It’s hard to find criticism that considers such shows as The Simpsons and The Family Guy as cultural artifacts worthy of serious study. And yet many children do pay attention to the social landscape of these shows. Here’s a quote from one young viewer of The Simpsons: “Although TV fathers are unrealistic, my Dad is more like Homer Simpson—trying to understand me even if we’re worlds apart. I love the fact that he tries” –Mia, Age 12 (from Perceptions of Fathers in the Media: In Search of the Ideal Father, companion DVD).
The focus of this MediaLit Moment is a scene from The Simpsons Movie which highlights the father-son relationship between Bart and Homer Simpson. Our appreciation of the relationship between these characters is complicated by the fact that they appear in an animated comedy—a cartoon. They’re having a great deal of fun, but their rough play is so dangerous that no viewer in their right mind would ever “try this at home.” If the scene is to be taken at all seriously, a viewer of any age might ask, “Is Homer a responsible Dad?”
In this MediaLit Moment, your students will have the chance to explore varied and even conflicting reactions to an animated sequence. They’ll be able to more fully study the generic conventions of cartoons; and, of course, they’ll have an opportunity to apply Key Questions and Core Concepts of media literacy to the characters they see on the small screen.
This lesson is adapted with permission from “The Error of Our Ways,” a lesson by Dr. Janice Kelly from Perceptions of Fathers in the Media: In Search of the Ideal Father, a curriculum created by staff of the New York State Fatherhood Initiative and published by the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
Have students answer questions to stimulate their moral imagination about the family relationships in an animated feature, and relate their discussions to Core Concepts/Key Questions #2 – 3.
AHA!: It’s not so easy to say if Homer Simpson is a positive portrayal of a Dad when he’s a cartoon!
Key Question #3: How might different people understand this message differently?
Core Concept #3: Different people experience the same media message differently.
Key Question #2: What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
Core Concept #2: Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
Grade Level: 6-8
Materials: DVD of The Simpsons Movie and DVD player.
The sequence in question shows Homer and Bart on the roof of the family home. On a dare, Bart climbs up to the top of the TV antenna while Homer attempts to shake him down. Bart rolls down the roof and is left hanging onto the rain gutter when Flanders, the next door neighbor, asks Homer if Bart might become a “paraplegarino” if he falls.
Activity: Begin by asking students for their initial reactions. Next, ask if they think Homer is behaving in a fun or irresponsible manner. This discussion should last no more than a few minutes, but do draw attention to the differences in their reactions to “prime” them for a later discussion of audience and Core Concept #3. In this activity, students will study this sequence from a few different angles.
Ask the class to form groups of three to four students which will complete one of three tasks:
1) Ask students to compare other TV/Movie father-son relationships. Have them make a list of TV fathers (and sons) and poll members of their groups to find out which fathers are most appealing to them and why. What do they like or dislike about the father-son relationship of Homer and Bart Simpson? Is there any difference of opinion between group members as they answer these questions? If so, can they explain why they feel the way they do? In addition to asking students to spend time evaluating what they like or dislike about the relationship between Homer and Bart, this task asks students to focus on Core Concept #3 (Different people experience the same media message differently). As they poll each other and discover differences of opinion, they may also become aware that they are attracted to different kinds of characters or relationships for different reasons.
2) Have students write a short scenario in which the elements of the sequence from the Simpsons Movie are played out as an action movie. Just like the Simpsons sequence, one character is shaken off of a TV antenna, and one character falls through the roof. Alternatively, students can write a real-life scenario utilizing the same basic elements. The purpose of this task is for students to understand that audience expectations are different from genre to genre. In an action movie, people get hurt more easily, and a scene on a roof suggests a lot of tension. In a real-life scenario, falling through the roof would count as a tragedy. If students spend a little time thinking about the fact that animation is a genre to itself, they should have an easier time thinking about the combination of danger and play in the original scene. This task is most closely tied to Core Concept #2: Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
3) Ask students to discuss their reactions to Flanders, the next door neighbor. Is he right to be concerned? Do they think he’s nosy? Are there any differences of opinion about Flanders within the group? Also, what reaction do they think that the creators of the movie hoped to generate from the audience by playing Bart and Homer against Flanders in this scene? This task addresses Key Question #2 as well as Core Concept #3. As with the groups tackling the first task, students may discover that they react differently to different characters for different reasons. The question about creative choices hinges on Key Question #2, “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?” While an animated feature automatically evokes certain expectations from the audience, the producers of this movie are also working actively to shape the response of the audience as well. Allow students up to fifteen minutes to complete their tasks, as writing a complete scenario might take a little time.
Finally, lead a whole class discussion in which students draw from their new knowledge and perspectives to answer the question of whether Homer was having good, clean, fatherly fun with Bart or whether he really should have avoided putting his son’s life in danger. While discussion should focus on the sequence, do allow them to draw on their knowledge of Homer from other Simpsons episodes that they may have viewed. In leading the discussion, look for opportunities to help students become aware of the interplay between their reactions to the scene and the reactions--most often the “laughs”--that the producers were hoping to draw out of them.
In some respects, the students who completed Task #1 are the moral arbiters for the rest of the class. You may want to ask them to lead a discussion of the general characteristics of what they consider to be good parenting as they talk about the relationship between Bart and Homer. As they note differences of opinion, they should keep in mind CC/KQ #3.
With students who have completed Task #2, discuss the fact that different genres (or types) of media often follow different rules in stories where dangerous situations are involved (KQ#2). You may also want to point out that cartoons often include incidents of “happy violence.” Those incidents grab the attention of viewers, and the lack of serious consequences makes it possible for audiences to laugh “off” several incidents in a single sequence.
In discussing the sequence with the students who completed Task #3, you may want to ask students for their character assessments of Bart, Homer and Flanders together. Flanders is generally one of the “wimpier” characters on the show, so asking this question may trigger a discussion about masculinity. If that happens, continue to focus on Core Concept #2 by asking what reactions they think the creators of the show hope to generate from audiences by creating different kinds of male characters.
Extended Activity: Start planning a longer term project on fathers as they appear in different media genres and ask students to take notes and/or collect short samples. Ask questions as students gather their collection of media Dads. Who are the advertisers for the shows on which they appear? What kind of audience do they think each show or movie appeals to? What patterns do they see in similar media genres? Do any of these things help them predict the kind of father character they’re likely to encounter in each new media sample?
The Five Core Concepts and Five Key Questions of media literacy were developed as part of the Center for Media Literacy’s MediaLit Kit™ and Questions/TIPS (Q/TIPS)™ framework. Used with permission, © 2002-2010, Center for Media Literacy, http://www.medialit.com