The Globalization of The Simpsons: A Study of Satire in International Media

Cartoon Curiosities
Aug 18, 2016 · 37 min read

The Simpsons is one of the most popular, longest-running television shows in the history of the medium (IMDB/Guinness). It has been transplanted to more than 70 countries and counting, holding international resonance with adapted versions that go beyond simply translating the language (IMDB) but rather adapting the program to reflect the cultures in which it appears, both on television and via the Internet. Not only did it revolutionize both animated programming and the family sitcom, but it also pioneered a new wave of popular satire in the 21st century. It has earned a place in television history and has had significant impact on the cultures it has visited and satirized.

For the purposes of this essay, I have studied the history of The Simpsons in four different countries: Russia, China, Egypt and France (and, implicitly, the United States as well). These have been chosen for their diversity in government structure and cultural contexts — two are strongly authoritarian regimes, one is a traditional Western democracy and the third is in transition between religious and military leaderships. They also have certain things in common: All host large populations (above 50 million citizens) and are controlled by executive government figures with highly centralized power. In laying out these separate histories, it will become clear that each of these countries has had unique, but intersecting controversies with the series. Analyzing these distinct histories reveals dimensions of each country’s historical and current political climate, particularly their relationship with the US and international community. Each of the four governments featured in this essay controls national media in different ways and to various degrees; the separate Simpsons histories thus expose nuances in these distinct power dynamics.

Each case study analyzes The Simpsons globalization as a set of overlapping international media dialogues, ultimately serving as insight into historically rooted global ideological conflicts. Whether it’s capitalism versus communism or Islam versus “Western” values, The Simpsons has addressed such conflicts destructively and thus is an excellent vehicle for studying the role satire plays in international media.

Historical Context

Prior to diving into the international influence and responsibility of The Simpsons, we need to briefly put it in its proper historical context. After all, all art is derivative, and it would be unfair to imply that The Simpsons sprouted from nowhere. The Simpsons marks a historical intersection of several mediums: satire, the political cartoon, the American sitcom and animated television. Synthesizing all these genres, it marks a landmark progression in each one, and a combination of rare influence.

Underscoring both satire and the early political cartoon is the notion of deformity, of deliberately misrepresenting features in order to draw attention to them or manipulate them for a purpose. Indeed, an early use of caricature comes from no less than Leonardo da Vinci’s concept of deformity; he expressed a counter-art in grotesque caricatures to challenge the “beauty” of perfection. “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail” Da Vinci would say, perfectly exemplifying his artistically groundbreaking approach to perfection (Vallentin). Caricatures evolved from this initial rejection of perfection into an artistic medium that served to exaggerate imperfections in external, and eventually internal human features. Initially, these early forms of graphic satire were not designed for the public eye because of their perceived lack of marketability. Clearly, because of cultural phenomena like The Simpsons, this conception of graphic satire’s marketability has changed dramatically today.

In Germany, Martin Luther was one of the first to create and distribute cartoons, in his case as a form of visual propaganda against the Catholic Church. By spreading graphic satirical art around the country, he was able to unite the lower (who were mostly too illiterate to comprehend non-visual satirical literature) and middle classes under the common goal of his socio-political revolution (Lohse).

Having proved itself effective as a tool of propaganda, the cartoon was employed by unsavory forces as well. Prior to World War II, German Nazi newspaper cartoonists used grotesque, anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews in graphic satire to mobilize the hatred that drove the holocaust (Kemnitz). Interestingly, while Hitler’s government was using cartoons as propaganda, the infamous children’s author we know as Dr. Seuss was working in the US Army animation department creating political cartoons, mostly satirizing Germany and Italy; these cartoons were driven to mobilize US troops against the authoritarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini (Minear).

Both historical ruptures that followed the distribution of these cartoons mark early examples of cartoons serving to mobilize, and in some ways manipulate, the masses. This is a concept we will address in greater detail as we dive into the way The Simpsons has been used as a tool by both governments to send messages to their citizens and for critics of their governments to poke fun at their leaders.

American history, whose cultural tradition provides the germinating earth for The Simpsons, is similarly rich with satire and political cartooning, both as vehicles of government speech and as acts of rebellion against authority. Benjamin Franklin created what is considered to be one of the first political cartoons in American history with his famous “Join or Die” severed snake drawing (Moss). This drawing, which was reportedly published by newspapers in every colony, became and continues to be a symbol in the U.S. as a call for unity. This marks an early example of using a cartoon to catalyze a specific political idea in U.S. history, and the trend followed thereafter. These American cartoons met with juxtaposing British counterparts during and after the American Revolution, many of which famously mocked George Washington and US soldiers.

A dense and diverse American legacy of cartoonists, working for newspapers and magazines all over the country, preceded and greatly influenced Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons. Comedic cartoonists like Gary Larson dabbled in political subjects, but mostly used the caricatures in his Farside comics to express surrealist comedic ideas, often involving anthropomorphic animals (Larson). For the most part, Larson used comedy to expand consciousness in a more linguistic sense, rather than raise awareness of political issues. The more politically charged cartoonists, like Paul Conrad and Barry Blitt, tackled relevant and controversial current events on a weekly, and sometimes even daily, basis. Although these political cartoonists were exercising their freedom of expression, they have not all coasted by without conflict. In fact, the notoriously provocative LA Times cartoonist Paul Conrad was put on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list for his string of intensely satirical cartoons released alongside reports of the Watergate scandal — it was a badge of honor that Conrad boasted of for the rest of his life (Dennis).

