Compare & Contrast: Marge and Other Women

“Pleased to meet you.  You look like such a happy bunch . . . of people.” – Marge Simpson

In film criticism there is a concept known as the “Bechdel Test”, which is a kind of quick and dirty measurement of whether or not a movie has any female characters that rise above the level of tokenism or decoration.  There are a few variations, but the basic concept is that there needs to be at least one conversation between two named, female characters that isn’t about a male.  I was thinking about this during one of the many scenes where Marge and the three other moms sit and exposit at each other, and it dawned on me that of the four of them, only Marge actually had a name.  Oh sure, Marge mentions “Anita’s family” when talking to Homer, but we have no idea which one is Anita; the name is never used when any of them are actually on screen.  Maybe they’re all named Anita.

Marge and the AnitasFrom left to right: Marge, Anita?, Anita?, Anita?.

None of the husbands or the kids had names either, but they weren’t the focus of what was supposed to be the main story, and they did get at least some individual attention.  The fifth grade kid introduced the episode, and the sandy haired husband rode Homer’s case far more than the other two.  It wasn’t much, but you could get a slight feel for who they were supposed to be.

Not so with the three women whose interactions with Marge were ostensibly the central plot.  We never see the Anitas do anything other than gab with Marge.  We don’t know what they do, we never see only one of them interact with Marge (or anyone else).  They just show up on screen like some kind of inseparable three headed creature with one collective mind.  They have no individual personality whatsoever.

Compare that to the rich women at Springfield Glen Country Club.  For starters, they have names!  And not just any names, elaborately pronounced rich people names that require delicate tonal inflection, precise vowel control, and extra syllables.

Marge and the Rich WomenFrom left to right: Su-san, Gillian, Patri-cia, Eliza-beth, Robert-a, Marge, and Evelyn.

A Rich Woman Named Evelyn More important than the fact that they passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors, they actually have character.  We start by meeting Evelyn, who remembers Marge from high school even though they “ran with different crowds”.  Evelyn herself isn’t all that special in her crowd, but she is the one who introduces Marge to the world of elegance and respectability.  Thus, Evelyn has a motivation – a word Zombie Simpsons is very uncomfortable with – to see Marge succeed in the group, because if Marge fails by being too boorish or unsophisticated, Evelyn also fails for misjudging her.  We even see the payoff for this when she lays it on thick with Marge, “And I just know you’ll have a lovely new outfit!”.  That’s what’s known as an iron fist in a velvet glove, on the outside she’s all sweetness and encouragement, but Marge gets the real message loud and clear: if you want to be one of us, you can’t keep wearing the same thing.  Not only does this show us who Evelyn is, it has the added effect of driving the plot.  Evelyn’s warning sends Marge scurrying, first back to her sewing machine, then to her sisters’ place, then on a return trip to the outlet mall in hopes of another miracle.

A Rich Woman Named Susan Then there’s Su-san, the acid tongued queen of the country club (who is never without a drink).  We know right away that she’s important; she’s introduced last, and then immediately gets in the biting line, “That’s the trouble with first impressions, you only get to make one.”  Both Marge and the audience understand instantly that she can see right through that stylish Chanel suit to the beat up car in the parking lot and all the poverty Marge is trying so desperately to hide.  We understand, or at least we think we understand, her motivations (there’s that word again) without any further explanation: she is keen to keep the hoi polloi out of her rarified world.

There you have it, in just two scenes, at the gas station and then at the country club, we’ve established two named characters who will spend the rest of the episode interacting with Marge in ways that actually affect her actions and move main story forward.  Nor are they just sitting around the whole time, they play cards and croquet; they throw Marge a membership party. 

And then, of course, there are the respective endings.  In “Moms I’d Like to Forget”, Zombie Simpsons just decides to up and end things with Marge suddenly getting defensive about her family.  While this is something we’ve seen Marge do in previous episodes, it’s not something Marge had talked about or expressed at all in this story.  The closest we get to any kind of motivation for her outburst is one line of voiceover exposition (“but they were a bad influence on you”) way back when Marge was first describing them to Bart in the bathroom.  Subsequently, the audience sees the other kids getting Bart to do things he ordinarily might not do, but Marge never sees any of that.  Bart doesn’t describe it to her when they’re talking in the garage, we don’t even see her disappointment in the influence of the other boys during Comic Book Guy’s two minute flashback.  This is, once again, Fiction 101: your characters do not know everything that you know.

Far worse, though, is that Marge gives up on being friends with these women instantly.  She never tries to please or placate them, she never tries to show them that it is their sons, not hers, who are the real troublemakers.  In “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield”, Marge finally realizes that she will never be one of the blue bloods.  But she doesn’t just up and do it with no prompting, she has to go through all those awkward interactions at the club, she has to get angry at her family for being themselves, in desperation she even blows their savings on that retail Chanel dress.  All of her actions are what give the ending its meaning, which makes the comedic payoff of Su-san and Evelyn actually accepting her (“I hope she didn’t take my attempt to destroy her too seriously”) and offering her membership all the better.

“Moms I’d Like to Forget” could’ve done something similar.  Marge could’ve seen that the other boys were a bad influence on Bart and ignored it at first because she was so happy to finally have a social life.  Once she could no longer deny it, she could’ve then tried to show the other moms what was really happening, and if they still rejected her or refused to believe her, she would’ve had a real reason to dump them again.  In short, she could’ve had a real story arc, like she did in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield”.  Instead, we got an amorphous, three headed “Anita” with no personality, no character, and no motivation as a lifeless backdrop for Marge being happy and then abruptly deciding she wasn’t. 

