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Simpsons Semiotic analysis Essay Sample

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Simpsons Semiotic analysis Essay Sample

The Simpsons began life in January 1990 on American televisions. The show centres on the Simpson family, a dysfunctional middle – class American family living in the fictitious world of Springfield. Now in its 14th season, the Simpsons has become the longest running prime – time television series. The secret to the series’ success has been its vast appeal. The humour is diverse, ranging from simplistic slap – stick, to subtle television and movie references, but it is the shows satirical take on Western Popular Culture and American culture values that wins over the majority of the show’s audience. The young and the old, educated and the un – informed can all enjoy the many levels of humour within the Simpsons.

Popular culture is quite difficult to define. Popular is defined as relating to, or representing the majority of people. Culture can be seen as the shared expression of a group of people. With these two meanings combined we can define popular culture as an expression of culture which is not ‘high culture’ that has a limited following but which is consumed on a global market, is accessible because of the developments of technology and is evolving over time.

Millions of people throughout the western world watch the Simpsons, therefore the Simpsons is an integral part of modern popular culture. Indeed, the majority of those living in Western society can name at least one Simpsons character and its critics bemoan the fact that the current generation of children are more likely to be able to quote the Simpsons than the Bible. In 1998, Time magazine included Bart Simpson in their listing of the 20th century’s most influential figures.

Using the sociological research method of semiotics (study of signs and their meanings), we can see that the characters, places and events within Springfield are generalised and stereotypical signs. These signs, whether indexical, symbolic, denotative, connotative or polysemic, represent in a most satirical nature, the American suburban experience, and the forms of popular culture that exist within this society.

So, in essence, the Simpsons itself is a form of mass popular culture used as a connotative sign to represent western popular culture and its values, while at the same time poking fun at this culture. The Simpsons is a popular culture form making fun of the culture it represents and is a part of.

In my sociological account, I will be reading images of Homer Simpson, and using a semiotic analysis to make judgement about his character. I will also be analysing the role of two popular Simpsons characters in the series (Homer Simpson and Mr Burns) and the signs that these characters utilise to represent popular culture and its values.

Although they are only generalised, clichéd cartoon characters, they represent our society’s view of itself. Through an in-depth semiotic analysis of these characters, we can learn more about popular culture in our society.

Homer Simpson

In all 3 images we can see Homer’s large stomach. Indexically, this could mean that Homer is lazy, or that he has a bad diet, but without further analysis, the reader is making assumptions. The image on the left shows Homer holding a donut towards his mouth with a portion missing. The reader thus infers that Homer is in the process of eating the donut. They will also notice the smile on his face, and infer that he is happy. The reader, taking into consideration his large stomach and the smile on his face, can now infer that he enjoys eating fatty foods, and therefore has a bad diet.

As it has been said, a picture tells a thousand words, therefore a simple visual analysis of a cartoon character can tell the viewer a lot about that character. As the characters from the Simpsons reflect a generalised view of society, then a visual semiotic analysis can tell us a lot about the society we live in.

Character analysis

Homer Simpson, age 36, is the husband of Marge Simpson and father of Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson. He is employed as a ‘worker drone’ at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant where he holds the plant record for most years worked at an entry-level position. His favourite pastime is lying on the couch, whilst watching sports, drinking beer and eating salted snacks. His character is a connotation for the average American loser.

He is an unaware hedonist who seeks the pleasures popular culture has to offer him. He loves watching mainstream television and movies, listens to rock music, can’t get enough snacks or fast foods and his favourite beer, duff, is mass-produced.

Homer’s character is used as a sign to connotate the pawns, or little guys at the mercy of manipulating forces in our modern capitalist society: entertainment, marketing and occasionally even politics. Homer will purchase virtually every tele-marketing product advertised and on the first Monday of every month (Billboard Monday) he will view the billboards on the side of the road and purchase every new advertised product.

Homer unknowingly soaks in all that popular – culture suggests to him: that mass consumption of commodities is essential, and to believe anything and everything that television tells him. As the man himself once said (series 7, episode 10), “Yes, I am the highly suggestible type…” It is Homer’s naivety towards forces of manipulation that makes the viewer aware of these forces prevalent in our capitalist, pop – culture society.

Mr Burns

Character analysis

Mr Burns, or Charles Montgomery Burns, is the richest and most powerful man in Springfield. He is owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, the largest employer in Springfield. He is a power – hungry, exploitative and greedy man, always seeking to maximise his profits. Mr Burns has been known to perform random firings. He also bribes agents of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because his plant’s health, safety and environmental requirements are far from being up to scratch.

“The watchdog of public safety. Is there any lower form of life?” (Mr Burns, season 6, episode 9)

He lives to acquire more power and more money. In fact, the motto of his company is:

Burns Corporation: Building a better future… for himself.

When once asked if he’d spare one dollar in return for a life of eternal happiness, he concluded that he’d be happier with the dollar. His favourite pass-times include money fights with his assistant Smithers and acquiring a wardrobe made entirely out of innocent animal’s hides.

The character of Mr Burns connotates the greedy, exploitive side to capitalism. Both he and his power plant represent the dark side of capitalism, greedy corporations owned by an elite few who control the lives of the masses. Metaphorically, he is the power source of Springfield: he controls the economy, the majority of the workforce and a major commodity in the form of electricity. His power plant exposes its workers and Springfield’s waterways to harmful radiation, and the entire town lives under the fear of a nuclear fallout.

At one point in time, he attempted to block out the sun so that his power would be needed to run Springfield’s lighting and heating 24 hours a day. This kind of exploitive act presents a generalised view on greedy corporations and their attempts to acquire more money and power.

The characters of Homer Simpson and Mr Burns represent contrasting roles in our modern popular-culture society. Homer represents society’s view of a stereotypical consumer, whilst Mr Burns represents the greedy side to capitalism.

Bibliography

Andreas, Kristiansen – Animation and teaching: Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, (2001)

Irwin, Conard – The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D`oh! of Homer (2001)

Macgregor, Jeff – More than sight gags and subversive humour : New York Times, June 20, (1999). Television/Radio. pg 27

Michael O’Shaughnessy and Jane Stadler ‘Reading Images’ in Media and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pgs 86 – 102 (2002)…. From Soc180 semester 2, 2003 course reader.

Sohn, John – Simpson ethics: North Olmsted High School, (2000)

Steiger, Gerd – The Simpsons, Just funny or more?: (1999)

Website: the simpsons.com (official simpsons website)

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