The twenty-fifth season of The Simpsons opened with an episode that parodied the Showtime series Homeland. Homeland is a series that has gone on to win multiple awards, but it is not without its controversy.
Before I get into that, let me introduce you to the late Edward Said.
This video was recorded by Said before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Unfortunately since then, the Orientalist view of the Middle East has only become more ingrained in the collective consciousness of the West. Which brings me back to Homeland.
Ever since it first aired, Homeland has been accused by some critics of Islamaphobia. The series has been accused of reinforcing harmful stereotypes about Muslim-majority countries, individuals within the Muslim community, and simply getting basic facts about all of them wrong.
With its popularity, critical recognition, and major blind spot regarding its portrayal of Muslims, it’s easy to see why Homeland would be excellent comedic fodder for The Simpsons. The improbably long-running cartoon series has been lauded for decades for its balance of sharp satirical edge on late 20th century pop culture and heartfelt humanism at its core. Even as the show has continued to fall out of critical favor since the early 2000s, it still occasionally shows sparks of brilliance and genuine sweetness in its twilight years. This would be the perfect show to put Homeland’s portrayal of Muslims and the CIA in perspective, right?
Unfortunately, The Simpsons dropped the ball with “Homerland”. It serves as a well-enough parody of Homeland (the prescription drug abusing character voiced by Kristen Wiig was quite amusing), but it reinforces the same Islamaphobia that its point of reference does without casting it in a more critical light. The synopsis of the episode is that Homer starts displaying strange behavior after getting back home from a convention out of town. Lisa suspects that Homer has been brainwashed into carrying out a plot to detonate a bomb to blow up Springfield. Her “evidence” of Homer’s terrorist indoctrination is his newly formed habits (he stops drinking, stops eating pork, and kneels on a rug to pray facing in the direction of Mecca) are common practices of Muslims. Lisa realizes at the end that she had been misunderstanding Homer’s behavior and motives when he admits to her that he had other reasons for temporarily giving up alcohol and pork (and that he wasn’t actually praying to Mecca on that rug). The implication is that “of course Homer wasn’t hatching a terrorist plot because he isn’t actually Muslim!”
What is particularly disappointing about this episode is of all the characters to assume Homer is a terrorist based on his observing of Muslim practices, it’s Lisa Simpson. It would be expected that Homer or Bart or Moe or Chief Wiggum or Krusty or perhaps even Principal Skinner or Ned Flanders would get caught up in something like this, but Lisa? Lisa is the character that has served as the show’s primary intellectual and moral core throughout its run. Time and time again, Lisa’s strong principles have put her at odds with the rest of her more reactionary community. Examples include the episodes “She of Little Faith”, “Bart’s Inner Child”, “Lisa the Iconoclast”, “Much Apu About Nothing” to a lesser extent (that mostly centered around Homer speaking out against the rest of Springfield) or “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy”.
I understand that no character, including Lisa, is perfect. The Simpsons added an extra layer of complexity to their secondary intellectual and moral core Marge in “There’s Something About Marrying” when they portrayed her as initially hostile to her sister Patty’s coming out as a lesbian (especially in contrast with the typically more reactionary Homer’s immediate acceptance). Another compelling angle they could have taken with this episode is that Lisa initially falls victim to anti-Muslim hysteria and learns a hard lesson about stereotypes at the end when she realizes Homer isn’t actually plotting to blow up Springfield (regardless of whether he really is a convert to Islam or not). This angle would have required “Homerland” to call Lisa out on her assumptions at the end, but it tacitly admits that her suspicions of Homer would have been valid if he really had converted to Islam.
What makes an episode like “Homerland” more unfortunate is that The Simpsons is one of the only popular American cartoons aimed at adults that doesn’t revel in crass, bottom-of-the-barrel racism for its humor. Then again, I suppose if I really examine the show, it’s always been relatively weak in regards to its representation of people that aren’t white Westerners. Characters of color like Dr. Hibbert, Carl Carlson, or Lou are very limited in number and have mostly been given the “color-blind” treatment by the show (although some of the latter-day episodes have shown some self-awareness in their increasing use of them to mock the accidental racism of their overwhelmingly white characters). Not to mention the vacation episodes “30 Minutes Over Tokyo” and “Blame It On Lisa” were less than well-received in the respective countries they took place in.
It’s unfortunate that The Simpsons turned out to be yet another example of Orientalism in our media. It’s such a problem in particular in our post-9/11 world not just because it’s more virulent now then it was during Edward Said’s lifetime, but it is also used to justify the hawkish and clandestine policies the US government has taken towards the Middle East to the audiences watching. Homeland was created by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who also created the Fox series 24, which served as propaganda in favor of torturing terror suspects during the Bush Administration. Homeland serves a similar function in the Obama Administration. Keep in mind these two shows exist among major films like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper that spin actual events and people into more pro-national security, pro-“clash of civilizations” propaganda.
I guess it shouldn’t come as such a big surprise to me that The Simpsons doesn’t challenge the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is so ubiquitous in the rest of the media. After all, the owner of the network The Simpsons runs on also owns the news network that has been at the forefront of promoting Islamophobia for the past fifteen years (not that the less right-wing news networks have been any less anti-Muslim). Islamophobia has worked quite well in attracting an audience for him and lining his pockets. It’s proven to be quite lucrative for many others as well, whether they are nakedly hateful polemicists or cynical pseudo-intellectuals.
The real life ramifications of this Islamophobia is that it plays a big part in lending support to overseas military ventures that end up counterproductive at best and extremely destructive and imperialistic at worst. The anti-Muslim “clash of civilizations” hysteria played a big role in American support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (along with a whole mess of other propaganda and outright lies). Our more-than-a-decade long occupation accomplished little more than destabilizing the fragile Iraqi/Syrian area, killing and wounding thousands of Western troops, killing and permanently traumatizing even more Iraqi civilians, and radicalizing a brand new terrorist group even more dangerous than the group we initially invaded the country to fight in the first place. The homes of these Iraqi and Syrian civilians have been ravaged so badly and for so long by war that thousands have fled to other countries out of desperation. And most Americans don’t even support granted these refugees a new home in the US, assuming that these refugees are potential terrorists rather than innocent people trying to escape terrorism their damn selves. Particularly in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Islamophobic fervor is just as strong as it’s ever been in the West.
We should have listened to Said.