14 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Marge and Other Women”

  1. 1 John
    11 January 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Tl;dr the quality of writing for The Simpsons has declined over time.

    • 2 Cassidy
      11 January 2011 at 3:16 pm

      tl;dr version is boring. I like the original analysis better.

      Seriously, this is a great post. Great compare and contrast on the episodes.

      • 3 John
        11 January 2011 at 3:18 pm

        it’s just hard to compare anything recent to an episode like “scenes from the class war…” It achieved many things for both the show and for comedy. I love this blog and meant nothing mean by it.

  2. 4 Lovejoy Fan
    11 January 2011 at 4:59 pm

    This is just an amazing post, and so damn accurate too. In fact, I had the same problem with it; only instead of thinking of the women from “Scenes from a class struggle…” I was actually thinking of Ruth Powers.

    Ruth is another friend of Marge’s, like the women in this latest episode are supposed to be. However, she doesn’t just sit there; she’s a pretty active character, keeps the story going and has some great scenes with Marge which don’t need to bring in lesbian love scenes. Heck, even in “New Kid on the Block”, when the episode was really focused on her daughter, she was more of a character than these women.

    But, to be honest, you guys made a better comparison. Ruth was, after all, one character; these women were a group.

  3. 5 Patrick
    11 January 2011 at 8:15 pm

    I knew a C&C would be made keep them up :D

  4. 6 Ryan
    12 January 2011 at 2:26 am

    I’ve never seen any episode of The Simpsons the past couple of seasons. All I know about the episodes is what you post, and it makes me physically ill. I’m not kidding – when I read your deconstructions about how bland and cheap the show is, it actually makes me sick.

    • 7 Ryan
      12 January 2011 at 2:31 am

      I think I need to stress my point more; I don’t care how nerdy it makes me sound. The fact that these women don’t even have names or personalities but are apparently a major part of the “plot” really makes me ill. How the fuck do people still think the Scully years are worse? I’m afraid to watch these episodes just to see if they’re as bad as you say they are.

  5. 8 Blue
    12 January 2011 at 7:44 am

    I wonder what has gotten bastardized worse in terms of writing, the Star Wars prequels or season 9 onwards of The Simpsons? I only bring it up because a lot of points you bring up here sound a lot like what http://www.redlettermedia.com/ had to say about Episodes 1-3.

    On an unrelated note how far fetched would it be for you to write an article on The Simpsons arcade game? Have you ever played it? It’s considered the best Simpsons game and I’d really like to know your opinion on it.

    • 12 January 2011 at 8:17 am

      You are not alone in your comparison with the Prequels. Al Jean epitomizes the negative side of George Lucas (once great writer now so consumed by one thing that has lost all postive aspects).

    • 10 Charlie Sweatpants
      12 January 2011 at 12:28 pm

      I enjoyed the Red Letter Media Star Wars reviews, and I’m flattered by the comparison, but these kinds of criticisms apply to pretty much any franchise that lingers around too long, whether it’s books, movies, or television shows. At some point, almost everything decomposes into fan service at the lowest common denominator, and once that happens everything else (story, character development, things making any sense at all) becomes an afterthought.

      For the prequels it was lightsaber fights and computer graphics, for Zombie Simpsons it’s celebrity voices, pop culture references, and Homer getting hurt, but the number of franchises where a similar watering down happens, in sequels, spinoffs or just later seasons, are too numerous to list. “Saw” isn’t about super elaborate traps, but that’s what people liked so that’s what the sequels are about. CSI was a run of the mill cop show with a gimmick, but people really dug the gimmick, and now there are two other series and a ton of imitators. Clive Cussler wrote so many Dirk Pitt novels that even my grandmother eventually got tired of them, but they still sell. This sort of thing has been happening since the dawn of modern pop culture in the 1920s and 30s (Three Stooges, anyone?), and it’ll probably continue for a long time.

      As for the arcade game, I have played it, though that was back when it was still actually in arcades. I don’t think I ever got past about level three or so (where kids too young to have jobs kept getting all those quarters remains a mystery to me), but it was fun and it had a few jokes. I’m not sure what there really is to write about it, though I guess I could get a port of it and take a look. There were a lot of those two-and-a-half dimensional side scrolling games at the time, that’s just kind of where the technology was, and I think it was probably better than most, but as a video game it wasn’t anything special. There was a Ninja Turtles game that was almost exactly the same that was about as popular, but no one talks about it or rewrites it for the iPhone because “Turtles” isn’t as big a franchise these days.

      • 12 January 2011 at 5:50 pm

        Little known fact…the Simpsons Arcade Game and TMNT IV: Turtles in time were the both Konami games and they were (programming wise) the same game, but one had Simpsons Graphics and the other TMNT graphics.

      • 12 sVybDy
        15 January 2011 at 12:29 am

        Actually, Turtles in Time was remade for the Xbox 360. Of course the series isn’t as popular as Zombie Simpsons, but the early games have stood the test of time equally well. There never has been a true port of The Simpsons arcade game, although a crappy DOS version came out sometime in the early 90s. Though you can emulate the real deal with MAME; it’s the best and only way to play it.

        The iPhone game is actually an “all-new” game in the way that Zombie Simpsons are new Simpsons episodes. A lame, copycat plot, tired ideas and a story resolution that they didn’t bother to think all the way through.

        And there are those who will argue that The Simpsons arcade game has long been surpassed, usually either by The Simpsons Hit & Run (an argument I support) or the lazily-titled “The Simpsons Game” (which I only played the free demo of and was not impressed by.)

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