Thirty years ago this month, America’s favorite animated family made their debut as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. To celebrate, CoS will be broadcasting live from Springfield all week with a slew of Simpsons features. Today, Jody Amable looks back at two revealing episodes that hint that The Simpsons was more progressive than we often think.
As with all Simpsons episodes, it happens through a preposterous chain of events.
In its very first season, there’s an episode near the end called “Homer’s Night Out”. Bart orders a spy camera from the back of a comic book. Armed with it one night, he runs into Homer, who is out at his coworker’s bachelor party. Bart snaps a photo of his old man dancing on a table with the evening’s entertainment, Princess Kashmir. The photo travels through the back channels of Springfield and eventually to Marge. She insists that Homer take his son to meet her and see that she’s a real person. He finds her waiting to perform at The Sapphire Lounge. Her name is Shawna Tifton, and her turn-ons include silk sheets and a warm fireplace.
And suddenly, the curtain goes up. Homer’s caught in the act — again. Egged on by the audience, he’s about to reprise his role as Springfield’s party animal, but he catches a familiar tower of hair in the audience. This culminates in his famous monologue: “They are not mere objects with curves that make us crazy. They are our wives. They are our daughters.”
Socially speaking, it was a pretty bold move for the time.
When “Homer’s Night Out” aired in 1990, America was just coming off the Budweiser girl, Van Halen-groupie decade — the lull between feminist waves and the inevitable backslide that comes with it. Strides had been made since Betty Friedan lead 20,000 down Fifth Avenue for workplace equality in 1970, but progress in achieving equal pay had started slowing by the ‘90s. The pay gap was still 36 cents, as compared to today’s 17. Sexual harassment was rampant in workplaces. Fox, The Simpsons’ home, established itself in 1985 as a new network with an unapologetic, un-PC lean: It kicked off with a talk show hosted by noted loudmouth Joan Rivers and, by 1990, had Al Bundy seeking refuge in the local “nudie bar” on Married… With Children.
Stripping, as today, was largely seen as lowly, with the performers thought of as desperate or damaged. But patrons were catered to like kings, with clubs undergoing transformation from cheeky bachelor hangouts to luxurious gentlemen’s clubs at the dawn of the ‘90s. Granted, The Simpsons is set in a sanitized, tongue-in-cheek world, so Princess Kashmir is wearing more than most people do to the beach. But she’s the closest thing Springfield has to a stripper, and for Homer to assert that she and her fellow showgirls are more than just bodies in bikinis, and for Marge to trust that they might not be vain airheads with no other skills to offer, was shockingly progressive.
The Simpsons doesn’t speak much of strippers in the 20-plus years that follow, but the willingness to approach strippers, burlesque performers, and exotic dancers as people as expressed in “Homer’s Night Out” appears again in 1996’s “Bart After Dark”. After Milhouse accidentally flies his toy airplane into the creepy house down the block and Bart breaks a statue on the grounds in the process of retrieving it, Bart’s tasked with helping the house’s owner to make up the cost. He soon learns why he wasn’t allowed to go near it all these years: It’s Springfield’s own strip joint, the Maison Derriere.
Moral panic takes hold when the town finds out that a child is employed there, and threats of demolition are made. But just as the angry mob approaches, flaming pitchforks at the ready, Homer implores them all to face their hypocrisy … in song.
It turns out that damn near everyone in Springfield has paid a visit to the Maison at least once in their lives. They realize that their town can — nay, can only — function perfectly well with a strip club in the center of it.
Feminist beliefs have evolved since Homer took a stand while surrounded by scantily-clad showgirls. The last notable feminist wave at that time opposed objectification in all forms, and with the country still a few years away from riot grrrls and all the empowerment they brought with them, it was all the more impressive that Homer sides with Steinem and company. Now, certain schools of feminist thought believe that stripping and other sex work can coexist with empowerment.
The playing field is more even these days — burlesque troupes around the country employ plenty of men and gender non-conforming folks, and, well, Magic Mike was based on a true story. As more and more people take up work as exotic dancers, more and more believe that so long as no one is being coerced into it, stripping remains the performer’s choice. To say that women can’t or shouldn’t be strippers takes away their agency. Homer doesn’t get into that, but he does start down that path by asking us to think more about who these women are and why they do what they do.
This is not to say that The Simpsons has a perfect record when it comes to respecting sex workers (cheap shots about Nelson’s mom’s probable employment as a stripper or prostitute come to mind), and the moral of the story in “Homer’s Night Out” is a little maudlin and a little surface-level. Women being wives and daughters aren’t the sole reason to respect them, and to imply that a wife is more worthy of adoration than a stripper, as Homer does when he speaks wistfully of feeling the “sweet breath of my beautiful wife on the back of my neck as I sleep,” kind of negates the whole argument.
But almost three decades later, women, men, and everyone took to the streets in droves to demand equality for all — no matter what they look like, where they come from, or what they do for a living. It’s tough not to wonder if we owe that, in some small part, to that time in March of 1990 when Homer J. Simpson implored a room full of horny Springfielders to forgo blind objectification of women and see Princess Kashmir as a person.