Don’t Have A Cow, Man: The Simpsons, Food, and Bovine University

In 1989, The Tracey Ullman Show was a sketch show with a recurring cartoon about a yellow family called The Simpsons. In 1989, the family became so popular, they had their own Christmas special. Now that Christmas special is considered the first episode of The Simpsons, a show that is now in its thirtieth season. The show has covered a myriad of topics – from frivolous topics like movie premieres, child beauty pageants, music, first crushes, sports, new neighbors, and secret societies, to more serious topics like political corruption, (repeated) attempted murder, teenage rebellion, cults, religion, animal rights, feminism, father-daughter relationships, racism, and class struggle, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (and speaking of icebergs, The Simpsons has covered the Titanic, both the movie and the boat). Because of the different themes that span across many topics, The Simpsons has a reach that can only be achieved through popular culture. This reach can be used to inform the public about important health topics, like food. The show introduces viewers to industrialized farming in “Apocalypse Cow” (Season 19, Episode 17), sugar addiction and corruption in the sugar industry in “Sweets and Sour Marge” (Season 13, Episode 8), fast food addiction in “I’m Spelling As Fast As I Can” (Season 14, Episode 12), and vegetarianism in “Lisa the Vegetarian” (Season 7, Episode 5). These are only a few of the episodes specifically about food, but the series always has messages about food and food culture in the background of every episode – Homer’s consistently bad eating habits and the consequences on his health, the cereal commercials that influence Bart, Marge’s cooking choices for the family, and Lisa’s ongoing problems regarding her vegetarianism. The Simpsons is a better tool for teaching people about food and agricultural topics than any scientific journal.

Scientific journals are a great way to get information from world wide academia. About 1.8 million articles across 28,000 journals are published each year (Eveleth). But how many people actually read these articles? The answer is three. Three people read these articles. According to Rose Eveleth from the Smithsonian, “half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors” and “90 percent of papers published are never cited.” The best information about food is not reaching the appropriate audience. How can we reach the most people with the same information?

According to Joseph F. Foy in his book Homer Simpson Goes to Washington, “By taking concepts and controversies . . . and explaining them through the lens of popular culture, it is my hope to break down the artificial barriers that keep people detached.” The best way to introduce issues is through popular culture, like television. The New York Times reports that the average American watches five hours and four minutes of television every day, and the trend is steadily climbing up with more programming options from Netflix and Hulu (Kobin).

The Simpsons averages 6.7 million viewers. Its highest rated episode is “Bart Gets an F” (Season 2, Episode 1), and over 33.7 million people watched the episode when it aired on October 11, 1990 (“The Simpsons, by the Numbers”). This doesn’t take into account people who rewatch the show in reruns, DVD, or streaming services like Hulu and FXNOW. More people watch The Simpsons than read scientific journals.

What about documentaries? People talk about them. They win Oscars! They become part of the cultural milieu known as “the water cooler.” The movie Food Inc. made $4.4 million dollars at the box office (“Food Inc.”). If each ticket was only $1 dollar, then that would mean four million people saw the movie at the cinema. That’s still less than The Simpsons average of 6.7 million viewers an episode. Even if that many people watch the show, how can we be certain they take anything away from the show.

A study from Ohio State University that was published in Teaching Sociology, said that The Simpsons’s hometown of Springfield is “a microcosm of mainstream American society” (Scanlan). The study used clips from the show in a sociology class, stating that the show’s “‘real-life’ illustrations provide an excellent foundation for lectures and classroom discussion on a number of topics.” The study continues, “It helps illustrate concepts, complements class lecture and discussion, and helps students think critically about course material.” Because “real-life” inspires the storylines in The Simpsons, the students can relate these examples to sociology topics and discuss these topics in a classroom setting. The students also reported enjoying the clips and that they believed the clips helped them grasp the topics. The study concluded with the following: “The true indication of successful teaching is measured by the students’ ability to grasp course material effectively, and then use that knowledge beyond the classroom. The Simpsons provides a wonderful way to accomplish this goal.” Critics might say of course a bunch of students will say they enjoyed the clips – they got to watch cartoons in class!

