Growing Up with Bart Simpson
I spent my childhood chasing after Marge and Homer’s only son, a character who began his life as a delinquent but evolved into one of the most important icons of the 20th century.
It’s 1993, I am eight years old, and my parents won’t let me watch The Simpsons. Their reasoning has to do with a mischievous, spikey-haired 10-year-old boy named Bart Simpson. Oh they have heard all sorts of terrible things about Bart—that he is a bad role model, that he cuts class, that he steals, that he curses, that he uses a slingshot and skateboards and talks back to adults. They don’t want to let their first-born child anywhere near this cartoon delinquent.
I feel left out. All my friends are watching The Simpsons and they all worship Marge and Homer’s knuckleheaded son. Everywhere I go I see kids buying Bart t-shirts, Bart books, Bart posters, Bart dolls, Bart masks. I can’t go five seconds without someone belting out “Eat my shorts” or “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” Bart Simpson is haunting my life.
I spend my free time devising a scheme that will ultimately convince my parents to let me see the show. “Look, Bart really isn’t such a bad guy,” I will say. “In fact, he is a role model—a portrait of what kids my age shouldn’t be doing.” Don’t you understand, Mom and Dad? I can learn from Bart by not being Bart. Of course, I can’t adequately portray this line of thinking out loud. I am only eight. Any argument I try to hold comes tumbling out in the form of a whiny temper tantrum. “But Dannnniel’s parents let hiiimmm watch The Simpsonnnnssss,” I yell. My mom stands there, unimpressed by my attempt at persuasion. I turn to my father, who gives me his patented “When you’re older” look. I then stomp up the stairs and slam the door to my room.
What’s absurd about this entire scenario is that, at that point, I had yet to actually see an episode of the program I so heavily desired. My impetus to beg for these animated yellow creatures was solely based on conjecture, along with a few snippets and jokes I pieced together from 15-second TV commercials. Still, that didn’t stop me from wanting something I couldn’t have.
I wouldn’t fully grasp the depth of my interest in the show and Bart as a character until I was much older, long after my parents finally permitted me to watch. (They eventually relented when I was 10, after they discovered that I had been sneakily checking out episodes at my aunt’s house, unsupervised. I vaguely recall them being upset but also realizing the battle had been lost.) Before that, The Simpsons was just something that brought me joy. I had no interest in exploring the philosophical or existential layers of a cartoon show. I just wanted to laugh my ass off.
Rewatching The Simpsons this past week during FXX’s Every Simpsons Ever marathon, I am reminded of the program’s versatility and how my favorite character has evolved from his early “controversial” model into a respected global icon. Mostly, though, I am struck by how Bart—who, like all Simpsons characters, doesn’t age—has continued to grow with millions of adolescents. Most of us are disobedient brats at eight years old. We likely aren’t as bad as Bart is, but we all know what he is experiencing, even if we don’t have the wherewithal to understand it at that point in time. Bart gets confused and angry, he gets bullied, he experiences the manic highs and lows that come with being a child. Ultimately, all kids see a little bit of Bart in themselves—a scared but bright kid who just needs some encouragement and trust.
Looking back, I realize that my parents’ attempt to shield me from Bart was mostly a reaction to the built-up rage regarding anything even remotely harmful to children. (Funny enough, my mom and dad soon began watching the show with me, realizing that their initial concerns were overblown.) The Simpsons premiered on December 17, 1989. The reaction to Bart was swift and fierce. It made sense on paper: Bart Simpson does terrible things, we don’t want our kids to turn out like that so we will not let them watch him. Around this time, much—though not all—of the press coverage about Bart was equivalent to the type of outrage you got from parents in the ‘60s, who dismissed rock and roll as the devil’s music.
The conventional, old folks’ thinking was: here was a dumb kid doing dumb things on a dumb TV show. But that analysis was petty and shortsighted. What many failed to understand at the time was that Bart was divisive, yes, but also witty, funny, and—despite his reputation as a failed grade-schooler—bright. Even in the episodes where the entire plot surrounds Bart’s supposed idiocy, he ends up looking like an undercover genius. There was the time he exploded a cherry bomb in a toilet at school and, as punishment, sent to France as an exchange student. However, he soon learns how to speak the language fluently, using his newfound skills to report his host family—who gleefully treat their young American visitor like a slave—to the authorities. There’s also the Season Two episode where Bart is at risk of being held back a grade unless he passes a test. He prays for a miracle and gets it in the form of a snow day, giving him an extra 24 hours to study. Bart ends up failing. However, he eventually compares the F he received to George Washington’s surrender at Fort Necessity, which convinces Ms. Krabappel to give him extra points for “applied knowledge.” The lesson: with the right motivation and in the right circumstances, Bart was actually pretty clever.
As The Simpsons approaches its 26th year, I am fascinated by how attached I feel to Bart as a character, and how much he has grown since the first season, evolving from petty criminal to role model to one of TIME’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century to—somewhat surprisingly—style icon. Though my interest in later Simpsons seasons has waned over the years, I am still aware of the effect Bart had on me as a kid—a little outlet for me to laugh at all the stupid stuff I could have been doing (though, full disclosure: I did indeed do some stupid Bart-esque stuff when I was younger).
I have kept very few books from my childhood, but the one that has stayed on my shelf for the last 18 years is Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life, a hilarious “handbook for the perplexed,” as it touts on its cover. I have read it over 100 times. It’s filled with hilarious bits of information on science, psychology, food, school, and even sex. I worshipped this thing. It was my Bible.
Thankfully, I wasn’t crazy enough to follow all of its rules or tips, just like I wasn’t going to watch the show and then destroy a janitor’s house with creamed corn. The book, like the program, was and continues to be a source of entertainment for me. Despite my parents’ initial insistence on avoiding The Simpsons, I ended up being ok. To paraphrase Bart from the Season 13 episode "The Parent Rap": "If I grow up to be a halfway-decent person, I know it'll be because of my mom and dad."