What You Can t See
Stereotypes are common in American culture they infiltrate society and serve to alienate a people. Daily, people are caste into a group because of their skin color, clothing, accent, or family background. Although stereotypes are sometimes hurtful, one might argue that they are often founded in truth. A stereotype is generally an extreme or radical characterization of a group or of an individual. Matt Groening s Family Portrait of the Simpsons reveals a great deal about stereotypes within American culture. In the picture, a colored pencil drawing, family members present flawless skin — lacking acne, wrinkles, freckles, moles, and circles under their eyes. Because the portrait is a cartoon representation, a reader may not know if the Simpsons are a real family, or one fabricated by the artist. Therefore, through his drawing, Groening is capable of reinforcing and satirizing American stereotypes and prejudices.
The eldest female, known to Simpson watchers as Marge, is wearing a pearl necklace, pearl earrings, a green tube-top dress and a large blue beehive hairstyle. Marge is the only family member whose hair color differs from her skin color. In some social circles, a blue-hair is defined as a thrifty elderly woman. Because a reader of this image may not be familiar with Marge s lifestyle, it is inappropriate to speculate on her spending habits; however, Marge is making no attempt to hide the large white pearls around her neck and on her ears. It may also be noted that, Lisa the six or seven year old female in the drawing is wearing a strand of pearls as well. Lisa s pearls appear to be the same size as her mother s, and differ only in the fact that Lisa is not wearing the earrings. Groening might have adorned his women in pearls in an attempt to represent an American ideal, or he simply may have thought that they make a nice accessory. Zora Hurston, author of How It Feels to Be Colored Me , describes the ideal woman as the eternal feminine with its string of beads (387). In addition to matching her mother s accessories, Lisa is wearing a red tube-top dress similar to her mother s green dress. One may speculate that even at Lisa s young age, Marge is taking a role in shaping her daughter s views. Unlike Marge s dress, Lisa s is tattered at the bottom similar to something one might see in a picture of a caveman or on one of the women in the cartoon classic The Flintstones. One may opt to believe that the stereotypical woman garb infiltrating Groening s drawing reinforces the woman s place in society, and may cause one to question the actual advancement of women in American culture.
The father figure in the portrait, Homer, is wearing a blue business suit, white shirt, and an off-color blue tie. The area surrounding Homer s mouth is unkempt and apparently unshaven. In a traditional family, Homer may be seen as the primary source of income, and while it is unclear from the drawing if Homer and Marge work, it is undisputable that Homer is dressed in work attire. Because of his dress, Groening seems to be implying that Homer is a businessman. It may also be noted that Homer, Marge, and Lisa are all looking to the right, while the rest of the family is looking elsewhere. This might be symbolic of a man s stereotypical control over his women, and their portrayed conformity. Homer dominates the home just as man dominates society.
The family s known non-conformist, Bart, is the only male, other than Homer, in the drawing. He is wearing a white button down shirt, an orange tie, and his skin-toned hair is spiked. Previously in American culture, spiked hair has been associated with Punk or Ska music. Recently, blond spiked hair might be labeled as Back Street, often thought of as pretty boy and associated with pop music. Not only is Bart looking in a direction opposite of his family, his entire body is turned. He is placed in the front center of the drawing. The artist seems to make Bart the center of attention, perhaps exaggerating America s love for (or past love for) the male child. Neither of Bart s parents criticizes him for his behavior, perhaps implying that it is okay to act out if you are male. One may assume that Groening is using his depiction of Bart to criticize the celebrated position of the young, light-skinned young male of American society.
Finally, in the lower left hand corner of the page is a wide-eyed, seemingly fearful baby. She is wearing a blue dress (one that coincidentally matches her father s jacket) and bow; moreover, she could easily be overlooked. Maggie is placed on her father s lap, and yet he does not appear to be holding her. Moreover, to her immediate left is her brother, surrounding her in males. Perhaps Groening is commenting on the prevalence of men in society, noting that if one is not careful she may find herself surrounded by, and perhaps even under the influence of, men. Maggie, through the innate innocence of a child, may be the only honest presentation in the portrait. One may wonder what the eyes of this baby fear, and what she sees that the reader cannot.
Through Groening s depiction of the Simpson family, he is able to both portray and combat many of the negative stereotypes within society. Maggie serves to represent the unseen what the rest of the family refuses to acknowledge. Georgina Kleege, author of Call It Blindness , describes the inherent desire to ignore the different and the uncomfortable in hopes that it will disappear. Don t stare. Don t look at that. Close your eyes and it will all go away. Out of sight, out of mind . . . What you can t see can t hurt you, can t matter, doesn t exist (405). Groening makes it impossible for his reader to ignore the uncomfortable he brings stereotypes to the forefront, and comically challenges there meaning. Groening realizes that the best way to understand one s self is to laugh not only at each other, but also at one s own faults and failures. By creating a mock society, and presenting a family that lives in it, Groening can indirectly critique a culture and, consequently, have a direct effect on humanity.
Hurston, Zora. How It Feels To be Colored Me. Lunsford. 384 388.
Kleege, Georgina. Call It Blindness. Lunsford. 387 407.