One of the more unusual episodes of The Simpsons is the season eight episode “Homer’s Enemy”. It’s an unusual episode in the sense that its tone is surprisingly darker than most Simpsons episodes. For those that aren’t aware of “Homer’s Enemy”, the episode is about (I don’t feel bad for spoiling an episode that’s 20 years old) a new co-worker named Frank Grimes who quickly grows to resent Homer. Frank Grimes is a man whose life is rife with tragedy and adversity. He miraculously overcame his hurdles in life, but has nothing to show for it. In contrast, Homer has coasted through his adulthood through laziness, reactionary ignorance, and antisocial behavior and he made out quite well for himself in the end. Homer’s continuous failure upward and society’s acceptance of his ineptitude eventually drives Grimes to have a mental breakdown, during which he accidentally kills himself. The episode ends with Homer snoring loudly at Grimes’ funeral service and muttering “Change the channel, Marge” in his sleep. The rest of the attendees laugh and Lenny exclaims “That’s our Homer!”.
It was quite an unsympathetic treatment of this long suffering character Frank Grimes. His hatred of Homer was not unjustified, but in the end he never found any relief or even catharsis in the hand he was dealt in life. He died just as miserably as he was born and he couldn’t even get any respect at his funeral. Why would the staff at The Simpsons choose to go in this direction, especially when the series is better know for this?
This brings me to Donald Trump.
Besides the very big differences in income, there are quite a few comparisons to be made between Homer Simpson and Donald Trump. Donald Trump is also boorish, self-centered, proudly anti-intellectual, reactionary, speaks with the vocabulary of a second grader, and has long coasted through his life first through the inheritance from his father than then through his name recognition. His presidential campaign (particularly during the Republican primaries) has been little more than vague policy platitudes, bullying and name-calling of his opponents, and literally making a penis joke at one of the Republican debates. In addition, Trump also has a long history of misogyny, racism, and corrupt financial practices. And what does Trump have to show for all of those vices? Billions of dollars and the US presidency within arm’s reach. Many of Trump’s supporters have either praised his questionable behavior or made excuses for it, either by deflecting it by bringing up his opponents or by saying things like “he’s just speaking his mind”, “he’s not fake like all these other politicians”, “he just tells it like it is”, or “well, he doesn’t kowtow to political correctness”. And even though a lot of news coverage of him as of late has been negative, the year plus coverage of him before last month has encouraged his unscrupulous behavior through coverage that has been either sycophantic or far too indulgent of all the spectacle that has surrounded his campaign.
To get back to The Simpsons, the concept of “Homer’s Enemy” was the brainchild of then-executive producer Bill Oakley as an exploration of the comic possibilities of a realistic character with a strong work-ethic working alongside Homer. And Homer is very, very far from a realistic character. As Dan Olson explained in his brilliant video essay, The Simpsons were conceived as a satire of the sitcom family, thereby making Homer a satire of the sitcom dad. It’s important to note that The Simpsons was created and first aired in the late ’80s. This series, along with Roseanne and Married With Children were counter-responses to the prevalent sitcom formula of the decade with portrayed families as wholesome and idealized. It was an updated version the the idyllic Leave It to Beaver/Father Knows Best nuclear family, which fit alongside Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America” nostalgia (both of which are responses to the major social changes in the ’70s, which were reflected in the sitcoms of that decade). Married With Children’s cynical subversion of this still sympathizes with the family patriarch by suggesting that he actually ruined his life by getting married and starting a family. Roseanne and The Simpsons subverted the formula even further, the former by emphasizing the housewife as the glue that holds the family together and the latter by emphasizing the patriarch but dares suggest that perhaps Father doesn’t know best after all. As Olson explained, Homer is a scathing critique of the male persona in culture and media.
Another point I need to make is one that I alluded to at the end of the second paragraph. Although The Simpsons is a satire, it is also well-known and beloved for creating numerous touching moments and giving sympathetic treatments of its characters. Homer has been portrayed in a sympathetic light numerous times. Unfortunately, this is where the satire becomes muddled. Most episodes are viewed from the perspective of Homer and we as an audience have been trained to find his foibles funny and to find his shortcomings sympathetic. Many in the audience probably identify with some of his shortcomings. As flawed as Homer is, he ultimately means no harm and his personality is largely the byproduct of the messed up world around him (which is also a satire of the real world). I rewatched “Homer’s Enemy” right before I started writing this and I found myself laughing at every single time Homer annoyed Frank Grimes instead of thinking “man, Homer is being a real ass to this guy”. How are we as an audience supposed to hate a character we have grown to sympathize and identify with so much? Perhaps this is the reason the boorish, vice-ridden Homer Simpson archetype became so routine in sitcoms without any of the satirical critique.
