Classic Simpsons Reviews: “Bart the General” critiques the excesses of militarism *and* pacifism.

1.5 “Bart the General”

Bart gets beaten up by the school bully, Nelson Muntz, and wages an all out war against him.

Yeardley Smith (Lisa) is something of a one-trick pony on this show, but it’s one hell of a trick. The way she sweetens her voice as Lisa extracts compliments out of Bart only to give him a floor cupcake when his eyes are closed is hilarious. The know-it-all activist isn’t an easy archetype to make funny without also making it a strawman, and yet whatever note Lisa needs to hit, Smith nails it with just the right amount of realness.

There’s a great moment when Nelson sees his blood drawn by Bart after their first encounter, and we get a long shot of all the kids with grass blowing in the foreground, High Noon style. Bart says, “Uh oh, a cold wind.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 3.13.58 PM

The self-aware commentary on storytelling conventions in animation today owes a lot to early Simpsons.

Nelson says, “I’ll get you after school,” and Principal Skinner dismisses the comment entirely. It’s a great satire of the obliviousness of school authority figures, and one I know all too well from childhood. “It’s your word against his” was awfully hard to swallow coming from supervisors who clearly just didn’t want the trouble of having to take action.

If you’re reading this, hi, Mrs. Callaghan. 😘

Bart comes home visibly injured from his beating at the hands of Nelson and says, “Let’s just say I paid the inevitable price for helping out my sister.” There are few things in society that genuinely suck about being a man; this is one of them. We learn far too early that toxic masculinity and honour are a violent cocktail.

The underlying misogyny of the ‘defending the fragile woman’ trope isn’t to be ignored either, mind you. Everything that sucks about being a man has a direct line to the misogynist devaluation of the feminine, not that this reduces the suckage.

The writers re-create the iconic V-Day image while asking the age-old question, “Hey remember boundaries?”

Homer dismisses Bart’s getting beat up as a “scuffle” and champions the code of the schoolyard which, fuck you, you’re part of the problem. Fortunately the episode is critical of that position. It’s funny how we find nice words like “scuffle” to ignore that assault can, in fact, happen to a child, and often does.

Bart’s dream isn’t different from what I used to envision as a result of ‘harmless’ scuffles. Oh and I guess cupcakes represent peace in this episode.

Where “Bart the General” soars, for me, is in Marge’s insistence that Bart reason with his bully, which is quickly dismissed as ridiculous. The writers are equally as critical of Marge’s position as they are of Homer’s.

This is important – because abusers don’t need to be reasoned with, they need to be STOPPED.

I was bullied in school for a decade and there was one occasion, and only one, where it was actually curbed. I snapped and hit one of my bullies over the head with a tin can until they bled so much, they required stitches. Neither he nor his friends touched me after that.

Sorry, bleeding hearts. I voted NDP too, but you weren’t there, and nothing else actually worked.

(A few years later I had a friend twice my size. That helped, too. If you’re reading this, hi, Paul Pagé. 😘) [Sincerely this time. My PTSD would be worse if not for him.]

And it’s not like “Bart the General” refuses to critique blithe militarism, either. I love Grandpa’s line when Bart is abusing one of his soldiers, “You can push ‘em out of a plane. You can march ‘em off a cliff. You can send ‘em off to die on some God forsaken rock. But for some reason, you can’t slap ‘em.”

A great image, and it’s good that the writers double back a bit once it gets to this point.

The commentary in this episode manages to be spot-on tough and reasonable. It criticizes those who rush to violence as the only mechanism of conflict resolution, while also criticizing those who refuse to acknowledge when pacification through force is the only reasonable course of action. (I do take umbrage with how they gender this message, though)

I particularly like the writers’ choice to have Bart’s army spare the kids who were only following Nelson’s orders out of fear for their own safety. Humane violence is a contradiction, but guess what, life is a fucking contradiction.

It’s on the idealistic side, but then is it? This happens because direct, aggressive action is taken against a bully.

Best Moment: The war-happy Herman’s introduction.

Any moment with Herman, really.

Best Quote: “You made me bleed my own blood…” -Nelson Muntz (I may have quoted this line more than any other Simpsons line.)

Sap alert! This episode made Taylor cry. For some reason Bart’s epilogue saying there are no good wars and that war isn’t glamorous did it for me. It’s the perfect button on a remarkably nuanced critique of war and schoolyard politics.

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