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The Sociology Of The Simpsons: Using Sociological

Theory Can We See The Society We Live In Within The


Simpsons?

Chris Leckey
B00588642
BSc (Hons) Sociology
2016

This dissertation is submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for


the award of B.Sc. Sociology.

Table Of Contents.
Introduction....5
Theory.....6

Literature Review...7
Understanding Culture7
Studies Done In Modern Television......8
The Simpsons in Sociological Practise....9

Methodology.11
The American Family.14
Homer and Marge The Sociology Of Marriage......15

Bart Simpson Meet Talcott Parsons......17

Power The Control Of C. Montgomery Burns In Education and Work.19


Mr. Burns The Power Relations and Struggles In The
Workplace.20

Principal Skinner Education and Power Under


Threat...21

Gender Marge The Housewife and Lisa The Young Feminist.22


Lisa The Lionheart Youth and Feminism..25
Marge Simpson The Housewife and Gender
Norms..26

Conclusion....28

Bibliography/References...30

Acknowledgements.
I would like to thank my supervisor Dr. Ciaran Acton for his time and patience with
supervising me on this. I understand the difficulty in understanding my approach but
hopefully after reading it in full, he gets it.
My thanks go to Dr. Marie Braniff for being a supportive and understanding lecturer at the
university during tough times that I had over the past three years.
Gratitude also goes to Mr. Fred Johnson for his lectures on sociological theory that I have
used extensively throughout this dissertation, without his analytic depth into the area I would
not have known how to write this.
Thanks also go to Jacky Sheridan, Billy Woods and Wilson Davidson for making sure that I
didnt go insane during the period of writing this.

Another thanks goes to my Mum for having the time to proofread this.

Abstract.
A sociological analysis of The Simpsons paying particular attention to the ideas of C. Wright
Millss concept of The Sociological Imagination of the ability to see society in a different
light through the discipline of sociology. A comprehensive look at the sociological theories of
family, power and gender by theorists such as Foucault, Parsons, McRobbie, Althusser,
Weber, Hoftstede etc. Contrasting these theorists with episodes of The Simpsons that relate to
these theories. This dissertation will use the research technique of content analysis in a
qualitative setting and will attempt to understand the sociological significance of The
Simpsons and its lasting impression on society.

Introduction.
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Can we truly see the society that we live in, in a cartoon? A cartoon known for its off-thewall humor and silly jokes? The Simpsons is considered a classic. But can we truly scratch
deeper than the surface of this and begin to analyze it as a sociological entity? This piece will
attempt to answer that. C. Wright Mills (1959) in The Sociological Imagination addressed
how we must look at the world with a sociological vision and see the links between them, that
in order to truly understand society around us, we must look at society with a certain gaze. I
believe this to be fundamental in the accomplishments of sociological theoretical ideas and
that in order to achieve a piece of sociological literature, you must look at things with a
different view. This is why I have chosen The Simpsons as the focus of my sociological
imagination. The Simpsons is unique in that it is one of the only television shows that over the
years has created an entire society and series, a whole cast of primary, secondary and tertiary
characters easily recognized from their catchphrase or funny accent. I believe that The
Simpsons is of paramount importance to the area of sociology because of this. No other show
has been able to achieve the amount of social building than The Simpsons and because of it
this, I intend to analyze it along side preexisting sociological texts in order to find the links
that C. Wright Mills refers to. I will be analyzing three areas of social theory. I will first look
at how The Simpsons portrays family life and family living in America and how it is able to
convey the theories of certain family theorists. Secondly, I will analyze the characters of Mr.
Burns and Principal Skinner in the areas of education and work through their power and
domination of workers and students. Finally, I will look at how The Simpsons intentionally
explores gender and how it reflects the changing attitudes towards gender in society at large,
how the writers of The Simpsons understood the changing attitudes of feminism and
addressed them.
I will be contrasting these theories with selected episodes of the series that I feel portray these
theories most clearly. I wish to claim again that I do not believe that the writers are
sociologists but I believe that they portray the society around them in a satirical but accurate
way in a setting that they have created. This piece will set these episodes next to real
sociological theory to show how The Simpsons is sociological. I will however be shifting this
idea in the chapter on gender to show how the writers understand gender differences and
feminist thought.

Theory

The theory is laced throughout this research piece, each chapter will begin discussing the
theories that will be used. A short section will discuss the various aspects of that chapters
area and the theory that will employ.

Literature review.

In this section I will be discussing from various other texts that I have gathered that I feel are
relevant to the study that I will be presenting. The first section is concerned with the concept
of culture and how different theorists from various different perspectives view ideas in
sociology through media and culture. Through the literature you will be able to identify how
the theoretical arc of this paper will pan out. In the second section I will be analyzing various
other sitcoms and popular cultural phenomena and how sociologists have interpreted them. I
have looked at these in reference as to how other sitcoms/modern cultural phenomena have
been analyzed and how I can apply this to my study of The Simpsons. These examples
include studies in Sex and The City, Seinfeld and the characters of shows such as The
Flintstones, The Honeymooners and King Of Queens. The third section covers sources that I
found on sociologists and theorists looking at The Simpsons in the context of various areas of
sociology such as gender and class. These prove to be an interesting insight and a good
starting off point. In this section of the paper, the theory, which I will be employing
throughout, will be discussed and related back to the data of my research methodology.

