In honor of the 22nd Treehouse of Horror, which is airing tonight, I am putting up a draft of my one, and only, paper about America’s favorite family. I should warn that part of the exercise was to rely heavily, even too heavily, on psychoanalysis, so as with the last draft, this paper does not represent my full views of The Simpsons, but was an incredibly fun exercise.
The family dynamics of The Simpsons are, if nothing else, complex. Characters often have shifting roles in terms of psychosexual development. However, residing in the show are some inherencies, as is the nature of any sitcom. Bart will inevitably act out against the Oedipal complex and Lisa will represent, more often than not, a rigid reminder of the Super-Ego. Homer Simpson continues to stagnate in a state of often unrealized sexual development. Without his mother’s presence from an early age, Homer seems to have never experienced the latency period in order to reach full development. Instead, he remains fixated on a primarily oral psychosexual stage, devoid of his Super-Ego that comes with the understanding of parental agency.
Despite this, Homer is not a static character. He often attempts to break this pattern of infantile and oral fixations, only to regress by the episode’s end. Such is the case with the particularly phallocentric and patriarchal episode “Deep Space Homer.” In this episode, Homer is provided the means to escape both his infantile and inherently effeminate characteristics and to develop a strong Super-Ego, returning from space a man. His opportunities come partially by chance and partially by active choice and the assertions of the Ego. However, inevitably, the dominance of Homer’s infantile state brings him back to earth still as a child. This particular episode, revolving around the theme of explorations, underscores this consistent theme of Homer’s character through patriarchal imagery and characterization as well as an inherent defamation of female figures and immature male relationships.
The show begins by asserting the physicality of the adult male: a series of men proceed through the workplace and are x-rayed on their way to a weekly competition for worker of the week. Homer’s x-ray exposes him as an ape, a primitive version of man. At the onset, he is viewed as an incomplete human. He is not the adult male he is supposed to be. That this assumption comprises the premise of this particular episode is revealed in the subsequent scenes. Homer is revealed to be the only staff member of the nuclear power plant to have not won the worker of the week award. This reconfirms how society discounts his masculinity and acknowledges his infantilism. This disparity is further adduced by the winner of that week’s award, an inanimate, phallic-shaped carbon rod, grasped by Mr. Burns, the first of three representations of father figures in the episode. Burns is depicted as the traditional domineering father, clasping Homer’s masculinity in his hands, preventing Homer from developing into a man and reaching his true potential. Homer feels anxious and angry about this, his feelings, incredibly Oedipal, are to resist castration by his father and to rebel. His latency period has clearly not transpired. This is evidenced by how the scene ends with Homer yelling, “I’ll show you inanimate”, and then staying completely still, stuck in visual stasis.
The next scene finds Homer at home complaining. Home, a representation of domesticity, comfort and family, also affirms Homer’s immaturity. Bart, his son, clearly is dominant in the Oedipal relationship with his father, writing “Insert Brain Here” on the top of Homer’s head, reducing him once again to an animal state, rolling about on the floor at the feet of the family. Homer continues to be ridiculed for his lack of masculinity as he watches television. It is only when he changes the channel, revealing another phallic object like the rod, a spaceship launch, that the laughing subsides. The spaceship and the colonel and scientist who run the launch will present a way for Homer to eventually move beyond his infantile fixations and possibly become a man.
It is important to note the motivations of NASA for even finding Homer. NASA is seen as “boring,” too restrictive and aligned with the structures of the Super-Ego. More concerned with the application of tiny screws in space than the emotional aspects of space travel, NASA is diametrically opposed to Homer, who, driven primarily by his Id, seeks pleasure and the avoidance of pain without any forethought, as exemplified when he is squirms on the ground as a result of Bart’s prank. NASA also introduces a secondary theme of the story, the inferiority of women. The colonel and scientist at NASA are in danger of not being fully realized men and, as a consequence, their launch is being beaten in the ratings by women, namely a “Connie Chung Christmas Special.” As a consequence, the colonel and scientist search for a proper way of dealing with their lack of manliness by searching for an average man to fly in their space shuttle. To understand what an average man is, they look for examples in parodies of father figures from Home Improvement and Married with Children, where the main male characters are, like Homer, driven by the desires of their Id over the agency of their Super-Ego. Homer then crank calls NASA, allowing for its officials to essentially stumble upon another potential Id driven man.