York University also used The Simpsons to teach sociological concepts, but they did something slightly different (Eaton). They used The Simpsons clips for only a few topics spread out through the semester. The remaining topics used traditional teaching approaches. Then they tested the students. “The midterm and final exams contained a total of 8 questions on the topics illustrated by the clips, and 142 questions on topics not illustrated by clips.” They found that the scores on “questions relating to the clips were significantly higher than the percentage of correct answers on the questions not relating to the clips.” They concluded that “the combination of self-report and actual performance measures in this study provides converging evidence that the clips were effective at both generating student interest and increasing comprehension of the material.” Just like in the Ohio State University study, the students learned the material better when their instructors paired the topics with clips from The Simpsons. The show broke down the “artificial barriers,” to use a term from Joseph Foy.

However, not everyone is going to use sociology outside an academic setting, and there’s no direct indication that these students were all studying to be sociologists. They were random students who may or may not have any interest in sociology whatsoever, and they still rated the topics with clips higher than the topics without clips, and their comprehension was reflected in test scores. If The Simpsons can be used to teach something as esoteric as sociology, with the clips only being shown in class once, The Simpsons can teach regular people about something as ubiquitous as food, especially since these episodes are shown continuously in syndication and online. Even casual and fatuous television viewing can affect people’s’ habits, from commercials (Broach) to eating choices (Chen). Even casual The Simpsons viewing and the lessons contained in the show can teach more people about food than scientific journals. So what does The Simpsons say about food?

The show centers around the titular family and the people in their city, known as Springfield. Homer is the patriarch of the family, and his eating habits are best described in David Sedaris’s essay “Tasteless:” “I’m a shoveler, a quantity man, and I like to keep going until I feel sick.” Homer scarfing down food without slowing down is a frequent scene in the show that is usually played for laughs. Donuts and beer are an omnipresent staple of Homer’s diet. The consequences of this habit are subjects of several episodes, including “Homer’s Triple Bypass” (Season 4, Episode 11) and “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)” (Season 8, Episode 9). His habits are usually seen as a detriment to his relationship with his family, especially with his wife, Marge, who constantly dotes on him as she wants him to be around for the family.

Marge is the matriarch of the family and serves as a guiding force for the family. Her role is usually support or encouragement. Her diet is relatively modest; while she cooks extensive and lavish meals for Homer, she cooks more sensible meals for herself, and vegetarian meals for her daughter Lisa. Their son and firstborn, Bart, is more akin to his father with regards to his eating habits.

Bart is the troublemaker and prankster of the family who serves as an instigator – someone for the other characters to react to. He is overrated, unlike his sister, Lisa.

Lisa is the middle child of the family. Her intellect makes her social pariah among her classmates, but her strong sense of right and wrong (most likely inherited from Marge) makes her the perfect voice-of-reason character. In a town (and family) populated by characters quick to anger and ready to react, she provides the reflection and thoughtfulness that should take place before action.

Maggie is the last child in the Simpson family. She is a baby who is just learning to walk, is constantly sucking on a pacifier, and is shown to be an expert marksman and tracker. Marge coddles her, which can lead to some pretty extreme examples of parenting, like in the first example of the show.

“Sweets and Sour Marge” (Season 13, Episode 8) starts innocently enough with a library sale. Homer purchases a copy of Duff’s Book of World Records, a parody of the Guinness Book of World Records. Marge encourages Homer to try to break a record. He convinces the town to come together to make the World’s Largest Human Pyramid. The attempt is a failure, and the town becomes a boulder, sucking up the remaining citizens as it rolls through Springfield. The town crashes onto a truck scale. The judges from the Duff Book of World Records announces that Springfield is now the World’s Fattest Town. Marge notices that the food her family eats is filled with sugar, and she goes to speak with the head of the local sugar conglomerate, The Motherloving Sugar Company. The CEO, Garth Motherloving, brushes her off, prompting her to sue the company in a class-action lawsuit. The presiding judge, Snyder, finds in her favor and bans all sugar from Springfield. The town goes into chaos, and Homer teams up with Apu, Mr. Burns, and Garth Motherloving to bring sugar back to Springfield. During a sugar run, they are caught. Mr. Burns, Apu, and Motherloving escape, leaving Homer to take the blame. Marge convinces him to dump the sugar into Springfield Bay instead of “obeying the bad guy.” The town jumps into the bay, drinking the sugar-seawater in desperation. Judge Snyder rescinds his declaration, saying he “overstepped his authority.”