Understanding Culture.
Culture itself is a large part of sociology with many different theorists analyzing culture in
order to understand how it can reflects various aspects of society such as religion, race,
gender and social interaction through symbolic interactionism. In his book Culture: Key
Ideas, Chris Jenks (1993) tries to understand how culture came to be and argues that culture
is a symbolic force that robs man of his nature and places him in this socially produced
symbolic form. Jenks goes to say that he believes that culture came about in the eighteenth
century as a response to the massive changes that were occurring in the structure and quality
of life on social, political and personal levels. Jenks then speaks of how culture was
developed as a euro-centric form and that it in itself is simply a symbolic force. Jenks goes on
to give four accounts of what culture is described to be; in the first he describes it as cerebral
and cognitive category that carries the idea of perfection or emancipation. This theory is
closely related to the writings of the Frankfurt School and earlier to the writings of Marx with
his emphasis on false consciousness and philosophical commitment. The second is that
culture is a form of development that occurs in a society and is a natural part of a developing
society, this is an theory closely associated with anthropology. The third of these accounts is
that culture is a concrete category that is seen as a collective body of art and intellectual work
and comes with a degree of elitism and dominance with it, this account can be seen as being
closely related to Pierre Bourdieu and his theory of cultural capital. The final account is that
culture is a social category and that it is a way of life with some people, this account is a

generalized notion that sociologists and in a more localised sense cultural theorists see
culture. A very different perspective of how culture can be analyzed would be that of postmodernists. In her book Postmodernism and Popular Culture, Angela McRobbie (1994)
argues that pervious cultural studies have been ineffective in understanding how culture can
be analyzed and has been dominated by Marxist and structuralist/post-structuralist views.
Robbie argues that we must not worry about what culture is, but rather think about what it
means and how it relates to society instead of how it mirrors society. One of the positive
aspects of this approach to understanding culture and society as a whole is that postmodernism allows us to challenge the preconceived notion of sociology and analyze every
aspect of society with precision. This theory is interesting in how you can look at culture from
a different perspective and shows how culture theory has many different areas and
perspectives. Bourdieus theories of capital (social, cultural etc.) will be employed in this
paper in the coming chapters. This is due to Bourdieus nature of applying it to culture.
McRobbie is a key theorist in feminism and gender studies, she will be applied in the chapter
discussing gender. The Frankfurt Schools cultural ideas and theories that dictate their thought
will be considered in relation to the chapters ahead.

Studies Done in Modern Television.


Sociologists have used various popular culture phenomena in order to understand society and
see how popular culture can mirror society at the time. A prime of example of sociologists
using a popular television show in order to understand social phenomena is the studying of
Seinfeld. Tim Delaneys Seinology is an examination of Seinfeld in order to understand key
sociological theories that run throughout. Delaney (T Delaney 2006) uses Seinfeld in order to
understand certain social phenomena such as social behavior and social interaction between
the shows four characters. Delaney also looks at how this relates to aspects of culture such as
class, race, sports and gender. Gender is a large area of study for sociologists, in
understanding how the culture can relate to the understanding of gender norms and the
aspects of womans lives within the public and private sphere, sociologists will analyze the
culture in order to see how men and women are represented. In the book of essays Gender,
Race, Class in Media edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez is an essay by Jane Gerhard in
which she details how Sex and The City is a postfeminist show, a show in which women
enjoy the fruits of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. Gerhard (2011) goes onto
explain how the show explores sexual equality in the wake of the social and cultural
achievements of the second wave feminists. Gerhard also explains how the writers of the
show explored the nature of queerness in the 90s through subplots and narratives with the
characters. This is a prime example of how a show can explore the ideas of gender through
their plots and narratives. In the same book, Richard Butsch analyses the sitcom King Of

Queens as well as other famous TV dads including Homer Simpson, Ralph Kramden and Fred
Flintstone in order to understand why television keeps recreating a male working class idiot.
In this study (Butsch 2011) Butsch is interested in why TV networks decide to reproduce this
type of person for sitcoms and why the class system is used in order to get laughs. This study
is a key example of how class can be used to relate and understand its audience as Butsch
finds that they use the working class man as the loveable but sometimes stupid main character
in order for working class men to have someone to relate to but also to have relief that they
are not that bad in comparison. He makes this comparison with Homer who while being
exceedingly stupid and sometimes inconsiderate is still loveable. These theorists all employed
various levels of research methodology in these studies, however the most prominent is
content analysis with an emphasis on qualitative studies.

The Simpsons in Sociological Practice.


The Simpsons have been a staple in modern pop culture since the early 90s and because of
this, they are a reflection of the culture during that time period. Unlike most of the previously
mentioned studies on different pop culture phenomena, The Simpsons have managed to
sustain a degree of popularity in its 27 season run and in that run have lampooned and
satirized many aspects of society that we take for granted such as class, gender and the ideas
of domination be it in the work place, school or criminal justice system. One of the key texts
in understanding society through The Simpsons is Simpsonology by Tim Delaney. Delaney
(Delaney 2008), breaks society down into chapters, such as race, family, gender, religion and
a chapter on how The Simpsons has been received in society. Another example is Matthew A.
Henrys The Simpsons, Satire and American Culture, Matthew A Henry, who is a professor of
Cultural Studies at Richland College. Henrys book (M.A Henry 2012) much like Delaneys,
deals with societal topics in a fun and informative way, breaking down sociological themes
and coloring them with characters and episodes of The Simpsons. Unlike Delaney however
are the differences in discipline approach. Where Delaney comes mainly from much of a
sociological approach, Henry opts for a more refined direction of cultural studies; the
outcome, is the narrow nature of his thought, whereas Delaney has the ability to employ
various techniques and ways of interpreting, Henrys is contained in just one discipline.
Henrys book follow much the same structure but with an emphasis on the idea that satire in
The Simpsons is a way of addressing social problems, actions and norms. Most notably is his
chapter on gender and family where Henry details the theories and ideologies surrounding
gender, family and femininity detailing this with prominent female characters and through
this using episodes where these norms and actions are most on show. In this dissertation I will
be using this as a key text in order to show how society is exposed (albeit, in a humorous
light) through The Simpsons.

Methodology.

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In this chapter, I will detail the aspects of research methodology I have employed in this
dissertation, paying particular attention to the aspects and benefits of qualitative research over
quantitative research in the context of my research topic. I will be paying particular attention
to the research method of content analysis and draw on previous research that has been
carried out on culture using this research method. The disadvantages and advantages of this
research method will be analyzed and then using this, detail my research plan for my topic of
research.