President George W. Bush and his wife were less vehement about their views of political or cultural satire. But they, too, had their complaints. The President famously stated his disapproval of The Simpsons family, claiming, “American families should try to be less like The Simpsons and more like The Waltons” (Armstron).

New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams created The Addams Family, a comic strip series that satirized perceptions of the traditional American family with a dysfunctional monster-human family dynamic — — this family has since developed into a television, film and theater phenomenon. Addams used his Addams Family cartoons as a medium to address social, particularly family issues, rather than the more government-related political issues.

Initially, Simpson’s creator Matt Groening took on a biting approach to cartoons, but with a more social than political focus in his ruthless Life in Hell comic strip, which he originally wanted to make a TV show out of before pitching The Simpsons (Groening). In Life in Hell, stories of anthropomorphic rabbits were used to satirize what Groening saw as a dreadful Los Angeles reality. Similar to Charles Addams, Matt Groening created The Simpsons family to challenge traditional perceptions of the American family, but in a new medium: the animated television series. Because it was operating in this more complex medium, The Simpsons was able to combine the humor drawn from a dysfunctional family dynamic with the social satire in the characters surrounding the family, and political satire of domestic and international issues the show covers.

As a television sitcom, The Simpsons was created to counter the traditional conception of the functional sitcom family created by popular shows like The Waltons, The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy. The Simpsons are explicitly dysfunctional, but they are also an animated sitcom family, a concept that was a counter within itself to more traditional sitcoms. As a cartoon, The Simpsons was one of the first to target the adult demographic. Animated families that came before it like The Flinstones and The Jetsons were created for children, and the reputation and role that these cartoons established drew a broad audience to The Simpsons, from children fascinated by its colorful cartoon imagery to adults amused by its sharp, often biting, humor. It was, in that sense, the first inter-generational cartoon to appear on television.

Case Studies

The Simpsons is produced in the US and is a powerful cultural entity, offering viewers around the world its critique of American society. To understand its influence and the way different regimes around the world have grappled with that influence, this essay focuses on four very different societies and how they have responded to the series in their own domestic contexts.

To develop these case studies, I looked for key controversies The Simpsons has had with and inside four countries: Russia, China, Egypt and France. After researching The Simpsons around the globe, I concluded that these countries have had the most revealing experiences, especially when focusing on the impact and implication of government media control. I address both how the show has depicted these countries, and how these countries’ leaders and citizens have in turn reacted to these depictions. Additionally, I researched the specific adaptations each country made for their version of The Simpsons, and have looked into audience reception to these changes.

The case studies are placed into the historical context of satire’s role in media in these countries as well as the US. A government’s relationship with satirical content serves as a revealing vehicle for deconstructing its true character. Where can one draw the line on when controlling media is corrupt? Can government control or influence ever be justified? If so, by what criteria? These questions drove this research with The Simpsons acting as the central point of analysis to compare and contrast these countries and their approaches to media control.

The lack of balanced coverage of the Simpsons controversies was both a limitation and service to my research. US media sources are guilty of antagonizing the governments and citizens in all four of these countries — depictions of evil Russian intent or of Muslims as natural terrorists are sources of continuing and repeated friction, driven in many cases by media. On the other hand, each country’s media sources release juxtaposing biased representations of the US — as aggressor or bully or imperialist power. The feedback cycle powered by this unbalanced storytelling on both ends of the media conversation served as a revealing insight into the media landscape of all parties involved in the events I discuss.

Russia

Russia commands a diverse media landscape, with both state-run and for-profit corporations releasing information and entertainment through newspapers, magazines, television, film and the Internet. The Russian constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but its government’s position on this is complicated by the surveillance and “security” methods it uses to maintain its central power; the country, with its long traditions of centralized rule — by the czars, then the Communist era and now under the formidable power of President Putin — is in an odd transitional state, which needs to be recognized throughout this case study. The state-controlled media outlets are notably biased towards the government, while the private ones struggle to utilize their freedom of speech in the face of often-restrictive laws and practices. While government-operated outlets push propaganda via popular mediums (television being the most popular), the Internet serves as a freer medium for independent dissent (Beumer). The Russian government’s system of monitoring and limiting dissent is the most inconsistent of the four countries I have studied; the boundaries of what is allowed to be said fluctuates both between and within these different periods of leadership, making it difficult to pinpoint a stable trend.

Russia also has a long history of satire as a method of criticism and dissent. Political humor started during imperial Russia and evolved as a risk-taking medium, almost an “extreme sport” as some have called it. Insulting political figures with humor has been both popular and controversial for centuries, but it really picked up with the anti-Soviet agitation under Stalin (Oring). The irony of communist ideology, with its promise of democratization and return of capital to labor, versus its authoritarian execution, the centralized power of the Communist Party and its dictatorial leaders, was a key source of humor in much of this early satire. Today, satirical comedy targeting Russian leaders thrives on the Internet, as it serves as a relatively freer and more anonymous medium for that variety of content.

The Simpsons sitcom began airing right around what is commonly marked as the end of the Cold War. The US-Russia political relationship has remained tense since the end of that unusual conflict, and this tension has only been amplified by limited and oversimplified depictions of the other in American and Russian media. So where does The Simpsons fit into this relationship?

In popular media, it is difficult to find balanced coverage on the US government’s relationship with the Russia, as well as Russia’s goals and domestic condition. Much of what I find, and have been exposed to for years, demonizes Russia and fails to address Russian-related issues with the complexity they deserve. Russia is home to nearly 200 different ethnic groups, so just like the United States, is inevitably divided by a variety of lifestyles and ideologies. Additionally, the Russian government is highly centralized and its actions do not reflect the goals of the entire nation, and their lack of transparency limits our window into Russia’s domestic reality. Regardless of the country’s expansive political and cultural character, The Simpsons has not been afraid to lampoon the country, as well as popular misconceptions about it. Its take on Russia opens the debate on when satirizing a stereotype only further perpetuates it, a concept we will dive deeper into in the concluding statements.

