Horror and The Simpsons

Fox Television must be getting nervous about keeping "The Simpsons" fresh now that it’s in season 21. This show is so old it’s just about drinking age. But Fox tarted it up in the headlines with nudity and impiety. They put cartoon mom Marge Simpson on the cover of Playboy magazine and mocked Christians by comparing them to cannibalistic zombies.

The Playboy issue came out on October 16. The suggestive "Devil In Marge Simpson" cover isn’t much to write home about – other than the mainstreaming of porn and the sickening corporate symbiosis, with Fox Television lending one of its signature cartoon brands to Playboy, whose circulation is tanking. The "pictorial" inside the issue is a little more pornographic, with one picture giving Marge Simpson a very three-dimensional, anatomically correct chest in a see-through nightie.

Did anyone really "need" this? Other than Hugh Hefner and his declining business?

Two days after the Playboy hit the stands, Fox aired their annual "Treehouse of Horror" episode of "The Simpsons," which is usually the darkest and goriest show of the year. It’s also one of the most-watched: more than eight and a half million people watched this show.

Everyone who’s watched and enjoyed "The Simpsons" know they haven’t typically engaged in religion-bashing. Their satire of the Ned Flanders family, like much of their satire, has a sympathy wrapped inside it. But when it’s time for the "Treehouse of Horror," even Flanders has been transformed into the devil.

This season, in a segment titled "Don’t Have a Cow, Mankind," the people of Springfield become zombies after eating tainted hamburgers. It takes on a religious tone when young Bart Simpson eats a hamburger and isn’t affected. He’s named the "Chosen One" and the Simpsons drive off to find the safe zone where the uninfected are hiding.

When they arrive, a guard says, "Welcome, son. To survive, all we must do is eat your flesh." Marge holds up a rifle and protests, "What kind of civilized people eat the body and blood of their savior?" In case viewers didn’t get the Last Supper-mocking joke, the next shot is the Reverend Lovejoy character tugging nervously at his collar. The segment ends with the antidote solution: Bart sitting naked in a vat of soup.

A few minutes before, as the Simpsons escape zombies in a pickup truck driven by Apu, the vegetarian Kwik-E-Mart merchant, a zombified woman breaks through the windshield. Apu tells Marge to shoot her. "I can’t shoot her. She’s Lisa’s godmother." Apu says: "You can apologize in Hell!" So Marge replies: "I guess I could." With her sense of manners somehow restored – Marge accepts she’s going to Hell? – Marge shoots her.

Fox’s Sunday night animation bloc is now dominated by 90 minutes of militant atheist Seth McFarlane’s cartoons, so it shouldn’t be surprising that "The Simpsons" might try to keep up with the atheist God-mockers next door. So much for keeping the Lord’s day holy.

Some might say the cartoon is merely being "irreverent." But irreverent toward what? Some ideas are treated reverently, like vegetarianism. Within the same cartoon, the hamburgers are tainted because in some twisted satire on meat-eaters, the cows who were made into hamburgers were fed on hamburgers, making them hamburger "squared." Lisa Simpson exclaimed "Cows eating cows! That’s an abomination!" The local news anchor then tells the audience to come down and sample "this delicious crime against nature." There was even a campaign slogan in the title: "Don’t Have a Cow, Mankind."

Vegetarians don’t complain about "The Simpsons." In 2004, the radical vegetarians at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) honored Lisa Simpson by putting her number two on their list of "The Most Animal-Friendly TV Characters of All Time." In a 2006 episode, Lisa actually joined PETA and threw blood on Krusty the Clown for wearing a fur coat.

Lisa’s earnest vegetarianism came straight from the stars. "It’s actually Paul McCartney who was responsible for another permanent change," said David Mirkin, "Simpsons" executive producer. "When I asked him to do the vegetarian episode, he agreed but made me promise to keep Lisa as a vegetarian – and I was happy to comply with that, because I’m a vegetarian too!"

Last year’s "Treehouse of Horror" episode included a crude knockoff of the 1966 cartoon "It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." The child character Milhouse replaced Linus in believing in the Grand Pumpkin. In the original, Linus compared the Pumpkin to Santa Claus, but "The Simpsons" conflated it to Christianity. Even after Bart Simpson told Milhouse he made the legend up just to mess with him, Milhouse said his "faith" could be tested, and then proclaimed a mangled version of the Apostle's Creed: "I believe in the Grand Pumpkin, almighty gourd, who was crustified over Pontius pie plate and ascended into oven. He will come again to judge the filling and the bread."

So again and again, Jesus and his followers can be satirized. But when Milhouse told Lisa she had a nice witch costume, she protested, "I’m a Wiccan. Why is it when a woman is confident and powerful, they call her a witch?" Hollywood’s willingness to engage in "irreverence" is a very selective thing. On Fox, Christians are mocked, but Wiccans, vegetarians, and feminists aren't mocked. They get their talking points offered.


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