In her book The Content Analysis Guidebook, Kimberly A. Neuendorf (Neuendorf 2002)
defines content analysis in a quantitative perspective as the systematic, objective,
quantitative analysis of message characteristics, it included the careful examination of human
interactions; the analysis of character portrayals in TV commercials, films and novels; the
computer-driven investigation of word usage in news releases and political speeches; and so
much more. Neuendorf is speaking of content analysis in a quantitative perspective where
she shows how theorists have used quantitative research methods to analyze the words used in
television. Neuendorf uses a case study of a theorist using content analysis on Porky Pigs
vocalizations from a clinical speech therapy perspective. He found that Porky would stutter
around 11.6% to 51.4% of words uttered from 37 cartoons watched. Neuendorf goes on to
explain how content analysis is significantly easier to use in research than other types of
research methods because of its accessibility. However, Neuendorf dispels the myth that it is
an easy method to use when researching. Neuendorf believes that content analysis is as easy
or hard as the researcher makes it out to be, citing that it must conform to the rules of good
science because of the nature of its approach being purely analytic. Each researcher makes
decisions as to the scope and complexity of the content-analytic study. This displays the
quantitative nature of content analysis and within the context of this research; it shows the
strengths of how qualitative it more appropriate to this writing.

In her book Qualitative Content Analysis In Practice, Margrit Schreier, details various aspects
of the qualitative side of content analysis paying attention to the distinction and similarities of
qualitative and quantitative research methods in content analysis. Schreier (Schreier 2012)
believes that qualitative content analysis (QCA), is a much more in depth way of
systematically explaining data. Schreier believes that the use of the qualitative method is a
much more apt method to use because of its ability to be less systematic and more in depth;
using an example, she says that if you wish to find the number of men and women shown in
magazine advertisements then little interpretation would be needed in order to understand
that. For that research you could simply use computer aided quantitative content analysis but
in the research of if women are placed in more trivial contexts than men, the research

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becomes much less standardized than before, there must be more depth. More interpretation is
needed in order to understand that complex relationship. In relevance to this research, I
cannot simply use a quantitative method in order to find out how many times a women is
represented in a gender role or if the role of upper class is shown in a more positive light than
others, I need to research my data (The Simpsons) in a much more complex and interpretative
way. I believe that by analyzing my data in a more interpretative way, I will ultimately be
looking deeper into the hidden sociological ideas of The Simpsons. Schreier explains how
qualitative research in content analysis can be systematic and that is the ultimate goal of
qualitative research. The goal is to systematically describe the meaning of the material; the
systematic nature of QCA allows you to be flexible with your research, which differentiates it
from different quantitative research methods because it is based on interpretation. Another
positive of this method is that QCA reduces the amount of data that comes from the research.
QCA does this from its lack of interviews/interview tapes in which to work though and also is
because the way that you can focus on certain aspects of the data and bring together your own
interpretation of it. This is particularly important when analyzing television, film, literature
and other important cultural phenomena.

E.E. Fields in his contribution to the journal Qualitative Sociology discusses the aspects of
QCA in the analysis of media particularly in new media. Fields (Fields 1988) also states a
distinction between quantitative and qualitative content analysis stating that quantitative
analysis is much more statistical significance, where as qualitative is based more on data that
can be interpreted for theoretical significance. Fields then lays out eight points in which to
follow:
1. Unitizing content the unit that the researcher expects aspects of the data to fall into
(in the case of this research, which episodes of The Simpsons fall into the categories
of family, gender, power etc.).
2. Transcription this is the script of the data and the use of words (the characters
scripted words on The Simpsons).
3. Developing and using categories this is a synthesis of the previous two, how is the
script put into the context of your categories (how the characters words in The
Simpsons match my coding frame).
4. Verbal analysis Once the context is achieved, how can the structure of discourse be
examined (how the characters speak to one and other).
5. Verbal and Expressive Analysis this is the actual way that the data speaks or moves
(body language and quotes of characters).

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6. Scene Composition Analysis the settings and background of the characters


(Springfield).
7. Describing the interplay of components the interrelations of theme that run
throughout various aspects of a categories (how certain episodes relate to each other).
8. Explanation The account of accounts the collective perception of all of the points
above.

From this you can see there is a clear path that develops when analyzing content in the media
and that everything needs to be relevant to the categories. Coming back to Margrit Schreier
(2012), she calls this a coding frame; Schreier uses influences from the coding aspects of
quantitative to explain how the research must be coded in order to understand it
theoretically.

I have been watching The Simpsons and have been a large fan since I was a young boy and
because of this my encyclopedic knowledge of the episodes, plotlines and dialogue has helped
me in creating my coding frame. I have gone through an episode guide from seasons 2-9 and
from my vast understanding of the show have been able to identify episodes that would relate
to the chapters I wish to write about. By doing this I have created a coding frame, where
episodes fall into one of the three categories I have created (family, power or gender) and
marked them accordingly.

The American Family in Springfield.

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Central to the identity of The Simpsons are the concept of family and more importantly the
concept of a post-World War II nuclear family domination. This chapter will detail the
sociological perspective of family within The Simpsons and how the characters relate with
one and other through the private (family life) and public (family within a class environment)
spheres of family in a changing American society.
In 1992 (Pinskey M.I 2007), then president of the United States George H.W Bush stated at
the National Religious Broadcasters towards the end of his presidential term:
We need a nation closer to The Waltons and less like The Simpsons

Following this attack on The Simpsons, an episode was broadcast three days later in which
Bart responded to the criticism uttering, Were just like the Waltons, were praying for the
end of to the depression too. First Lady Barbra Bush then responded by stating, The
Simpsons is the dumbest thing Ive ever seen. Referring to the matriarchal figure of The
Simpsons, Marge Simpson (actually series developer James L. Brooks), wrote to the first lady
and explained how Marge and the First Lady have a lot in common and that the teachings that
they have heard while attending church must be different to the ones in Washington. Barbara
Bush responded and called The Simpsons charming and setting an example for the rest of
the country. Barbara Bush took a U-turn on her opinions on The Simpsons. Since 1992 the
concepts of family have changed and The Simpsons has stayed relevant within the concept.
The Simpsons kept up with changing family trends in the US that occurred within the 1990s. I
will now detail the reasons why The Simpsons is a relevant source of sociological ideas of
family.