Russia in The Simpsons

The Simpsons took a comedic stab at the Russian government in a 1998 episode called “The Simpsons Tide”. The episode contained a scene at a UN conference where the Russian ambassador is depicted as a Russian evil villain caricature, with a devious smile and maniacal laugh. In the course of the 30-second bit, The Soviet Union reemerges to power, the Berlin Wall re-erects from the ground and Lenin rises from the dead to threaten capitalism with a slapstick “must destroy capitalism!” (Groening). Over the past two years, this playful bit from the 9th season has regained relevance on the Internet, where it has circulated among critics of the current government and been used to compare Putin’s global ambitions with those of his communist predecessors. The content and response to the 1998 episode The Simpsons Tide serves a perfect example of viewers collectively misinterpreting, or perhaps overanalyzing the jokes in the show. In part, this joke’s new relevance is substantiated by US media coverage and national opinion of increasing suspicions with Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy intentions and notable events like the annexation of Crimea. But really, this kind of episode blows out of proportion because of the collective power of active Internet conspiracy theorists that use the episode as evidence to prove that the Simpsons writers were predicting, or involved in conspiring the aforementioned events in Russia. So what can be said about popular US sources and blogs releasing articles like “The Simpsons Predicted the Ukraine Crisis in 1998” or “The Simpsons Predict Putin’s Return to Soviet Russia”? (Vox, The Honest Rambler)

The Simpsons was not the first to address the growing suspicions about the Russian government and its international designs, even in 1998. So then why is it credited with predicting and perhaps influencing what has ensued? In reality, nothing in the episode addressed the specifics of Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the current activity in Syria or Ukraine, etc. But it did address Russia’s aggression in a rapid, outlandish fashion that only a cartoon of its nature could pull off in such a digestible way. When a cartoon can get away with a joke like the USSR takeover in Simpsons, it is reaffirming it power to ridicule and to influence opinion, a power that sometimes is exaggerated but is nonetheless real.

Simpsons in Russia

The Simpsons has depicted Russia in other episodes as well, including several storylines set in the Russian district of Springfield (where the show is set) and some Cold War film parodies. A hyperbolized Russian aggression is a common theme, or stereotype addressed, in virtually all of these episodes. So what is Russia’s side of the Simpsons narrative? Unlike with most case studies I have done, between popular and scholarly sources, I could not find any explicit opinion from Russian government officials responding to their portrayal in the programs. But that is not to say The Simpsons itself has not caused serious controversy in Russia.

The Simpsons has aired in Russia with Russian subtitles since the show’s earliest years, but there has never been an official dub. The version on Russian television is a voice-over by one actor and one actress, and with objective basis of comparison to other country’s versions, it is low quality. But regardless of its quality, it would be hard to control the popularity of the show. In fact, there is a plethora of illegal Russian dubs circulating the Internet. In terms of its popularity, it is fun to note a Moscow resident paid to have his house built exactly like The Simpsons house inside and out in 2014; this made national news. As that suggested, nothing so simultaneously popular and satirical in a country like Russia can go without controversy, especially when it’s coming from the U.S.

There have been several court cases against the show, but surprisingly the cases were not dealing with satirical content targeting Russia. In fact, most of them revolved around issues with the show’s violence. Various Russian churches, parent-groups and government officials have all focused on the violence in trying to attack the show and thwart its popularity (Hutchings). In fact, the most prominent Russian controversies with the show arose from reports of children watching the show and imitating the characters’ actions. Given the nature of Russian society, with its pervasive government influence on other institutions, it is credible to imagine that these lawsuits were in fact supported and encouraged by the state. In fact, the government itself later moved explicitly to ban the show, justifying its action on the violence it depicted.

The violence and childhood viewership controversies force us to step outside of discussing The Simpsons as satire and instead acknowledge it as an American cartoon. Children are attracted to cartoons — they are simple, colorful and funny. As noted, The Simpsons was the first of many cartoons targeted toward an adult audience, but it has always enjoyed a significant following among children, too. Russian children are no exception. It was grouped with its animated satirical descendants, Family Guy and South Park, in a 2008 government attempt to ban American cartoons “dangerous” to young Russian minds (Stolyarova). These shows were going to be replaced with cartoons that inspire Russian patriotism instead, arguably exemplifying the Russian insecurity of a western cultural hegemony. The power complex between the US and Russia has established a tendency for Russia to feel threatened by the undeniable power of western media; popular cartoons like The Simpsons and South Park, although they consistently ridicule the US, still come from the US and represent its culture. If children are really imitating what they see on TV (which happens everywhere, this is not unique to Russia), then to a threatened Russian eye they are being trained to act like Americans when watching The Simpsons. Perhaps, the Russian Federation was masking its insecurity about American cartoons threatening Russian nationalist culture by finding issues with The Simpsons outside of its satire (including past stabs at Russia itself), and instead redirecting its prohibitive tendencies in the context of its vaguely scripted legislation on children’s broadcasting.