Marge is seen as being in the right and the Motherloving Sugar Company is portrayed as evil and unscrupulous. Marge is compared to Erin Brockovich, a woman who bravely stood up to the powerful Pacific Gas & Electric Company – and won. Marge is well-meaning. When she asks him to stop putting so much sugar in all his food, he brushes her off by sarcastically saying, “That’ll boost sales. While we’re at it, why don’t I just change my name back to Hitler?” He is young and attractive, unlike the usual bad guy, Mr. Burns, who is a comically evil, crotchety old man. Garth Motherloving, while a little comical, is the antithesis of Marge, and is not someone to be lauded, especially after he threatens to kill the judge, jury, and his own lawyer during the lawsuit. Even though he loses his trial, he won’t give up on his quest to saturate the citizens in his sugar, instead of reassessing his business practices. In the end, the addiction to sugar is too much for the city, and they succumb to their base instincts, diving into sugar-saturated water regardless of taste. The city’s sugar addiction is too much, and Judge Snyder rescinds his ruling, but Homer calls Marge, “Caring A-lot-o-vich.” She was right, and while her law didn’t achieve the result she wanted, she’s still the character the audience is intended to hold in high regard. The episode ends with a Springfield citizen, Lenny, finding his own teeth in the water. He looks at the camera with a gummy smile, leaving the audience with a laugh and the image of a mouth ravaged by sugar. The message is about sugar’s addictiveness and the power of large sugar corporations, and how sugar companies aren’t going to change their habits, instead choosing profits over people. The Simpsons tackles food itself in this episode, but in “Apocalypse Cow” (Season 19, Episode 17), the show takes on large farming corporations.

The episode aired on April 27, 2008 – one year before the documentary Food Inc. showcased the horrors of corporate farming. Bart joins 4-H, a youth organization centered around farming (“What is 4-H?”), to run heavy farming machinery. After a montage of Bart using a combine, he is given a young calf, whom he names Lou. He raises Lou to win the Blue Ribbon at the State Fair, but the glory is short lived. Lisa reveals that Lou will be moved to a slaughterhouse and killed. He asks her to help him save Lou. They save the cow and enlist the help of Apu to get the cow passage to India, where Lou will be safe.

The episode portrays slaughterhouses as an uncomfortable waiting area for death. Cows are literally piled on top of one another and squeezed in steak to steak. When Bart finds Lou, he’s fatter than Bart remembers because Lou is “pumped up on beef hormones.” Lou licks Bart’s arm and a patch of hair unnaturally sprouts from his arm. Paired with some disgusting sound effects, the viewer cringes at the joke, but it’s effective. It gives the viewer pause. They can see the horrific conditions in a comedic fashion – they won’t turn away. A barrier is broken. These images allow the viewer to think about corporate farming conditions as well as the corporate use of hormones, even if it’s in the context of a joke. The Simpsons even uses food in B storylines, so the concept of food stays on the viewer’s mind.

“I’m Spelling As Fast As I Can” (Season 14, Episode 12) revolves around Lisa entering a school spelling bee and making it to the Spellympics, finally gaining respect and admiration for her intelligence. The B story revolves around Homer’s addiction to a sandwich. Krusty Burger, a parody of McDonald’s complete with its own clown spokesperson, announces a new sandwich called the “Ribwich.” The show parodies Requiem for a Dream when Homer eats the sandwich for the first time. When the sandwich is no longer available, Homer joins a group of “Ribheads” (a parody of “Deadheads”) – a group of people who follow the Ribwich as it is tested in other markets. Homer decides to join them, saying, “Maybe I should hook up with you guys. After all, how long do any of us have to live?” to which the Ribhead leader replies, “If you like the Ribwich, not very.” Homer follows them instead of supporting his daughter in the Spellympics. After Krusty announces Ribwich is being discontinued, Homer realizes that he has been choosing a sandwich over his daughter. He trades the last sandwich for a luxury sports car and speeds away to watch his daughter’s day in the sun.