The concept of family is one the fundamental areas of sociology, extensively covered over the
years. Bert N. Adams (1975) discusses this in his book The Family: A Sociological
Perspective. In it he draws from various theorists and sociological perspectives on what the
family is and how it can be used as an agent of socialization and of a class definer. Adams
(1975) states that the family is remarkable in consideration of other social institutions
compared to class and culture, because of its distance from political or state structure
regulating the production of goods and services. But, rather that the family is historically the
institution that is basic in social organization, socialization and discipline. However, the key
word in that pervious sentence is historically, The Simpsons is not a historical relic but rather
a modern television sitcom; Adamss book provides an account of how the family has

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changed and how it has progressed with single parent families, divorce and gay relationships.
Adams discusses these changes in his book while also detailing various historical research of
families from pre-colonial days to the 20th century and their changes. One of the difficulties,
he states, about this historical progression is the tendency of researchers to draw more on the
classical perspective of a family, that is a family perspective sexual promiscuity and other
internal difficulties. Another problem is that the rapid industrialisation at the end of the 19th
century drastically changed the public and private sphere of family. Drawing on the concept
of the nuclear family, Adamss finds that one of the biggest changes that occurred in the 20th
century were moderate-to-great and happened to the internal structure of the family. One of
these were changes of children being allowed more freedom, this is seen throughout The
Simpsons particularly with Bart Simpson being allowed to do what he wants and typically
getting into trouble. Another change was the division of labor within the household between
the two parents. Whereas before the father figure would ideally be the main bread winner,
more and more women would go out to work in the turn of the century. This again is relevant
to many episodes of The Simpsons. That will be discussed in full further into the research. The
Simpsons used these changes in order to satirize them, while still paying attention to the
familys middle class setting and American surroundings.

The family as a social concept is always shown in The Simpsons. The show is about a family
with the central characters being in the unit. However, due to the nature of the research, I am
interested in when the family unit is stressed especially to Homer and Marges marriage and
episodes in which their marriage is on the line. The overall aim is to see if The Simpsons does
keep up with changes that occur in marriage primarily during the 1990s. Many episodes deal
with this, however, some are more relevant than the others.
Homer And Marge The Sociology Of Marriage.

An early episode that shows the marriage being strained is Season 2s The War Of The
Simpsons (The War Of The Simpsons 1991). In this episode, Marge and Homer are sent to
marriage therapy because of Homers drunkenness at a family dinner party. While Marge is
interested in helping the marriage, Homer is more interested in fishing, especially after
hearing the news of a giant catfish that roams the lake. After catching this fish, Marge is
furious with Homer, saying I thought our marriage was in trouble, but never this much
trouble. With the fish on the boat, Homer then kicks the fish off of the boat even after
fighting it for 6 hours and is astounded that he was able to do it and aims to improve his
marriage. Upon arriving home, Homer tells his children that their marriage is Same as usual,
perfectomundo. This episode displays many aspects that can occur in the every day life of a

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married couple. In his book The Family In Social Context Gerald R Leslie (1973) discusses
the emergence of conflict within marriage; Leslie finds that in middle class families, conflict
is done using words and that these words can have deeper wounds than in the case of physical
attacks. This is displayed well in The War Of The Simpsons by Marge being asked to list
Homers flaws and ends up talking all night listing them; this shows that Marges problems
with Homer are very deeply laid. Leslie lists the types of conflict that can occur within
marriage. The first type is that of acute conflicts, which are short bursts of disillusionment
that can be easily resolved, this type of conflict is used as mechanism of humor within many
episodes of The Simpsons, used by the writers for comic purposes. The second type of conflict
is progressive conflict, in which acute conflict becomes a progressive means in which
marriages can survive and move on. This type of conflict is shown in The War of The
Simpsons prominently and how these two types of conflict can form. At the beginning of the
episode, Homer is seen acting like a drunken fool but as the episode progresses, Homer
begins to see the errors in his ways and choose to progress from them and eventually Homer
and Marge are happy, learning from their fight. The transition between these two conflict
types are interesting in this episode when considering the final type of conflict, habitual.
Habitual conflict is conflict which emerges from a habit that a partner has developed and the
spouse begins to take notice of. When considering the ending of The War of The Simpsons
Homer returns from the marriage therapy and is asked by Lisa how the marriage is and simply
says that is how it used to be. This leaves the episode with a very ambiguous ending,
suggesting that the marriage has simply fallen back to its habitual surroundings and makes
you wonder if Homer and Marges marriage is in fact perfectamundo as Homer puts it.
These patterns can be seen in other episodes for example Colonel Homer from Season 3
(Colonel Homer 1992) where Homer and Marges marriage is again put on the line because of
Homers alleged promiscuity with another woman and also with Secrets of a Successful
Marriage of Season 5 (Secrets of a Successful Marriage 1994) where Homer embarrasses
Marge through Homers teachings of a successful marriage. In this episode Homer gives a
speech about how he needs Marge despite his pitfalls,
Marge, I need you more than anyone else on this entire planet could possibly ever need you!
I need you to take care of me, to put up with me, and most of all I need you to love me, 'cause
I love you.
Marge replies asking how she can trust him, Homer responds saying Marge, look at me!
We've been separated for a day, and I'm as dirty as a Frenchman. In another few hours I'll be
dead! I can't afford to lose your trust again. This last line (I cant afford to lose your trust
again) shows Marge and Homers conflicts fall into a progressive nature that Leslie listed.

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This shows that The Simpsonss writers saw the progression of marriage from the 1970s and
showcased it in its progressive nature.

Bart Simpson Meets Talcott Parsons.

With the theories of marriage contrasted with Marge and Homer, we can begin to see how
these characters within the fictional family setting can socialize their children. Bart, Lisa and
Maggie are Homer and Marges children with Bart and Lisa being shown as stereotypical
siblings fighting constantly. Bart is displayed as the bad boy child and Lisa is commonly
displayed as being smarter than most of the family and more often than not being the voice of
reason within the family. This chapter will detail the theory of socialization within the family
unit through the work of Talcott Parsons and through the characters of Bart and Lisa
Simpson. This section will detail how the writers are able to showcase the difficulties in
socialization from a functionalist perspective.