In regards to the violence, nothing is as violent in the show as the Itchy and Scratchy Show, the Tom and Jerry spin-off that satirizes violent cartoons. Although it is satire on television violence, the Russian government found the show-within-the-show violent enough to censor out of all broadcasts of The Simpsons in 2012 (Grekov). This government censorship and previous attempts to ban the show have met opposition from all levels of Russian society, from television executives to democracy fighters to regular fans. That did not deter the producers of The Simpsons from continuing their mockery of some Russian institution. The hilarious “Worker and the Parasite” episode, a Russian version of Itchy and Scratchy, made fun of low-quality Russian cartoons in it fourth season (Groening). Perhaps Russia has been annoyed with Itchy and Scratchy since 1994 and The Simpsons addressed it earlier with a clever, classic Simpsons-style rhetorical blow.

Nothing could pull the Simpsons out of Russia though; it is just too strong and powerful of a cultural force. Indeed, the government has indirectly conceded the show’s influence by attempting to harness it for the state’s own purposes. To the dismay of many Ukrainians, for instance, in 2014 the Russian government stopped televising the Ukrainian Simpsons dub and replaced it with the Russian version in Ukraine, a seemingly subtle maneuver that speaks volumes about the power dynamic between Russia and Ukraine (NPR/ Ryabinska). Russia is using its language to increase its influence in Ukraine, which is split between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. Ukrainian fans of The Simpsons have expressed anger about this decision of the Russian government, claiming the Ukrainian dub is preferable.

Beyond the television show, The Simpsons is used as a satirical symbol in many other forms of Russian political art. For instance, in 2014, a video of Bart writing the Russia translation of “Putin is a shithead!” in the classic, consistently varied chalkboard segment of the opening sequence, spread like wildfire amongst Russian Internet users, and even internationally (Taylor). The video was created by a Russian satirist and was followed up by a separate Simpsons-animated depiction of Putin’s entire career from another Russian satirist. The popular video characterizes Putin as a tired, corrupt leader who allows demise to happen before his eyes. In it, Putin is drawn as Mr. Burns, Homer’s evil boss at the Nuclear Power Plant in The Simpsons who serves as the caricature of corrupted wealth — a particularly biting comparison for a leader such as Putin who styles himself as a populist. One of his henchmen in the video is Nelson, who satirizes the stereotypical elementary school bully in The Simpsons.

Another trend among Russian artists seems to be Simpsonizing classic Russian paintings and uploading them as Internet satire. A Simpsonized image of Putin was actually removed from a museum in Russia by government orders (Crisp). These subtle pieces exemplify how using Simpson’s images for anything can immediately insinuate its satirical nature. Even just using the yellow skin color and Matt Groening’s basic caricature style can help expand a piece’s audience (The Simpsons brand has proven incredibly marketable) and clarify its intentions.

China

Chinese television networks started broadcasting The Simpsons in the early 2000s, and the show was an immediate success. Similar to Russia, Chinese media is heavily controlled by the government and used to propagate an authoritarian agenda. While Chinese news sources like Central China TV (CCTV) push news that is overwhelmingly positive about the government and Party, government surveillance agents silence dissent (more specifically, they target signs of potential collective action against the government) and the “Great Firewall of China” blocks unwanted content from the Internet for all residents of mainland China. However, this heavy control and significant information imbalance does not eliminate the room for satire, and it certainly does not negate the role of satire.

Even in a country like China, satire slithers through the media landscape’s cracks in different forms. In previous eras, the Chinese government has been able to minimize satirical culture. Especially when media was all in print, it was relatively easy for the Chinese government to silence a perpetrator who was satirizing the country’s leadership (Tang). But the rapid pace of transferring information and volume of content on the Internet has altered China’s ability to silence all dissent. In fact, some Chinese political satirists argue, rather optimistically, that censorship sparks a different creative process involving indirect methods of getting a message across (Tang). Some satirists stick to plugging their messages into comments on Internet news videos, others post cartoons under pseudonyms and one even created an entire social media page dedicated to mocking President Jiang Zemin (Tang).

Many US media sources were enthusiastic about the potential rise of satire in China, largely because it presented another opportunity to discuss and critique Chinese media in contrast to American freedom of speech. This obsession with covering the impact of surveillance and censorship in China is an extension of American discourse’s long history of pushing orientalist rhetoric (Said). In reality, China is much older than the United States and had forms of satirical comedy long before the Communist Party came to power there, and well before modern globalization. The most common traditional form of Chinese satire translates as “cross talk”: Two comedians would perform a live, conversational act that often poked fun at the government (Tan). The rise of the Communist party and continuation of Mao Zedong’s legacy rejected such comedic performances; they were seen as a threat to their power. But because they were ephemeral, they were harder to control and squelch that written satire, which existed with greater permanence.

That being said, the introduction and global expansion of the free market economy in China encourages a more individualistic culture, which in turn has opened up the doors for comedy’s rise in popularity (Yan). The year 2014 was said to be the “Year of Comedy” by Chinese television networks; they began airing more comedy shows than ever before and stand-up comedy specifically began thriving in the mainstream media (Sun). Not everything has relaxed, however. It is important to note, for instance, that stand-up comedians such as Joe Wong have been silenced in China for satirizing the government. Chinese ambivalence between the benefits of an open society and the desire for central control is a dominant theme of life in the world’s largest nation. Neither comedy nor satire escapes that tension.

This brings up many questions regarding the role satirical comedy plays when it is limited. First of all, how can the Chinese government find a balance between limiting rhetoric that ridicules its leadership without provoking more dissent by silencing a popular voice? When a famous comedian like Joe Wong is arrested for speaking out against the government in his comedy, it seems to only stir more controversy and outrage against the order. Many comedians will tell you their goal is to “expand consciousness” and break common views on social norms. How can they do this without the ability to be completely honest? How are satirists in China achieving this balance?