The crank call results in Homer being discovered at a bar along with his friend Barney. Both men are driven primarily by pleasure-seeking and an oral fixation that manifests itself in drinking. The new father figures, the colonel and scientist, use another phallic image, a rubber mallet, to subdue the men and take them to NASA headquarters. They are still asserting their dominance. However, their aim is primarily to instruct. The next scene reveals the dichotomy between Homer and Barney. Homer is feminized in a pink apron. On the other hand, deprived of his oral fixation, beer, Barney is able to start to transform into a man. The competition that ensues as Homer and Barney vie for a position on the spacecraft reveals how Homer’s lack of development is not merely due to an oral fixation, but is more deep-seated. He is not able to migrate from his infantile state, while Barney can.
Still, space represents, for Homer, the only possibility of becoming a man. During flight simulations, he temporarily turns into a prototypical male cartoon figure, namely Popeye. In addition, when he eventually does go into space, Homer briefly turns into another masculine father figure, namely Richard Nixon. However, when he competes with Barney, Homer remains developmentally infantile and effeminate. He insists that there will be a “swimsuit competition” in pursuit of the position, precluding any awareness of his phallus.
Barney eventually is eliminated from the competition when he is forced to confront his oral fixation. Upon imbibing a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne, he immediately takes flight. Homer then is given the chance of finally becoming a man. However, he is filled with anxiety about this. The gruesome images of “Itchy & Scratchy” which show a smaller child-like mouse disemboweling a more father-like cat, actually ripping out of his stomach (a reversal of gender roles) fills Homer with fear. He knows that he will have to face his manhood whether he likes it or not. Upon approaching the gigantic phallus that is the space ship about launch, he panics and runs.
It is here where an important shift occurs. Homer asserts his Ego. He converses with Marge over the phone. Their conversations throughout the episode are essentially maternal. Marge gives advice without any sexual intent and intonation. Homer confronts his masculine deficiencies by saying, “Just like the time I could have met Mr. T at the mall. The entire day I kept saying, ‘I’ll go a little later. I’ll go a little later.’ And then when I got there, they told me he’d just left… Well, I’m never going to let something like that happen again! I’m going into space right now!” It is important to note that Homer referenced a previous opportunity to meet a male figure, another substitute father, Mr. T. He hesitated and cannot let this happen again. He must become a man right now by entering space. That he has a logic to this memory and is aware that this is an opportunity to transcend his infantile state and become a man displays a clear assertion of his Ego. This is the right thing to do. He can’t worry about pleasure or pain and act solely on his instinct. He is, ostensibly, using his logic and slowly maturing.
Once in space, however, Homer’s attempts at manhood are botched because he still has not identified with a particular father figure. The colonel and scientist are more concerned with ratings and societal matters (attributes of the Super-Ego) than their “child.” Homer’s Id causes problems as well. He sneaks potato chips, satisfying his oral fixation, onto the ship. Once he opens the bag, the chips fly everywhere, causing potential harm to his leap into masculinity. His attempt to rescue the chips, using similarly orally fixated tactics (eating all the chips while floating through the air) makes things worse. He crashes into an ant farm. The ants are subtitled as discussing who is the queen. This feminizes them. They proceed to short out circuitry on the spaceship. The imagery here is clear. Homer’s desire for pleasure and lack of engagement with his Ego causes resurgence of both his feminine and infantile states. The phallus that is the spaceship is shorted out or castrated and Homer lingers in a state of somewhat Oedipal fear.
However, this is when the third representation of the father, embodied in James Taylor, resolves the issue. Depicted as easy-going and laid back, though when necessary stern, Mr. Taylor could be the consummate father. He battles the more Super-Ego-like colonel and scientist and proceeds to give Homer and the crew concrete advice to create a vacuum and expel the ants from the ship. This act is filled with overt sexuality. Through the process of listening and identifying with the more egocentric advice of the father, Homer is able to release his childhood and femininity from the phallic ship. Homer follows the instructions, but nearly flies out of the ship himself. He latches onto the ship and maneuvers back into the ship, which is now defunct. The door won’t close and the crew will burn up on reentry. In addition, Homer may never become a man.
In an altercation over this predicament with a crew member. Homer grabs yet another carbon rod to attack the crewman. By claiming the phallus from the beginning of the episode as he does, Homer is able to finally claim his manhood. The phallus gets stuck in the hole between the door and the broken latch (an insertion) and Homer, by claiming his manhood, is able to save the day. However, this act of chance, born of the Id and Homer’s compulsion to survive, ultimately proves to only temporary grant Homer with manhood.