Talcott Parsons was one of the leading figures in the sociological framework of functionalism
with being heavily influenced by Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, from which he
synthesized into his own theories. In his book Family, Socialization and Interaction Process
co-written with Robert F Bales (Parson et al 1968) Parsons not only details his functionalist
theories using Freuds psycho-sexual development as a reference point. Parsons details his
ideas of the American family in the first chapter saying, The American family has, in the
past generation or more, been undergoing a profound process of change. By this, Parsons
means the increasing numbers of divorce and changes in age-old mortality; he illustrates this
by calling it the loss of function of the family. As was detailed in the previous section, these
changes in family have been covered through Homer and Marge and their interaction with
each other. Parsons goes on to discuss the socialization process of children within family.
Parsons begins by stating the parents, as socializing agents, occupy not merely their familial
roles, but these articulate with their roles in other structures of the society Essentially here
Parsons is explaining how parents try to teach their children in order to be ready for the
outside world. Parsons continues by stating secondly, the child is never socialized only for
and into his family of orientation, but into structures which extend beyond this family; here
Parsons is explaining how the socialization process moves onto the other institutions of
society such as school eventually, family helps a child grow into an adult in marriage and
occupational roles. With this mind, we can look at the characters of Lisa and Bart through
their socialization process. Firstly looking at Bart, one of the early example of Homers
attempt at socialization is a scene in New Kid On The Block from the Season 4s (New Kid
On The Block, 1992). When Bart asks Homer for advice about a woman Homer begins to

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ramble on how a woman is like a beer and subsequently gets drunk and passes out, this shows
how Homer is a negative influence on Bart, with Barts personality and actions seen as
irrational to both his parents and his school and Bart by getting into trouble. Barts behavior is
constantly shown as being erratic and only being bad to get a kick out of it. This could be
from Barts upbringing of being abused as a child by Homer and being continually brought up
with the wrong ideas, it is important to understand that this shows that Bart is being socialized
in a wrong way, the writers use Homers buffoonery as a method of humour but in a
sociological perspective, he is in fact a bad father who is not raising his child correctly. Two
episodes showcase this perfectly, first in Season 8s Homers Phobia and second in season 7s
Marge Be Not Proud. In Homers Phobia (Homers Phobia 1997) the family befriend a local
shop owner and homosexual, Homer is disgusted to find out that he is homosexual and begins
to attempt to make Bart a regular Burt Reynolds. Homers attempts include placing Bart in
front of a highly sexual billboard, taking him to a steel mill (which turns out to be a gay steel
mill called The Anvil) and finally bringing him hunting with his friends. This is again an
example of Parsons (Parsons 1968), an example of a fathers role being of power and
relativity, that by enforcing a sense of power over Bart to become less like himself and more
in the mould that Homer wishes for Bart. Another example is Marge Be Not Proud of Season
7 (Marge Be Not Proud 1995) in which Homer teaches Bart to give into peer pressure in order
to gain more social friends, Homer tells Bart this and this in turn makes Bart become a thief
being pressured into shop lifting a new video game.

These examples showcase the character of Homer being an unfit and father and Bart as his
misled son. In the following chapter, we will begin to look at how the role of education on
Bart and power at work on Homer has influenced this.

Power The Control of C. Montgomery Burns and Seymour Skinner


in Education and Work.

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In sociology, power is one of the central themes that run through many different theories and
perspectives, particularly those of Marxism, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism. In this
chapter I will be detailing the ideas of power that run through The Simpsons especially those
that involve two of the series central characters. The first is C. Montgomery Burns or Mr.
Burns as he is commonly referred to. He is Homers boss the main employer of Springfield;
he owns the citys nuclear power planet, and the richest character on the show. Central to his
identity is that of a feeble old man, inherently evil and because of his wealth and power he has
a hold over the city. The second character is Seymour Skinner, or Principal Skinner, the
principal of Springfield Elementary School, the school Bart and Lisa attend. Unlike Mr.
Burns, Principal Skinner is seen as weak and unable to control the children of his school,
particularly Bart. He is a Vietnam veteran, lives with his abusive mother and is constantly
under threat of being fired by his boss, primarily Superintendent Chalmers. Both of these
characters will be analyzed looking primarily at the theories of Marx, Weber, Foucault and
Bourdieu while also paying attention to the theories of Althusser, Lukes and Durkheim. This
chapter will attempt to understand how power is shown through these two characters, Mr.
Burns displaying a very evil and assailable form of power and Principal Skinner showing how
power can be weakened and overthrown.

Power is a central theme that runs through many areas of sociology such as class, gender and
culture, because of its ability to be extended into various areas of society. This is an important
aspect to consider when studying cultural phenomena such as The Simpsons. Marxs
perspective of power and its relation to other areas of sociology are a crucial starting point to
the understanding this concept. Marxs historical materialism is central to the early
understandings of power and in Anthony Giddens book Capitalism and modern social
theory (1971) he sees it as Marxs critique of Hegels philosophy of the state. Giddens
states that Marx was interested in subjectivity and the identification of the true subject from a
process of objectification in the political institutions of the state. Marxs theory grew and
stated alienation must be studied as an historical phenomenon which can only be understood
in terms of the development of specific social formations. Here Marx is conceptualising his
theory of wage labourers and wage slavery. From here Marx developed his theories on class
domination stating that those who held the means of production were the ruling class and
dominated the working class for this labour, although Marxs concept are much more
complex, I believe that these are the fundamental aspects that will relate to The Simpsons.
This is a very basic concept of power, a concept expanded under the theories of Michel
Foucault. Foucault (Sheridan 1980) believed in the analysis of discourse in understanding

19

power relations. Foucault was influenced by existential German philosopher Friedrich