The Simpsons originally broadcast on Chinese television networks for the same reason it aired in most countries: there was a market for it. It aired in the same context as Spongebob Squarepants, Pokemon and Mickey Mouse — seen initially as just another American cartoon that succeeds in foreign markets when not many Chinese animation studios were producing high quality, popular content (Cheung). The show’s satire did not meet opposition from the government until The Simpsons squarely focused on China in 2005 (Greoning). Although the show had previously featured Chinese characters, most of which satirize orientalist media portrayals of Asian Americans, the episode Goo Goo Gai Pan in season 16 was the first to address the country of China as a whole — and to bring its singular brand of ridicule to that endeavor.

In the episode, the Simpson’s nuclear family and Marge’s sister Selma go to China to adopt a Chinese baby for Selma after discovering that she cannot get pregnant — -a premise that seems contentious at its core. Thus framed, the episode already was wading into deep water, and it went further with two moments of biting satire against the Chinese government. First, when the family arrives at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, there is a sign informing people that no protests happened there (Groening). That is a sore spot: the Chinese government still censors any mention of the famous “Tank Man” image in its long attempt to cover up any information regarding the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square — perhaps the most glaring modern example of Chinese censorship and of its futility. Addressing this issue so quickly and casually in The Simpsons exemplified the show’s authority to speak honestly when other mediums cannot. In addition, Homer Simpson hovered over Mao Zedong’s dead body in the episode and called him an “angel that killed millions of innocent people” (Groening). Both of these jokes, as well as many other lighter bits throughout the episode, could have never been produced by a Chinese media source. Nevertheless, they were allowed to air on Chinese television, however fleetingly (Cheung).

In 2006, The Simpsons along with Spongebob Squarepants, Pokemon and Mickey Mouse were banned in China in an attempt to replace American cartoons with Chinese-made animated content. This was presented by the government not as an attempt at censorship but rather as an opportunity to encourage and provide room for Chinese animators to produce and air their own work. Many of course theorized that, although the government framed this as an attempt to boost Chinese production (which arguably worked, considering China is producing many more successful cartoons today than when their networks previously depended on foreign content), this decision was really the government’s reaction to the satire that they felt threatened their authority. Others argue that the decision represented an attempt to resist the power of Western cultural hegemony in China. Both motivations seem likely. After all, why air American-made cartoons that ridicule the state of China when networks can air Chinese-made cartoons that encourage patriotism? Unlike Russia’s failed attempt to enforce its hegemony in the cartoon marketplace, China actually officially banned these foreign cartoons (Davis).

As television viewership has migrated towards the Internet, Chinese media has diversified to keep up with the technology. Starting in 2014, The Simpsons came back to China, streaming on an Internet source called Sohu. The return of Simpsons to China excited US and various European media sources, who argued that satirical comedy in China would prevail against attempts to suppress it and supply a wedge for greater expression. However, these articles were released two years ago and since then, the show has not been as popular in China as some may have hoped. Viewership is not awful, but it does not compare to the popularity of Chinese-made cartoons, an interesting flip since the pre-2006 entertainment landscape in China (Cheung). Some Chinese audience members reportedly have complained that they do not appreciate the way it is animated and its style of satirical humor. Others have argued the sarcasm in Simpsons is difficult for many Chinese audience members’ to grasp. Theoretically, the understanding of sarcasm should spread with the expansion of various forms of comedy in China. It is important to note that China has not created a version of Simpsons that translates jokes by replacing American cultural references with corresponding Chinese ones (this phenomenon is found in Spanish, Arabic, Italian, French and Hebrew versions of the show). This could be connected to its unexpected lack of viewership.

Nevertheless, the show is still popular in China, whose enormous population offers a very tempting market to tap into for Western creative entities. There seems to be a big market for Simpsons’ merchandise as well, though that has raised questions of copyright infringement as Chinese clothing companies are profiting off using the characters (a common problem in China). Despite its relativelylow viewership”, the first-ever Simpson’s mega-stores will be located in Shanghai and Beijing (Tan). This decision indicates a desire for The Simpsons to expand its influence into the very lucrative Chinese market. And, on the other end of the story, the openings of the stores indicate China’s newer, more welcoming approach to the international cultural phenomenon that is The Simpsons.

Similar to Russia but not to as high of a degree, aside from its popularity as a television show and merchandise phenomenon, The Simpsons is also used as a symbol in other forms of Chinese satirical rhetoric. Simpsons memes and “Simpsonized” versions of important photos are popular on the Internet. Additionally, Simpsons street art can seen in the Shanghai and Beijing art districts.

Egypt (and the greater Middle East)

Egypt is a hub for media in the Arab world, and its ability to exert influence with a diversity of outlets is protected by the Egyptian constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. In reality — and as seen earlier in the analysis of speech and press in Russia — the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech is not so simple in practice; there are still legislation and executive forces that significantly limit freedom of speech, making it very difficult for satirists to find their place.

Egypt is, of course, one of the oldest society’s on earth, and therefore any history of its mores is a long one. That’s true of satire, among many other topics. Between 2025 and 1700 BC, Egypt was the birthplace of one of the earliest forms of satire internationally, translated as the “Satire of Trades” (Rollston). It was a form of instruction giving in Ancient Egyptian literature that used ridicule-filled hyperbole in a didactic tone. Since then, satire has thrived during rougher transitional periods in Egypt, particularly during revolutionary uprisings. This is precisely the circumstance that allowed one of the most mainstream Egyptian satirists, Bassem Yousseff, to get his start on the Internet.