How about Johnny Bravo? His conception served as a satire critiquing the inconsiderate, hyper-masculine, narcissistic bravado too many men have in their interactions with women. This series is much more direct than The Simpsons in its treatment to Johnny. This is a character the audience is clearly supposed to hate and we are trained to laugh at (not laugh with, laugh at) every single one Johnny’s violently rejected advances and every other painful injury or misfortune he suffers. However, can the audience fully comprehend the satire here when men behaving like Johnny is so commonplace if not outright encouraged at times? Two and a Half Men wouldn’t have run as long as it did if our society didn’t identify with men like Charlie Sheen’s character (hell, Sheen himself wouldn’t have gotten so many passes for his behavior towards women if our society didn’t encourage or identify with him). Even Johnny Bravo himself turned out to be a much more likeable character than intended. Otherwise, he likely wouldn’t have been a feasible option as the host of his other Cartoon Network show JBVO. I have mentioned this before, but Johnny and Homer Simpson as satires run into the same issue Norman Lear had with All In The Family’s Archie Bunker. Bunker was intended to be a satire of the reactionary attitudes the older generations had in response to the changing social climate, but a large chunk of the audience identified with him instead reassessing their own reactionary social views.
So when Homer Simpson and Johnny Bravo misbehave, we’re not so quick to denounce either of them as we are to shrug it off (or laugh) and say, “that’s just him being him“. Similarly, when Donald Trump says or does something objectionable, his supporters and/or enablers shrug it off by saying something to that effect. That’s just Trump being Trump, right?
Then again, how could his supporters, or even a significant enough chunk of the population hold this man accountable for his actions when this Frankenstein monster has been cultivated for decades? In Republican politics, violent rhetoric has been celebrated long before Trump decided he wasn’t a Democrat anymore. Figures like Sarah Palin used violent gun-related rhetoric all the time. Senator Joni Ernst ran campaign ads waving firearms and castrating pigs during her run for Congress. Trump’s primary opponent Ted Cruz said he wanted to bomb the Middle East “until sand glows in the dark”. The highlights of the 2012 Republican primaries include Newt Gingrich pandering to racists in South Carolina, Rick Perry bragging about how often Texas uses the death penalty to roars of applause, an audience member yelling “let him die” when Ron Paul was challenged with a hypothetical question whether or not an uninsured man should just be left to die in the street if he falls ill, Herman Cain knowing nothing about President Obama’s policy on Libya that he was criticizing, and Rick Perry not knowing which branches of government he wanted to cut. Trump’s reactionary anti-intellectualism was begat by the anti-intellectualism championed by Sarah Palin and President George W. Bush (“the kind of president you can have a beer with”) in the last decade. Trump’s pettiness is begat by the venal and spiteful politics of the Republican obstructionists in Congress throughout Obama’s two terms and the behavior of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican majority in Congress during the ’90s. His constant racist remarks and policy proposals towards Mexican and Muslim immigrants harkens back to the racist 1988 Willie Horton ad George H. W. Bush ran against his opponent Michael Dukakis. The phony, vague nostalgia behind his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” relies on the same false nostalgia that Ronald Reagan pandered to and rode to success in the ’80s. Trump’s deference towards neo-Nazis and white nationalists is the logical conclusion to Richard Nixon’s pandering to white racial anxiety by developing the Southern strategy to win the votes of ex-Democrats who were against the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Trump’s presidential opponent Hillary Clinton repudiated him in a speech she made about the so-called “alt-right” by drawing a contrast between him and other Republicans in the past who conducted themselves with more grace and respect, like Bob Dole and George W. Bush. She’s absolutely wrong; Trump isn’t an aberration from the Republican Party, he’s the logical conclusion to what the party has devolved into in the past 40-50 years. In addition to the Republican Party, our news media has only become more vapid and sensationalistic over the decades by focusing on the most trivial, ignoring most vital issues, refusing to challenge power, and framing important social and policy issues as five-minute sparring matches between two polarized sides.
Even if Trump ends up losing this election, he will still be a figure of reverence to his supporters with enough money to pay more sycophants in the media to keep his brand alive. Even on the off-chance that he ends his life as a lonely and disgraced man like Charles Foster Kane, he will have still been better off for most of his life than every racial minority, religious minority, woman, journalist, and anybody else he stepped on to get into such a position of power in the first place. The Republicans wringing their hands over Trump aren’t going to learn from this either. They will soon regroup from the loss and unearth another candidate who will gain success by sinking even lower than Trump is now.
If Frank Grimes was supposed to represent a realistic person, what does it say that his encounter with a person like Homer drove him so mad that he killed himself? When a character who parallels Homer in numerous ways not only exists in real life, but is close to being elected president, what does that say about our society? Is this just another joke, not unlike how every member of the alt-right dismisses their horribly racist and misogynistic transgressions as just jokes?
I think Grimes’ descent into madness and tragic death symbolize an even bigger indictment of how our society regards people like Grimes, especially in comparison to people like Homer. A dark story with such an unsettling end would be the only place you could take a story like that.