Nietzsche as well as Marx. Foucault believed that while Marx was interested in the power of
the production, Nietzsche was interested in power through a purely social and mental thought
without political attention. Foucault published the book Discipline and Punish, the Birth of
the Prison in 1975 and with this Foucault expanded his ideas through the power relations of
coercive forces and in a more modern setting, the work place. Mr. Burns is an example of
these two theorists ideas in practice in a modern cultural setting.
Mr. Burns - The Power Relations and Struggles in the Workplace.
A pivotal episode in The Simpsons series is that of Last Exit To Springfield from Season 4
(Last Exit To Springfield 1993). In this episode, Homer is made the union leader at the
Nuclear Power Planet and strikes in order to get back the workers dental plan (Lisas needs
braces). This episode shows Mr.Burnss need for domination over his workers and even over
the entire city. In order to understand this domination we must turn to Structurialist Marxist
Louis Althusser. Althussers book For Marx (Althusser 1965) discusses how Marxism and
socialism enter a period of humanism, which is said to be celebrated in Marxs early
writings and later in Das Kapital. Althusser is speaking from a perspective of criticizing the
dictatorship of Stalin and Soviet style communism. With this in mind, Althusser speaks of
how the class dictatorship of the U.S.S.R is fulfilled with zero class antagonisation but at a
cost to personal freedom. Althusser believes that throughout history, humanism has split into
two forms, first, class humanism, which is the dictatorship of the proletariat and second,
personal humanism which is prevented by Soviet socialism, despite Marxs wishes for
communism/socialism being a fully developed naturalism he terms humanism. These two
contrasting accounts of humanism are evident in Last Exit To Springfield, in a purely political
and sociological sense; Mr. Burns is portrayed as a powerful tyrant and dictator of the
working class exemplifying the ideas of Althussers account of Soviet style class humanism.
In this episode you can see Mr. Burns attempting to reason with Homer (as union leader) with
a variety of methods such as showing him around his mansion and bribing him. Mr. Burns is
using his power and wealth in order to keep the workers from striking, hence using his keep
the proletariat down in an attempt to keep his class humanism alive. Homers striking
exemplifies the ideas of Althussers personal humanism by striking around his master and
dictator Mr. Burns he is attempting to exercise his personal humanism and achieve his goal.
The class dictatorship of Mr. Burns in this episode is put to the for of the episode. Another
episode that shows Mr. Burns flexing his power is Who Shot Mr. Burns of Season 6s (Who
Shot Mr. Burns (Part One) 1995). Here Mr. Burns becomes maniacal over controlling
Springfield when finding that Springfield has struck oil. In the process of stealing this oil he

20

destroys many local businesses and institutions such as the school and the retirement home.
At the episodes conclusion, he blocks out the sun and throws Springfield into darkness. The
residents have to turn on their lights day and night, thus becoming dependent on his nuclear
plant. In the episodes conclusion, an unnamed assailant shoots him. In this episode Mr. Burns
is at his most evil and power hungry. Max Weber (Brennan 1997) states that power is among
the most fundamental and universal components of the actual course of interpersonal
behavior. Weber said this because he believed that power was central to his theory of social
stratification, Weber believed that this is due to the fact classes, status groups and
parties are phenomena of distribution of power within a community and that power is not
an independent quality but is an attribute of economic, social and political relations. This is
true of this episode and portrayal of Mr. Burns; his power is not of an independent quality but
because he wishes to strengthen his economic and political stranglehold on Springfield.
Weber defines his theory of power (Macht) and domination (Herrschaft) as the probability of
forcing ones will on the behavior of others, much like how Mr. Burns by blacking out the sun
is forcing his will onto the people of Springfield. Weber further explains that this depends on
the different types of resources, mainly being either political power or through financial
power. Who Shot Mr. Burns (Part One) is an excellent example of Mr. Burnss attempts to
enhance his financial powers where as in Season 2s Two Cars In Every Garage and Three
Eyes on Every Fish (1990) we see Mr. Burns running for governor of the state in order to
prevent being inspected for environmental issues. These aspects of power show how Mr.
Burns is characterized as a powerful person using his status and power to enhance his social
standing. According to Webers theory and in Althussers theory he uses his power to keep a
Soviet style dictatorship, to keep his workers under his thumb.
Principal Skinner Education and Power Under Threat.
Principal Skinner is often portrayed as hapless and unfortunate and the constant victim to
Barts pranks. The sociology of this character and his school is most akin to the work of
Pierre Bourdieu in his book The State Nobility (Bourdieu 1989). Bourdieu was responsible for
theories of what he calls capital. Taking influence from Marxist perspective of capital,
Bourdieu applies it to other areas of society such as cultural capital (the gathering of books
and art), political capital (power affiliations) and social capital (the people that you know).
Bourdieu talks about the field of power, a field of forces structurally determined by the state
of the relations of power among forms of power or different form of capital. In education
Bourdieu believes there is power. Referring to family, Bourdieu sees school and education as
taking over from a childs family. Bourdieu sees education as an arena where inequalities in
society result from the operations of power. The character of Principal Skinner is a cultural

21

criticism (or possible satire) on Bourdieus views that through education a child gains cultural
capital, which can then be used to exchange for other capital. Barts mischief proves that he is
not interested in achieving in school and thus Principal Skinner attempts to punish him but
Bart does not learn his lesson. Although Bourdieus writings are aimed at more prestigious
schools, the education system displayed in The Simpsons shows two different views of
Bourdieus concept. Lisa Simpson is seen as a grade A student along with Martin Prince, they
both exhibit Bourdieus view that through education, they can move into better aspects of
society through gaining cultural capital (through Martins literary nature and Lisas musical
nature), this is highlighted in several episodes of The Simpsons such as Season 2s Lisas
Substitute (1991), where Lisa falls in love with a substitute teacher who recognizes her
smartness and Season 9s Lisa The Simpson (1998), where Lisa is worried that she will be
become stupid like her brother and father. Lisa knows how education can make you gain
cultural capital through education as Bourdieu states. Lisa understands that in order to
become successful she must read and keep ties with other intelligent. Bart on the other hand
shows how Bourdieus theories are flawed, in the episode Sweet Seymour Skinners
Baadasssss Song (1994), we see Principal Skinner fired at the hands of Bart and his refusal to
accept the schools rules and thus, does not gain cultural capital. This episode shows how
Superintendent Chalmers fires Skinner for bad conduct, this is similar to Stephen Lukes
power theories displayed in Power: A Radical View (Lukes 2004) in which Lukes identifies
the three faces of power being that of decision making, understanding observable conflict,
subjective views and others. He critiques this by stating that in order for a person in power to
exercise decision-making he does so as a reproduction of power of a higher form. This is true
when it comes to Superintendent Chalmers decision to fire Skinner; he is showing that power
is not independent of itself but in fact dependent on an establishment state system, in this
case, the education system. This episode also shows how when Skinner is fired, the overly
kind and indecisive Ned Flanders is put in charge of the school; the school runs amok. Going
back to Anthony Giddens work (Giddens 1971), Giddens looks at the work of Emile
Durkheim and his views of democracy and occupational groups, education falls into these
categories as does Principal Skinners character. According to Durkheim, Principal Skinner
(and even Chalmers) cannot be held responsible for the failures of the school, as the education
system that is meant to hold a degree of power is only a part of a state looking to grow
society. With his positivist viewpoint of society being above the individual, Skinner is
helpless in attempting to control his state ran school. This along with Lukes theories, Skinner
is not to blame for his power mishaps it is a higher power that is to blame.
As stated, the theory of power is one that shifts through many areas of sociology, a main area,
is that of gender.