Youssef started a satirical news web-series, inspired by John Stewart’s The Daily Show, in a free-speech “grey period” after the revolution. Like any effective satire, his show was created to counter the agenda-pushing propaganda that seemed to dominate the media landscape in Egypt. After his satirical news web series was picked up as a TV show on Egyptian network television, Yousseff was able to reach much wider audience. But with his increased visibility came increased risk. In 2013, Yousseff was arrested (that was first warning) and later exiled for making jokes about the President in his show. His show was discontinued in 2014, and Yousseff now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Simpsons has been airing in Egypt in the dubbed and subtitled versions since 2000. Like most places, the show would not have started airing in the first place if it were not popular and a proven audience-magnet. Especially prior to the revolution in 2011, the television networks in Egypt struggled with content and viewership. Importing shows like The Simpsons along with a long list of other American shows has helped these networks succeed in expanding the television industry.

The Simpsons in Egypt

Also similar to Russia and China, the rising popularity of The Simpsons in Egypt catalyzed insecurities about Western cultural hegemony. This western cultural influence threatened the traditional Islamic values enforced by the Egyptian government. Instead of trying to ban the show all together, the Egyptian government decided to use it as a tool to push Islamic values, a decision that should speak volumes about the power of the show (it’s too powerful to put out!).

In 2005, the Arabic television network MBC created a Simpsons transplant called Al Shamshoon set in Little Arab Town (the Arab Springfield). Al Shamshoon was created by a group of successful Egyptian writers and actors, pulling together what they saw as the 52 most classic Simpsons episodes after Season 4. In this transplant, the pork eating, beer-drinking Homer was transformed into Omar, a loyal Muslim who drinks soda and only eats halal beef. Other notable changes the producers made included eliminating Moe’s Tavern, dropping the flamboyantly homosexual character Smithers, and even transforming Ned Flanders, a devout Christian in the show’s American version, into an Atheist (Ferrari). MBC aired the 30 episodes of Al Shamshoon during Ramadan, a popular time to watch TV as a family in Arabic culture. Al Shamshoon was a bust, and was cancelled just 32 episodes into the season. The real Simpsons fans in Egypt were disappointed with the transplant and mostly stuck with watching the original dub.

Why did this transplant fail miserably? Many argued that the show was stripped of its humor when characters like Homer could no longer satirize American society. After all, The Simpsons is an animated comedy that was never designed to serve as a lifestyle model. Once it lost its comedic and satirical value, it lost the essence of its appeal. Perhaps Al Shamshoon was also created a bit too late; the original Simpsons already had an established fan base, even in Egypt, that would resist such major changes. Or perhaps Al Shamshoon failed the same way many potential successful television concepts fall apart; not everybody involved was fully committed to its creation. With any project, when not all parties involved in its creation are committed to the same goals, the final product will tend to reap the consequences of its fractured team. In this case, the large group of collaborators brought together to create an Egyptian version of The Simpsons may have pulled it in too many directions and resulted in a culturally palatable, but comedically weak product.

Regardless, the failed attempt to Islami-zize The Simpsons reflects the greater conflicting dialogue between Islam and The West. Al Shamshoon was not the only time The Simpsons sat at the heart of this dialogue. In 2014, Egyptian news sources revealed what they described as a major conspiracy theory: According to those theorists, a 2-second clip from The Simpsons from a 2002 episode proves the US planned the revolutions of the Arab Spring. One of those who argued that case was Egyptian news anchor Rania Badawy, who heatedly railed against the US and the Simpsons episodes on her “informative” show Al Tahrir. Improbably, the theory revolved around a 2002 episode called “New Kids on the Blecch,” in which Bart is recruited into a boy band. There is a music video in the episode that includes a single clip of Bart bombing a tank with a Syrian rebel flag — anticipating, according to the theory — the eventual uprising in Syria and suggesting that the show’s producers were working in collaboration with the American government. Simpson’s writers, undoubtedly taken aback, responded they found the symbol in a history textbook and simply incorporated it into their work.

No serious person believes The Simpsons is part of a larger American government operation in the Middle East, but the traction that these reports gained underscores the perceived influence of the program. Many Arabic media sources will utilize any opportunity to demonize the US, and this discovery was an opportunity to do so, and one that had additional credibility because of the widespread association of The Simpsons with American power and culture. To the news sources that reported on the implications of this scene that aired 12 years before raising public discussion, The Simpsons is a western cultural force that threatens traditional Arabic values. Using The Simpsons as a scapegoat (some sources included anti-Semitism in this literature, blaming the “Jews” behind The Simpsons) for explaining the unstable nature of Egypt’s political structure presented a perfect opportunity to report negatively on the U.S.

On the other end of the equation, American media outlets fed into this dialogue by reporting on the Middle East spreading the story and in turn demonizing the Arabic governments for their false reporting. Further conflict is of course driven by this pattern of media representations and misrepresentations on both ends.

France (and greater Western Europe)

Of the countries examined in this study, France is the most open nation with respect to free expression. The French media landscape consists of both public and private broadcasting services — — television/radio stations and periodicals (newspapers are notably less popular in French media consumption). Although there was a history of governmental censorship between the 16th and 18th centuries, the modern French Constitution guarantees Freedom of the Press, a protection honored more stridently by France than by the governments of Russia, China or Egypt. However, public broadcasting companies, close ties between the government and specific private companies as well as laws restricting “hate speech” are just a few of the many factors that complicate Freedom of Speech in the country.

