has, "nothing for or against such sinful lifestyle," (evidencing the not-really ambivalent position of most Conservative Christians) he cannot countenance such marriage since the Bible forbids homosexual relations. Marge wants to discuss alternative biblical interpretations; but the Pastor (again showing the religious reluctance to submit the objections to reasoned discussion) will not open the subject to such scholarly exegesis. He nails the church doors shut.

So far we have been shown the status quo: Springfield, USA, is not interested in homosexual unions unless, of course, they can be exploited... for money or for amusement.

The moment Homer learns that the marriage fee will be $200. per couple, he trashes his placard and insists that "these people have rights," specifically the right to buy him a sixty-two inch television. He does a net search, finds a seminary, and matriculates with a mouse-click.

His course of study at the Internet Divinity School is swift. Another mouse click and he can print out his collar and ordination certificate. He converts his garage into a "Li'l Chapel," one suitable for conducting gay nuptials. He frames the garage opening in a faux-church facade, installs pews, and lets the nave culminate at a candle flanked altar. To complete the cathedral ambiance, paper "stained-glass windows" have been taped to the wall.

With Bart and Lisa serving as acolytes, he quickly marries seventy-three gay couples - or $14,600 worth, exhausting the supply. Needing to broaden his client base, he posts a sign, "Will marry anybody to anybody else. Diaper fee for chimp brides." Accordingly, he marries Cletus and Brandine who are brother and sister - "and a lot of other things."

This episode, which was wonderfully written by J. Stewart Burns and produced and co-produced by a cast of thousands, makes the great unanswered question the topic of Kent Brockman's Smartline. Begins Brockman (in the episode's most hilarious line), "A new epidemic is raging through Springfield, and this one didn't start with Krustyburger's Whatchamacarcass sandwich. I'm talking about marriage fever." Kent asks the Reverends Simpson and Lovejoy, "Are we going down a slippery slope in which marriage becomes so meaningless that anyone can marry anything?"

Homer, it seems, will marry gays, straights, siblings, animals, human and animal, human and Bible, and even, in a logical extension of this inclusive principle, himself. Yes, touching bottom of the slippery slope, he becomes the nubile object of his own affection. Gazing into a mirror, Homer, with appropriate foreplay and protestations of love, marries Homer, a union which produces a dozen or so baby Homers.

If anyone had the idea that The Simpsons was going to put a happy face on gay marriage, anyone was wrong. The show has a long and unblemished record of frowning comedically at our most cherished images of ourselves. No single group in American life is exempt from its scrutiny; and no one ever gets away with concealing so much as a pimple. Indeed, pimples are magnified into carbuncles.

We find the comic exaggerations of The Simpsons funny because we're able to identify with the exaggeration. Our own life experience is the required relief for the swollen characterizations. And if we don't find a little of ourselves in the gays that are depicted, we can at least identify with the predicament of being an outsider who wants to come in.

There was little in the piece that suggested that gays might appreciate the comic portrayal. Gays frolic; they skip; they are so gay that a bride marries a bride and their lifted bridal veils reveal the blushing mustaches and beards of both. They do stereotyped activities like swan boating on the lake, and they uniformly exude effeminacy with gestures and swishing poses.

To religious conservatives, who want to retain the "given" that marriage is for a male and a female, the episode must have seemed supportive. Conservatives, especially, know the slippery slope of breaking tradition and setting precedent. To them it is a fearful enterprise. We can see the problem more clearly in other instances. If, for example, we give compensation to victims of the second World Trade Center attack, we are suddenly (and perhaps logically) asked to give compensation to the victims of the first WTC attack. And if there, then why not to the victims of every terrorist attack. The danger is that victimization will become a growth industry. Just so, conservatives fear that establishing the precedent of extending the appellations "Mr. and Mrs." to same-sex couples will lead to opening a floodgate of exceptions that waters-down marital significance. They worry that a kind of Gresham's Law will kick in. "Bad money drives good money out of circulation." True "male and female" conjunctions will be tossed into the connubial bin of ersatz husbands and wives. Some conservatives wonder if they'll have to establish a new status, a more exclusive level which has different designations to indicate the unique nature of their sacramental nuptials. This Simpsons episode satirizes marriage between anyone and anything sufficiently to make membership in the institution, itself, seem like a paltry distinction. Though no one asks, "Why do gays want to marry, anyway?" Marge comments, "Homer, you stood up for people's right to express love in its most sacred form: a binding legal contract." She is not aware of the remark's sardonic content. We are.

The episode's uncompromising depiction of greed is its most salient point. For money, Homer will marry anyone. In the world outside Springfield, he has a lot of company. As we've written elsewhere, that "anyone" can be a coerced boy or girl whose parents benefit in some way from providing their signed consent to the marriage. These marriages involve not only religious cults but also those "arranged" marriage contracts - which are far more common than people think.

Exceptions to the minimum age are generally granted in order to accommodate the possibility of pregnancy - understandable in heterosexual unions; but hardly an issue in homosexual unions. When the benefit is large enough, consent of any of the parties - including the officials - is likely to be given.

On the program's surface, we are presented with a view of gay marriage that coincides with that of the average American - who just doesn't take it seriously. But humor is a stealthy rhetorical weapon. We know how cleverly Zen can use humor as a teaching aid or to simply to make a point. If we trust that the fundamental good will of The Simpsons will not allow a mean-spirited appraisal of the gay marriage issue, we must look deeper to find another of the episode's effects.

No matter how unsympathetic a viewer is towards the issue, if he laughs at the gay men dressed as brides or swishing at the altar, one thing is certain: he will feel a release of xenophobic tension and hostility. He will be reassured: "There is nothing to fear," he'll tell himself.

Humor about a controversial subject does, in fact, mitigate even the most virulent objections to it. For as long as the humorous commentary is general, we can identify with the object. When it is directed at a specific individual, it becomes "personal" and then we feel the discomfort of having to identify with the one who is making the joke, i.e., with someone who "isn't being nice." Very few of us care to be placed in that position. This is why The Simpsons' cartoon format delivers more rhetorical bang for the buck than the talking head panels of TV discussions.

Good natured humor tends also to give us a cosmopolitan outlook which we all appreciate. What might otherwise appear to be different becomes commonplace. It is the "no big deal" attitude, the "been there, done that" relaxed relegation of the unusual to the ordinary.

And if this is what the episode achieves it has obviously done a service to the gay community; and to whatever extent it helps us to accept people for what they are as individuals without judging them for their intimate associations, it has done us a service, too.

Humming Bird
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