22

Gender Marge the Housewife and Lisa the Young Feminist.


With the theories of power discussed, the theories of gender rely greatly on the theories of
both power and family with the later being discussed already within the context of marriage,
however, this chapter will detail the various aspects of feminism prevalent within younger

23

generations in society. For example I will be using Lisa Simpson, the middle child of the
Simpson family. Lisa is usually the voice of reason in the family because of her highly
developed mortality. More than once, Lisa shows herself as a feminist. This is shown in a
good light and bad. I will also be highlighting the matriarchal figure of the family, Marge
Simpson and the theories of gender roles that are persistent throughout The Simpsons, in both
private and public spheres of society. I will analyze how Marge keeps to gender norms and
how, in some episodes, she breaks from these norms. Unlike the previous chapters where I
have analyzed The Simpsons with the pretense of using the sociological imagination in order
to understand how sociology is laced unintentionally into The Simpsons, I will be looking at
this chapter as to how the writers of The Simpsons intentionally place aspects of gender theory
and feminist overtones into certain episodes. I believe that the writers were aware of the
changes that were occurring in society and placed these changes into the show.
The theories of gender are an important aspect to many different sociological theories and
theorists however feminist theorists centrally employs the ideas of gender into the majority of
their theories. In Ruth A. Wallaces (editor) Feminism and Sociological Theory, Jessie
Bernard (1989) contributes a piece detailing the various aspects of feminism, in particular
focusing on the third post-war period of feminist sociological thought. Firstly, Bernard
discusses the impact of the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s stating the decades of the 1960s
and 1970s marked a series of eye-opening experiences for a generation of extraordinary
young women activists trained in civil rights and antiwar movements who nevertheless found
themselves victims of male sexism. This shows how woman were becoming integrated into
societal activism but were still dominated by males. Though Bernard talks of how during the
1970s young, highly educated women started to move to the fore, ahead of male counterparts,
especially in areas such as journalism. Two male sociologists, Talcott Parsons and Jurgen
Habermas have contributed to the ideas of feminism. In the same Wallace book, Miriam M
Johnson (1989) discusses Parsons as being hated through most of the 1960s and 70s while he
was writing from a conservative point of view, but after his death feminist thinkers
reinterpreted his theories. One of Parsonss early contributions as Johnson states, was stating
that the feminine role expected of women was a major point of strain. Parsons also said that
the husbands occupation deprives the wife of her role as a partner in a common enterprise
and reduces the housewife role to a kind of pseudo-occupation. While this is a relatively
positive view of women in society, Jurgen Habermass theories do not fare as well. Thomas
Meisenhelder (1989) states how Habermass theories are void of emotion and because of this,
his model of reason is inherently patriarchal with his belief that men perform better in
theoretical and practical reasons over well-informed and intelligent women. This leaves
Habermass theories as being flat and abstract in the eyes of feminism.

24

Lisa The Lionheart Feminism and Youth.


Lisas character on The Simpsons is used to great comic purpose throughout the series. She is
depicted as being a voice of reason and the smartest member of the family, often quoting
passages from books and poetry, choosing to be a vegetarian on moral grounds and having an
incredible sense of logic rationality which her father and older brother lack. Because of Lisas
qualities that Lisa holds, it allows the writers to use her as a vessel for issues of gender and
intellectualism in American society. The writers have used Lisa as a banner for young
feminism and gender equality since very early days of The Simpsons. It is interesting to watch
the intentionality of the writers. Two episodes show Lisa as a growing feminist in a male
world. In Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacey from Season 5 (Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacey 1994). Lisa is
shocked to find that the new talking Malibu Stacey doll (a parody of Barbie) says phrases
such as Dont ask me, Im just girl and I wish they taught shopping at school. Lisa tracks
down the creator of Malibu Stacey and cajoles her into creating a new more empowering doll
for children, which they name Lisa Lionheart. However in response, the Malibu Stacey
Company release a new doll, its only the standardized model with a new hat but it is favored
over Lisas doll however one girl is optimistically seen walking out of the store with a Lisa
Lionheart. In her book Feminism & Youth Culture, Angela McRobbie (2000) dissects the
ideas of feminism with the ideas of youth culture in mind; although speaking from a British
perspective, it is easy to identify ideas McRobbie presents to Lisas ideals from this episode.
McRobbie presents a study carried out on the girls magazine Jackie, arguing that
magazines and media etc. like Jackie instills certain ideologies into young pre-teens at an
early age relating to their gender. The magazine makes young girls know their place within
society. The writers have been clever to make what happens with Lisa and Malibu Stacey a
satire. Lisas doll being unfavorably compared to a doll with a new hat. However, the ending
shows a light at the end of the tunnel. A similar pattern emerges in the episode from Season 4
Lisa The Beauty Queen (1992); here, Lisa becomes Little Miss Springfield after the previous
winner is killed, but part of her duties as Little Miss Springfield is to promote cigarettes. Lisa
begins speaking out against smoking and is quickly stripped of her crown. This calls into
question the ideas of identity within gender. In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler (1999)
discusses these ideas by asking how gender identities are based on assumptions. Butler
discusses how gender identities are formed through a distinct amount of discourse made on
how genders should behave purely based on these assumptions stating the coherence,
continuity of the person are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but rather socially
instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility. Here, Butler is showing how the person
is a single entity and that the cultural presumptions of gender identity bind the two together to