Moreover, France is a nation that regards its language and culture with great pride and sometimes defensiveness. It is important to note that the French like to translate every piece of imported content into the French language, consistently stressing the importance of sustaining the life and strength of the language. The French Simpsons translation we will discuss plays into the greater context of this national effort to promote the language.

Moreover, France hosts a unique cartoon culture. In fact, several French animation schools are internationally recognized, most notably The Gobelins School. The U.S. and France generally have maintained a collaborative media relationship, and the exchange of popular comics and television cartoons has been an important part of this relationship. The Simpsons has been an active part of this exchange since soon after its inception, and creator Matt Groening has proudly aided the process of transplanting The Simpsons, particularly in the voice casting and writing side of production, to reflect the language and landscape of France.

The Simpsons in France

French audiences have been watching The Simpsons since its inception, and there are two French transplants: one for France and one for French Canada. Both of these versions adapt the content of the show to fit the context of their respective audience. Accents are adjusted and specific US pop-culture references are often replaced with French ones (much more so in France than in French-speaking Canada). However, the transplant still remains a satire on US culture, as Springfield is still an American city in the French versions. It seems that the French networks use The Simpsons as a tool to draw humor from American culture, while promoting French culture in a positive, funny fashion. The impulse to promote domestic values and language is natural, and, in the case of France, is accompanied by fairly wide appreciation for the show’s satiric bent as well.

France in The Simpsons

On the creative end, France has conveyed mixed reactions to depictions of its society in The Simpsons. In the eleventh episode of the first season, “The Crepes of Wrath,” Bart goes on an exchange trip to France. The episode covered French stereotypes with Bart’s experiences slaving for abusive winemakers in France, and the Simpsons family’s experiences with a French exchange student. The episode met with overwhelmingly positive reception in the US; it has actually been studied in sociology classes at UC Berkeley.

In a 1995 episode, “Round Springfield,” the Scottish janitor Groundskeeper Willie called the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” when forced to teach French after the elementary school deals with budget cuts. This term spread over time, and has been used in coverage of French issues in publications such as the Times of London, Daily Telegraph, and New York Post. Probably because of its international resonance and continued use, various French journalists and government officials deemed the silly Simpsons joke offensive. Additionally, the French government did not appreciate The Simpsons characterizing Sarkozy without asking for permission or a voice acting guest appearance, as the Simpsons have done with other world leaders. In a 2009 episode titled The Devil Wears Nada, The Simpsons made a caricature of a “cheese-smelling” President Sarkozy and his wine-drinking super-model wife Carla Bruni when Homer made a business trip to France (Guardian). French Internet spread the clips of Sarkozy with a mixed bag of reactions; some found the caricature distasteful and offensive while others thought it was “hilarious” (Guardian).

Sylvian Chomet, a prominent French cartoonist, was asked to create a Simpsons opening “couch gag,” the consistently varied final segment of the opening theme sequence. In the sequence, his stylistic caricatures of the French Simpsons satirized a variety of French stereotypes; Homer eats snails, Bart tries to make Goose liver Pate by choking a live goose, Marge looks for her lost baby Maggie, who is ultimately revealed to be stuck between Homer’s butt cheeks. This scene fed Simpsons viewers around the globe a slice of French satirical cartoon culture, with its insight into character style and the animated interior design. This was a part of the greater effort The Simpsons has made to reach out to political satirists around the world to create “couch gags” for the show. In fact, the internationally influential satirical British street artist known as Banksy, who has addressed police aggression among other political issues with his work in France, was asked to create a “couch gag”; he used the opportunity to expose the impact of outsourcing labor with his hyperbolized depiction of a Korean sweatshop producing Simpsons merchandise. Like many animation studios in the US and France, The Simpsons outsources its final production steps to South Korea; the Fox network itself rarely addresses this process, and Banksy’s take on it was extraordinary, as was the willingness of the show’s producers to incorporate this criticism of their own brand. In total, these couch gags have created a window to expose the international Simpsons viewers to a variety of animation styles and forms of satire.

The Simpsons also gave subtle, compassionate shout-outs to the French after the Charlie Hebdo and more recent Paris ISIS attacks. Charlie Hebdo is a weekly satirical magazine in France that features ironic news reports, jokes, and various cartoons. The publication released a string of comic strips depicting Muhammad in 2011 and 2015, which both met with terrorist attacks. Depicting Muhammad in cartoons has been a source of bitter division since 2005, when a Danish cartoonist depicted Muhammad in 12 newspaper comic strips. These comics were aimed to contribute to an international discussion of Islam and self-censorship, but instead led to violent protests in Denmark itself and Muslim countries from extremist Muslim communities. Almost two years later, a Swedish newspaper met with similar domestic and international backlash after a series of comics characterizing Muhammad as a dog. South Park, a more satirically ruthless descendant of the Simpsons, responded to this controversy with a 2-part episode titled Cartoon Wars dedicated to addressing the subject of depicting Muhammad. This, more than anything, brought the US media into the conversation around Muhammad, as critics leveled death threats and demanded that Comedy Central remove the offending episodes, opening the dialogue around limiting our cherished US freedom of speech in the context of international relations.

The Simpsons responded during each aforementioned controversy, always standing in support of freedom of expression but acknowledging its limitations. In the case of the South Park controversy, for instance, The Simpsons created a chalkboard message in its opening theme that said “South Park — -we’d stand beside you if we weren’t so scared.” This exemplified The Simpsons position on issues around Islam from the beginning of its airing. As I discussed when covering Egypt, Simpsons writers have in fact admitted to not addressing Islam because they did not feel as if they were educated enough to cover it. Perhaps this was a different way of saying they are afraid of approaching Islam in satirical form as it has a history of controversy. In 2015, The Simpsons showed its support for Charlie Hebdo magazine after the second terrorist attack with Maggie holding a flag that says, “Je Suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie,” which quickly became a rallying cry and an iconic phrase in support of free speech.

