When I first wanted to watch the Simpsons, I asked my parents if it was okay with them, because I was that kind of kid. My folks said that they didn’t have a problem with it, but I was specifically warned not to be like Bart Simpson, because he was “a brat.” My parents never watched the show, and despite my brother and my fascination with the show know next to nothing about it. And yet, in 1994 the character of Bart Simpson was so well-known that my parents knew enough about him to have formed opinions on the show, without ever having actually seen any of it. And it makes sense, because back when the show was first beginning and they were still operating under the idea that this should be a Bart-heavy series, he was absolutely everywhere.
Bart Simpson is the member of the family that I think I’ve had the most difficulty with during this whole project. When I was younger Bart was one of my absolute favorite characters. He had a terrific joke-rate, and thanks to baked-in gender norms I of course found the little boy character familiar. Bart was a relatively cool kid, a person who felt very comfortable with himself and who got to do and say what he wanted, and with seemingly no concerns about how other would respond. And, as a kid who struggled with social anxiety from a young age, that was a pretty interesting trait, and one that I more than a little coveted.
Bart was a cultural phenomena in the early 90’s, a marketing mother-load that essentially become a catch-phrase factory. They slapped Bart’s face and his quotes on absolutely everything they possibly could, reaching an absurd point of cultural saturation. Hell, the show even had a rather meta episode all about Bart getting famous for having a lame catch phrase, and the weird position that that puts someone in when they want to actually be creative, and not just sell merchandise. And yet, if it was done out of satire, pressure from Fox, or some strange combination of the two, the creators of the Simpsons continued to let Bart become a cultural icon, spouting out catch-phrases and earning the reputation of being a bratty prankster underachiever.
It was kind of surprising, but during my rewatch of the series, I found that it was Bart who seemed to have aged the worst. His whole character rubbed me the wrong way, more gimmicks than character, and that strange feeling continued for the rest of the series. I used to love Bart Simpson. But now he’s my least favorite member of the family. And I think it’s precisely because he was rarely allowed to change. They seemed to have hit a rut with Bart, and have never been able to get him out of it. He’s a character who seems to have gotten only a handful of types of episodes, and we just see him cycle through them, never changing, never doing anything interesting. Bart’s just a selfish child who does horrible things that hurt those around him, and then they get forgotten and forgiven without him ever having to actually repent for his deeds. And that just bums me out. Bart has become a character that just has no forward momentum, and who I’m shocked when I come across a solid story revolving around him, instead of expect it.
The show occasionally teases us by showing us things that Bart is good at, letting us vainly hope that maybe they’ll be able to do something new with the character, but it just always fades away. It used to really depress me that almost every vision of Bart’s future portrayed him as a total loser, but since the show seems dead set on reminding us that Bart actually is an underachiever, and will never amount to anything. And that sucks. I feel like Bart could be a character with hidden depths, who acts out the way he does due to deep insecurities that could eventually be solved by finding a better outlet than mean-spirited pranks. But that’s not what they’ve chosen to do with him. Instead Bart is just a born loser, someone who will apparently never amount to anything other than catch-phrases.
There’s still the occasional Bart-centric episode that I enjoy, but they really have become far and few between. Nancy Cartwright has been consistently great in her portrayal of Bart, and when the show does rarely decide to give him some pathos she always knocks it out of the park. It just happens so rarely. The interactions that Bart has with the other family members is even pretty rote. Really, most stories involving Bart and another family member interacting just revolves around Bart doing something shitty, the family member being disappointed, and then having him do nothing to fix that. It’s just frustrating to watch the decline of Bart in my estimations, but it’s just undeniable that he’s not the character I remembered to be. He and Lisa has essentially opposite trajectories during this project. And who know, maybe that’s a sign of maturity or something. Bart is a character that speaks to youth. He’s quippy, sassy, and gets away with anything he wants. He’s a great figure for a rambunctious little boy to enjoy, knowing full well that he’d never actually be like Bart. But, as time has gone on I’ve realized that Bart is who I foolishly wanted to be, while Lisa is who I am thankful I became. Bart can still make me laugh, and there’s still some episodes that revolve around him that I utterly love, he’s just not a very deep character, and one that I’ve had a hell of a time sticking with. I hate to be so negative at the end of this project, but it’s been a real disappointment seeing a character that meant so much to me as a kid slide so low upon the realization that more often than not, there’s not much beneath the surface. I’ll always have the jokes though.
Categories: Lifetime of Simpsons