25

create a gender. In Lisa The Beauty Queen, Lisa is assumed to be like all previous beauty
queens and therefore, the cigarette company, forces their discourse upon her, however Lisa
quickly discovers that as she is a single entity she will not let herself be bound by gender
identities or assumption. These also fall into the ideas of gender norms, which will now be
discussed with the character of Marge Simpson in question.
Marge Simpson The Housewife and Gender Norms.
Marge Simpson is portrayed as being the typical American housewife, tending to her children,
her husband and keeping the family in check. Marge is the archetypal mother and housewife,
constantly needed to help Homer out of situations resulting from his stupidity and for helping
Bart who is always in trouble. The episodes in which Marge breaks from her housewife role
are the most interesting, for testing the ideas of gender norms. In Season 5s episode Marge
On The Lam (1993), Marge goes out with the familys neighbor, single mother Ruth Powers;
Homer becomes jealous of their relationship. Ruth and Marge (acting out of character)
become involved in a police chase. This episode explores aspects of female liberation, despite
the fact the episode ends with Homer admitting that he was wrong and Marge forgiving him.
This episode details many ways in which The Simpsons deal with the shifting ideas of female
identity and work to making gender visible. In her essay Making Gender Visible, Joan Acker
(1989) discusses the changes that occurred in which no shifting paradigm in the vein of
Thomas Kuhn occurred to change the views of gender; Acker states that the notion of
paradigm implies assumptions of methodology and epistemology. Acker cites other studies by
Stacey and Throne in order to present her views that functionalist sociology conceptualized
gender as opposed to letting it stand as a theoretical variable. Acker argues that structuralism
provides an alternative perspective that is shifting the paradigm of feminism as well as certain
aspects of modern day Marxism in the respect of personal freedoms. The reason for stating
the shifting paradigms is because I feel that The Simpsons is a cultural example of how the
paradigm was shifted. Assumptions based on the archetypal housewife have been used in
sitcoms before, but in The Simpsons, the writers present Marge as both a housewife for most
of the series but then show Marge as a breakout independent woman in a few episodes, the
way in which the writers of The Simpsons understand how having the archetypal sitcom wife
is detrimental to feminist views and make Marge an independent woman in various episodes.
This is true for Season 4s Marge Gets A Job (1992). Marge gets a job at the Nuclear Power
Plant alongside Homer and is then sexual harassed by Mr. Burns. In Geert Hofstedes book
Masculinity and Femininity (1998), he looks at the ideas of femininity in the workplace and
the gender stereotypes within this. Hofstede discusses that one of the main gaps in gender
roles is that of the employment situation. In the episode, Marge decides that she is sick of

26

being a housewife and decides to take a job offer at the power planet; Homer finds it difficult
to cope with Marge deciding to get a job, and especially at his workplace. In Feminist
Generations, Nancy Whittier (1995) discusses the aspects of sexual harassment in the
workplace for women in a changing gender climate. Whittier details a study in which several
women discussed their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace and that they could
do nothing but leave their job. Whittier then goes onto to say that the women interviewed felt
a certain amount of empowerment through leaving their job and discussing it through a
feminist perspective. This is similar to how Marge ends up leaving the job and thwarting Mr.
Burns and his advances and discussing it with Homer who begins to understand the issue.
This is yet another example of The Simpsons intentionally writing an episode to highlight an
important gender issue and to showcase how gender roles are shifting.

Conclusion.
At the beginning of this piece I asked the question Can we truly see the society that we live
in, in a cartoon? I realize that this must have seemed like a fairly odd question. The idea that
a cartoon could show us who we are and what kind of a place we live in must seem
preposterous but after researching The Simpsons with the ideas of C. Wright Mills and his
sociological imagination, it is hard to argue that The Simpsons is not in some way a mirror of
what society is. I argue that The Simpsons is a cultural icon and a lasting beacon of cultural

27

identity to society. The ideas of the family are accurate and believable and while the humor is
first and foremost, look more closely with sociological insight we can understand that the
show has many ideas running through it and with the aid of sociological theory, this brings
the shows sociological concepts up front. Why is this? Because The Simpsons is a TV show
with intelligent and engaged writers using real experiences to portray family and society. I am
not saying that the writers are well versed in sociological theory but that they themselves are
social agents using their experiences of their own family in order to write a coherent and
believable portrayal of family. In the respect to power, The Simpsons simply puts forward the
idea of the working class man being constantly pressed by powers out of his control in order
to achieve more in his work or in their education. Mr. Burns is a caricature of power, greed
and wealth and because of this, it is hard to not see how the theories of power are not
demonstrated in the episodes where he is featured. In the episodes featuring Principal Skinner
a character bowed by a decaying source of power. The aspects of gender in the show are
different in writing from the others. I do not think that the writers have intentionally put
theories of power or family into the show. Although I feel that they understood the changing
climate of gender in mid-nineties and because of this, they wrote episodes which showed that.
When analyzing it in reference to feminist sociological literature you can see that the writers
were aware they were putting these feminist ideas forward.
However, due to its format, the show leaves many of these theories ambiguous. The Simpsons
is not a TV show that carries many story arcs throughout the series and because of this, many
of the aspects of gender and family are left unresolved. In one episode Marge and Homer
have a fight nearly leading to a divorce, but by the next episode they are back to how they
normally are. The creators and network wish to keep it this way and it may even have
contributed to its longevity. Yes, they have taken stands on gender, episodes that show how
Marge breaks from her private sphere as a housewife, but in the majority of episodes, she is
shown as a housewife, a mother and nothing more. But for one episode, every now and again
viewers are challenged about gender, family, power and society
In conclusion, I believe that The Simpsons is a zeitgeist that enhances our understanding of
society without us knowing we are being educated and not entertained. The Simpsons has
stood the test of time and in years to come, cultural theorists and social scientists will see The
Simpsons as a cultural icon instilled with the sociological values of the modern era.

28

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