2.9 Itchy & Scratchy & Marge
[CW: Non-graphic discussion of physical & sexual violence]
When Maggie hits Homer over the head with a mallet, evidently mimicking the Itchy & Scratchy show, Marge demands the cartoon either be changed or taken off the air.
This episode was one of those heroic anti-censorship messages in the early nineties, when U.S. Senators were targeting cartoon violence and video games as having a bad influence on children.
And “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” does make good points about censorship and the mob mentality that comes with it. There are a lot of laughs here, as there are in most episodes at this point.
Where I object is in how the message is gendered, and how the writers’ attitude toward cartoon violence seems to be that it’s qualitatively harmless.
First, that a male-dominated group of writers would choose a woman as the overbearing pro-censorship character is unsurprising. It’s all women who are censor-happy killjoys in this episode. After Marge with Itchy & Scratchy it’s Helen Lovejoy and Maude Flanders with Michelangelo’s David.
Having the censorship movement be female-dominated is an absurd choice, considering that in real life, the politicians making censorship laws and the executives adhering to them are mostly male. But that’s men for you; always blaming the problems created by men on women.
The writers have Marge’s participation in a social cause result in the family getting crappy TV dinners and Homer saying, “I had to marry Jane Fonda.” Incidentally, this ‘degradation of the home’ trope was the central argument used by the anti-suffrage movement in the late 1800s and early 1900’s.
Why the writers stress the libertarian primacy of individual choice in this episode for everyone but Marge is an interesting question.
The writers go full strawman with Marge, too, giving her no real argument to go on, and having her perform terribly in a televised debate.
As for the “cartoon violence is harmless” message, let’s look at some facts:
Field experiments have consistently shown that aggressive behaviours do increase in youth after watching violent cartoons. This includes physically aggressive behaviours and socially aggressive behaviours, such as excluding other kids.
That being said, active mediation before or during viewing of violent cartoons (as well as any live programming) is shown to all but negate any increase in aggressive behaviour (see previous link). The younger the kid, the more effective active mediation is, particularly when the child is specifically told to consider the feelings of the victim of violence. The older the kid, the more likely active mediation is to backfire.
Studies also show that “students who play more violent video games are more likely to be involved in physical fights or get into arguments with teachers [more] frequently.”
There is even evidence that sexist jokes (which this episode is guilty of) can lead to an increase in “[male] self-reported propensity to commit rape.”
So the stance of “Cartoon violence is just harmless fun” taken by the Simpsons’ writers is just empirically wrong. Sorry. The most brilliant people in the universe are gonna have a few shit arguments in them. Settle down.
By having the townspeople want to censor Michelangelo’s David, the writers are asking how we can be against one form of artistic expression but not another. Well, here’s how: Unsupervised cartoon violence causes violence. Unsupervised viewing of Michelangelo’s David doesn’t.
(If anyone wants to fact check me on Michelangelo, go right ahead.)
The research I’ve cited is from the last decade, so the writers didn’t have all the tools to know they were wrong in 1990, but they were.
In the three decades I’ve been alive, western thought has been developing an increasingly individualistic, libertarian view, wherein criticism and philosophical restraint is perceived by the anti-PC movement as a threat to individual choice. While there is an emphasis on logic and reason over emotion, evidence of the kind I’ve provided that humans are living sponges is dismissed with emotional fervour.
Particularly from a young age, literally everything we see is an instructional. Of course we shouldn’t censor and coddle everything, but the need for filters and controls, like it or not, is based on evidence.
Many people (men particularly) tend to frame the emotional defensiveness they feel around the media they consume as being objective and logical; anyone with an evidence-based objection to their preferred media must be the irrational one, because reasons. They cling to their violent video games and sexist TV shows, and, like the writers’ view of Marge in “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” see people like Anita Sarkeesian as extensions of their mommies who oppressed them by telling them to play outside or read a book for a few hours. Criticisms of the things they enjoy can’t simply be criticisms, but threats to their very freedom of expression.
The libertarian view is of the self as being inherently full of objective filters, and the “other” as being prone to conditioning. I’m reminded of the phenomenon wherein many secularists will view violence in scripture as being instructional and dangerous, but then dismiss the more sensory and viewer-directed violence in their preferred media as being symbolic and benign, despite evidence to the contrary, while also defending their preferred media with all the fervour of a religious fundamentalist.
For the libertarian, one’s own choices are isolated, personal choices with no impact on behaviour; the choices of the “other,” however, are societal, and carry the potential of indoctrination.
“Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” has been a jumping off point for this digression. While the episode is guilty of muddying the difference between criticism and censorship, I am a hundred percent behind the anti-censorship part of its message. It’s unfair and irresponsible to censor someone’s life’s work when simply participating in each other’s viewing habits can fully negate any adverse impact. By rejecting the more extreme tenets of individualism and adopting a more communal perspective, we can be more accepting of the excesses of certain art forms, while ultimately reigning in those excesses through analysis and choice rather than through force.
It would be more helpful and evidence-based to have a message that goes something like: “It isn’t necessary that we censor violence, but for Christ’s sake talk to your children about what they’re watching, preferably before they’re Hogwarts age.”
I also like the message at the end that while forcing kids not to watch their favourite cartoons is problematic, forcing kids to take in high art on school field trips is probably a good trade-off.
In conclusion: Dear Parents, the “PG” in PG-13 stands for “parental guidance,” and, as a form of art criticism, it’s scientifically necessary that parents actually guide.
You…don’t hate science, do you?
Best Moment: Itchy & Scratchy being nice and loving in a cartoon. (It’s enough to make you want to re-watch the complete Tom & Jerry series.)
Best Quote: “I guess one person can make a difference. But most of the time they probably shouldn’t.” -Marge (Eff me sideways that’s a brilliant line.)