This episode mocks corporate greed regarding food – they create a product that is deleterious to the eater’s health but fattening in profits. They prey on people with food addiction, like Homer. Like the Motherloving Sugar Corporation, Krusty Burger will not stop selling the product because it’s highly addictive or it’s bad for their consumers. The only reason Krusty Burger discontinued the Ribwich was that the animal they used went extinct. Even after taking years off their customers’ lives, and forcing them away from their families, the company had to inflict one last indignity – they made their customers fight over the last Ribwich. “Sweets and Sour Marge,” “Apocalypse Cow,” and “I’m Spelling As Fast As I Can” are all about corporate farming and their obvious disdain for their customers, but The Simpsons also has episodes about individual food choices.

“Lisa the Vegetarian” (Season 7, Episode 5) starts with the family visiting a depressing amusement park called Storytown Village. After perusing the park’s lackluster attractions, the family visits the petting zoo, where Lisa plays with an adorable lamb. At dinner that night, Marge serves the family lamb, and Lisa imagines the lamb manifesting over her food. “Please, Lisa, I thought you loved me!” She pushes away her food and declares, “I can’t eat any [animal].” She has trouble dissecting a worm in class and finding something eat in the school’s cafeteria, forcing the school to show a filmstrip ridiculing Lisa’s vegetarian beliefs. The filmstrip says, in regards to vegetarianism, “Your friend hasn’t heard of ‘The Food Chain.’” Meanwhile, Homer plans a bar-be-que so everyone in town will like him. Lisa asks if he could not serve meat. He refuses, singing, “You don’t win friends with salad.” Lisa steals his centerpiece, a roasting pig on a spit, and destroys it. The children at school call her “lettuce head” and claim she is going to marry a carrot. Lisa finds solace in Apu, and Paul and Linda McCartney. They show her there are other vegetarians out there, but you can’t force your beliefs on others. Lisa and Homer repair their relationship, and Lisa remains a vegetarian for the rest of the series.

This episode of The Simpsons shows people that vegetarianism is a real, acceptable moral decision. Being a vegetarian is hard for Lisa; her family can’t accept it, her schoolmates make fun of her, the school administration shows propaganda films deriding her, and the even the city itself seems to be against her (a sign on at Krusty Burger says, “Try our new beef-flavored chicken!”). Even though everyone seems against her, she still finds camaraderie with some other vegetarians. Those who choose not to murder an animal for sustenance may not be able to find local people to bond with, but they can find a friend in Lisa Simpson.

That’s the thing about The Simpsons. It doesn’t just “break down barriers” – it shatters them. It seems like a little cartoon show about some random family in some random town, but it’s really about everything – including food. This is where I first thought about corporate farming and how corporations use food addiction to sell their products. This is where I figured out exactly what being a “vegetarian” meant. Before “Lisa the Vegetarian” I thought vegetarians didn’t eat any food whatsoever. It’s not a perfect show. In “King Size Homer” (Season 7, Episode 7), Homer Simpson gains over a hundred pounds so he can get disability, but his gargantuan weight saves the city when the nuclear plant is threatened with a meltdown. It ends with Mr. Burns paying for Homer’s liposuction as thanks for saving the power plant. The episode’s message is confusing. It portrays purposeful, pointless weight gain as dangerous, but it’s Homer’s extreme obesity that saves the city. The show always tries to have a positive message, and scientific journals aren’t perfect either. When someone sits down and watches an episode, they may expect a half-hour of mindless entertainment, but what they’re actually getting is smart satire with a message. The Simpsons can teach a large population about everything, or at the very least, get them to think about it. Just thinking about a controversial topic is the first barrier.

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