What I learned about masculinity and fatherhood from ‘The Simpsons’

Homer and the men of Springfield taught me what not to be

Pointing out Bart Simpson on a mural at Springfield, U.S.A., a section of the Universal Studios Florida theme park in Orlando dedicated to "The Simpsons." (Luke Sharrett/For The Washington Post)
7 min

My earliest memory of “The Simpsons” dates to when I was in the fourth grade. My parents had determined that my little sister and I were still too young to digest the show’s mature themes. My older brother, however, often watched it in our living room after school. It was his practice to sit in a chair borrowed from the kitchen table, with the doors of the family television cabinet opened just wide enough to accommodate his field of view.

As a curious youngster, I schemed to come up with ways to partake in the forbidden cartoon. Once I hid myself under the couch in an attempt to sneak a peek; I was quickly caught by my mom. Then one day in 1999, it came to me. I approached my dad and asked if we could watch together. I proposed that after each episode, we could talk about all the things that were “wrong” with the show. To my surprise, he agreed.

The father-son conversations analyzing the show’s supposed moral failings somehow never materialized: My dad and I were too busy laughing, often to the point of tears, at the show’s sidesplitting humor.

More than two decades after viewing that first episode of “The Simpsons,” I find myself reflecting upon the thing that has brought the most meaning and purpose to my life: fatherhood. I am the father of two young boys. Last year, I wandered around the Universal Studios theme parks in both Florida and California, taking snapshots in Springfield, U.S.A. I chose to use a disposable 35mm camera, a mainstay of amateur photography in the 1990s, to capture characters from a television show that rose to prominence in the same decade. As I framed some of Springfield’s most beloved characters and landmarks through the camera’s tiny viewfinder, I saw a potential version of myself in the comically warped subjects I photographed. Studying them, I asked myself: What type of man should I be? One that my sons aspire to emulate, despite my human flaws.

By and large, the men of Springfield are lazy and incompetent — most of all Chief Wiggum, who is more interested in securing his next dozen Lard Lad doughnuts than he is in protecting or serving the citizenry. Many other characters find a second home at Moe’s Tavern, a depository for the town’s directionless men. Lenny and Carl, two of Homer’s colleagues at the nuclear plant, do little more than work and drink. Barney, the town drunk, practically lives at Moe’s, emerging from the bar’s restroom wearing a bath towel and brushing his teeth in one episode. All the while, the bar’s owner and cantankerous namesake, Moe Szyslak, enables the squandering of his clientele’s potential. With every flush of the tavern urinal, the time, money and energy of its patrons flow down the drain.

But no male resident of Springfield is quite as contemptible as Homer Simpson. He is a paragon of foolishness, incompetence and arrogance. He is unenlightened about his children’s friends, hobbies and emotional needs. He is either ignorant or, worse, apathetic about the stress that his antics place on his long-suffering, anxiety-riddled, blue-haired wife, Marge. He is brash and boorish, selfish and stupid. Frustratingly, he never seems to learn the lessons that his costly mistakes stand to teach him. And he avoids at all costs the three things that would help him become an effective father and husband: responsibility, leadership and hard work.

Even at his best, Homer is merely a lovable oaf. At his worst, he embodies the shamefully low expectations that our society places on men. His ineptitude doesn’t just affect himself and his immediate family; the very survival of Springfield depends on his questionable competence. After all, Homer is the safety inspector in Sector 7G at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Fans of the show have probably lost count of how many times some doomsday scenario has nearly come to pass because of Homer’s stupidity.

So whom are the young boys of Springfield supposed to emulate? Certainly not their buffoonish, detached fathers. Bart, Homer’s back-talking son, exhibits a lack of respect for every male authority figure in his life. With a dad like Homer, who can blame him? Instead of putting his youthful energy and intelligence to good use, Bart spends his time skateboarding, pulling pranks and scrawling his graffiti moniker, El Barto, around town.

Bart’s best friend, Millhouse Van Houten, is similarly lacking in fatherly support. His cowardice and lack of purpose in life directly mirror those of his father, Kirk. Much to the detriment of his marriage, Kirk is desperate for the approval of his wife and his son. He is truly a pathetic vision of masculinity. The show’s writers make it painfully clear that Millhouse is practically doomed to repeat the mistakes of his father. On the other side of the coin, Nelson Muntz, the school bully, suffers for lack of a meaningful father figure in his life. Having been more or less abandoned by his dad at a young age, Nelson uses strong-arm tactics to get what he wants on the playground and shoplifts whatever his heart desires from the Kwik-E-Mart.

On the surface, the high jinks of America’s favorite animated family seem to send a clear message: Father knows worst. Yet the more I think about show’s lack of male role models, the more I think that having a vision of masculinity to run from can be just as helpful as having one to aim toward. The frailty of Springfield’s men is made obvious in the absurd. Each time the men of “The Simpsons” grace our television sets is an opportunity to ask ourselves: For the sake of my wife, my children, my community and myself, what kind of man am I going to be?

Before I know it, my sons will be old enough to partake in their first episode of “The Simpsons.” When that day comes, we will make a bowl of popcorn and settle down on the couch together, watching as the clouds part and angelic voices sing the opening theme. As we sit and laugh together, bonding over the same flawed but lovable characters that their grandfather and I did, I hope my boys won’t be able to identify a caricature of me in Springfield. I hope they won’t find something familiar about the cartoon men who eat to excess, shirk responsibility, back down from a challenge or explode in rage at their loved ones.

I hope they will instead laugh and internalize what “The Simpsons” is trying to teach them — and see what it has taught me. When I watch “The Simpsons,” I’m reminded that I have the power to break a generational curse that has been passed down through my family for more than a century. I’m not doomed to settle for an emotionally distant relationship between father and son. My relationships don’t have to look like the ones Homer has with Grampa and with Bart. Though it will require work and intentional action, my vision is to become more and more like a man worth emulating.

I will strive to be a man of integrity, courage and discipline. I will strive, that is, to be everything that Homer Simpson is not.