Conclusion

To one who has never watched The Simpsons or taken its content seriously, the show may seem like another silly cartoon with a mass appeal that is difficult to comprehend. If these case studies have proved one thing, it is that The Simpsons is far more than a simple cartoon. The Simpsons is an extraordinary international cultural phenomenon that governments, businesses and individuals around the world both fear and seek to influence or control. Although I specifically focused on the television show in this essay, the Simpsons brand has made an international mark in film (with The Simpsons movie), clothing, toys and collectibles, comics, board/video games and of course online social media culture. All of these separate industries and media have played a crucial role in the global evolution of The Simpsons.

All four countries I researched have had mixed reactions to The Simpsons in the last 27 years of the show’s existence. Each government controls or influences its respective national media to different degrees, and each has capitalized on the popularity of The Simpsons. On one level, by allowing the show to air, they are using the internationally successful US entertainment import to fuel their own television industries, attracting audiences during periods where there own fledgling industries had little to offer. Yet, in more varied ways, they each have used the show to push their own agendas and maintain their governments’ centralized power. We can see this dynamic playing out in the specific adaptations the transplants contain and the episodes or segments government officials rejected, either verbally or through official action. It is clear that none of these four governments can easily accept being criticized in comedy, and The Simpsons is no exception. Their reactions reflect their own systems and histories: Russia and China have responded the most forcefully, pleading protection from violence or cultural insularity while also suppressing political dissent. Egypt has dabbled in conspiracy theory. France has been the most tolerant and appreciative of the show’s impact.

The duality of Simpsons’ power dynamic has been exemplified in each of the case studies. For instance, Russian government officials could not even handle being depicted as Simpson’s characters in paintings, yet used the show’s Russian translation to increase linguistic power in Ukraine. China’s government could not take the joke about Mao, yet are building Simpsons super stores to sell the merchandise that already have developed fashionable appeal. Egypt government officials and journalists have tried to blame The Simpsons for the Arab Spring, yet tried (and failed) to use the show to promote Islamic values with the Al Shamshoon transplant. French leaders and citizens have been offended by the shows content on various occasions; yet use its transplant Le Simpson to promote the French language and nationalism.

Regardless of how these governments have influenced networks to approach the show, the citizens in all these countries have used The Simpsons as an immediate indicator of satire in more informal mediums. In each country, the characters are used as international symbols for defiance in Internet comics and street art culture. Therefore, The Simpsons operates on a two-way street, serving an important purpose for each country’s government and their citizens alike.

These nations all differ in the way they have approached controlling the media, and The Simpsons illuminates these differences. Russia, Egypt and France all claim to protect freedom of expression while China has the most limited press and speech freedom in the world. Reactions to The Simpsons expose nuances in these distinct free press policies. For example, The Simpsons poked holes in Russia’s vague broadcasting legislation surrounding television censorship with the Itchy and Scratchy violence controversy. In Egypt, response to The Simpsons boy band music video epitomized how too much freedom of speech, or perhaps too much influence toward hatred of “the other” from the top down, can lead to incredibly fallacious reporting. In France, Sarkozy’s response to caricature highlights the French political pride that seeps into its approach to media. In China, the banning of The Simpsons was a stark reminder that the executive power of China’s authoritarian government is formidable indeed.

Being an export from the US, The Simpsons inserts itself in relations between its native country and those it enter. In doing so, the experience can reveal unique components of those relationships. Russia, China, and Egypt all have alternately warm and tense relations with the US, while France and the US are on much better terms over a much longer period of time. In Russia, the 2008 court cases against The Simpsons and Family Guy represented the fear of Western intrusion, a threat that has repeated itself throughout Russian history. Similarly, the China 2005 cartoon ban and Egyptian production of Al Shamshoon symbolized the same dynamic, but within their own distinct domestic contexts. In France, this western cultural influence is much less of an issue, though the French work zealously to protect their language and culture, and have occasionally objected to portrayals by the show; France and the US have a very collaborative media and cultural relationship.

It is important to note the fluctuations in these countries leadership figures (as well as in the US) over the past 27 years. The Simpsons, although a fictional cartoon comedy, serves as a historical archive into these various histories. Each of those studied has been through several leaders since The Simpsons first started airing and each leader has had a different approach to media control and to relations with the US.

To quote a different international phenomenon, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The Simpsons and its international descendants are very powerful and therefore hold a great deal of global responsibility. In fact, I would argue these four separate Simpsons histories serve to exemplify the global responsibility of any US entertainment export. Yes, it is designed to be entertainment, but as we have seen, people see deep meaning, sometimes where it is unintended. So, when a creator is planning to caricaturize an entire nation or culture or religion with one joke, it should be done with a certain degree of caution. The consequences of this content transcend the intangible conversations on the Internet or between news sources; they are often tangible, whether it’s a terrorist attack or government ban. In this genre, there is always room for misinterpretation, a phenomenon exaggerated by the vast array of cultures in which The Simpsons is aired and enjoys loyal audiences. There will always be a line to draw between satirizing a stereotype and perpetuating it, an impact determined just as much by the viewer as it is by the creator. And that places a special burden on a program that is both a cultural beacon and a satire, both of which decidedly describe The Simpsons.

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Cartoon Curiosities

Written by

Ben Kurzrock’s essays exploring the cultural and political history of animation.

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