As he leaves space and the episode concludes, it is clear that Homer, inexplicably, will not be a man. His father, finally shown in the episode, makes an inane comment. Homer’s true issues, which are rooted in his relationship with his father, are paralleled in Abe’s own lack of development. Furthermore, as he reenters, Homer exhibits no evidence of development. He recites the Golden Grahams jingle, a clear sign of his regression back into childhood. He finally is dissociated from the carbon rod when the media make it the hero that saved the ship instead of Homer. The phrase, “In Rod We Trust,” which appears on a magazine depicting the rod as hero, rather explicitly confirms the faith invested in the phallic object of manliness which Homer does not possess. In the final scenes of the episode, Homer is portrayed as a child again. While he might be slightly more respected by Bart, who now writes “Hero” on the back of Homer’s head, the Oedipal relationship remains and Homer has not changed. In the final image of the episode, Homer is depicted as a baby in a clear parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He has literally reverted to infancy.
Thus, a clear arc is created where Homer, the quintessential modern male, attempts to become a man and have an experience where he can fully develop a Super-Ego. However, it is society that ultimately dictates that Homer should be in a pre-libidinal state from the beginning to the end of the episode. It should be noted how difficult it is in the world of the Simpsons for Homer to break the societal bonds that are keeping him in his infantile state. That Homer must transcend earth in order to become a man is telling. Instead, Homer is controlled by a society that keeps him subjugated. He is mocked by media, friends, and family and not given the full potential to realize who he is and achieve the development that he so desperately seeks. It is external forces of society, most notably chance, that propel Homer through his development. He desires to stay alive, an inherently Erotic drive, manifested when Homer attempts to ameliorate his chips disaster. Meanwhile, his acts of violence and destruction, namely attacking a crewmember with the rod, save the ship. In the Simpsons’ world, there is no clear means for understanding manliness, nor how to achieve it. The society judges the average man to be devoid of a truly developed libido. He is stuck in a state of arrested development.
Similarly, this lack of maturity seems to have specific relationships to gender representation. Homer is seen as a man who is neither respected, nor developed, and, as a consequence, is almost completely feminized. His depictions of himself devoid of phallus (in the form of the carbon rod) and saying things that might relate to being a woman further humbles him in a world where women are denigrated. Women are barely present, acting primarily as foils to men. Women are consistently mocked, from a “Connie Chung Christmas” which is seen as a poor substitute for the more manly shuttle launch, to a female reporter named “Toby” who is ridiculed for her name.
In all cases, Homer’s lack of development is made comparable to his lack of gender. If this episode reflects the aspirations of the average man, the external forces in society not only oppress man as an adult, but also man as gender. It leaves man in a state of constant regression. All attempts to define oneself as both a man and and as an adult male are thwarted by society and it is up to fortune whether one can escape this dehumanization. Homer could just as easily have met Mr. T, had chance prevailed, and become a man, but by procrastinating and acquiescing to the whims of society, he is unsuccessful. There is one hopeful aspect that lies as counterbalance to the dire portrait of Homer. Ostensibly, Homer is who he is because of his passivity. When he engages with his Ego, he becomes assertive and capable. When he acquiesces to the external forces of society, he is unsuccessful. Essentially, the path for the average man to develop lies in the realization of the power of his Ego. The more he thinks about either the pleasures of the Id (as Homer does), or the rules and restrictions that constrict the male libido (exemplified by NASA), the less he will be able to recognize himself either sexually or developmentally Because he has never been assertive, Homer will never claim the award.
The ebb and flow of challenges in this episode and Homer’s ultimate acquiescence to the status quo also addresses the functionality of the situation comedy. Ultimately, character development must remain stilted in this format. Characters must, by dint of the very tenets of the medium, return to their former selves. As a consequence, their lack of development is reflective of the defense mechanisms that are employed by the mind in order to maintain the status quo of immaturity. The situation comedy can only challenge its protagonists with ultimate loss. Homer’s derangement is not just a product of himself, nor the external forces of society, but also, sadly, of the genre in which he is confined. Were Homer a real man, he could experience life with the proper development necessary to realize his full potential. Instead, he has been captured in a state of arrested development, every Sunday, for over twenty years.