The Simpsons binge-athon is in full swing. FXX is airing every episode of the beloved animated comedy in order—breaking for 2007’s The Simpsons Movie—and the marathon has already smashed the cable channel’s ratings records. The event stretches 25 seasons and ends on Labor Day.
Still, for all The Simpsons’ impact on entertainment and popular culture, perhaps the most impressive thing about its international influence and popularity is the number of times it has affected world politics and domestic affairs. Seriously. Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, and Maggie have all been accidental political players in their nearly three decades on the air. Hell, Tony Blair guest-starred while he was still British prime minister. (He recorded his bit role just weeks after the Iraq War kicked off.)
Homer’s job, for example, likely played a role in shaping your negative opinion of nuclear energy. “Could Homer Simpson derail the nuclear renaissance?” The Wall Street Journal asked in 2009. While Springfield’s nuclear power plant, where The Simpsons patriarch works, is depicted as creating acid rain and an infamous three-eyed fish called Blinky, Homer makes matters worse by being the laziest, most incompetent inspector imaginable. According to King’s College professor Bill Irwin, the series’ cartoonish, over-the-top portrayal of nuclear energy adds to a bad rap shaped by films, TV, and the dark legacies of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. And the U.S. nuclear industry’s dissatisfaction with The Simpsons’ caricature of its work was documented in Morgan Spurlock’s 2010 documentary on the hit show.
However, not every nuclear advocate is worried. “I’ve watched The Simpsons’ cartoon since their inception and have never been fazed about their misleading depictions of nuclear power,” writes David Bradish, manager of energy and economic analysis at the lobbying group Nuclear Energy Institute. “Probably the reason why I’m not fazed about [the] depictions is because I’ve seen them put a negative spin on other technologies such as wind. This episode between ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ comes to mind.”
But the creative team at The Simpsons apparently wasn’t satisfied with merely needling a component of the energy industry—it had to go and piss off an entire country.
In 2002, the episode “Blame It on Lisa” took the titular family to Brazil. The episode includes satirical images of crime-ridden, rat-infested slums overrun by child-biting monkeys. Here’s a clip:
The people of Brazil did not feel in on the joke. Jose Eduardo Guinle, Rio de Janeiro’s secretary of tourism, threatened to sue Fox for tarnishing the country’s reputation and supposedly hurting its economy. Brazil’s then-president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, weighed in, slamming The Simpsons for presenting “a distorted vision of Brazilian reality.”
For all this, Simpsons executive producer James Brooks offered the following, uh, apology: “We apologize to the lovely city and people of Rio de Janeiro, and if that doesn’t settle the issue, Homer Simpson offers to take on the president of Brazil on Fox’s Celebrity Boxing.”
This wasn’t even the first time The Simpsons provoked the ire of a sitting president. During his 1992 reelection campaign, President George H.W. Bush famously told a crowd of religious, family-values broadcasters: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
Bush’s remark was addressed—and gently mocked—in a Simpsons episode that aired just days later:
Well, Bush’s anti-Simpsons rhetoric didn’t help him all that much, and he lost the ’92 election. The feud between the 41st president of the United States and the Fox comedy continued with the airing of the 1996 episode “Two Bad Neighbors,” which featured a mega-crotchety Bush getting into a fistfight with Homer in the sewers. For what it’s worth, as unkind as the series was to Bush, it wasn’t any friendlier to the next administration. One episode from 1999 even includes a scene in which a horny President Clinton attempts to seduce Marge—and in doing so, brags to her about how he used to rape farm animals.
So the show has gone on a comic war against nuclear energy, Brazilian society, and American presidents. But how about starting wars and democratic uprisings?
This year, a fun conspiracy theory emerged that “New Kids on the Blecch,” a February 2001 boy band-parody Simpsons episode, predicted the Syrian civil war—and that the episode was evidence of a massive international plot to foment unrest and mayhem in the Arab world.
The theory was introduced by Rania Badawy, an anchor on the Egyptian TV channel Al Tahrir, who noticed that the Middle Eastern soldiers featured in the episode drive a car emblazoned with a flag that resembles the ones Syrian rebels and protesters waved in 2011. “How it reached this animated video nobody knows, and this has aroused a debate on the social networks,” Badawy said. “This raises many question marks about what happened in the Arab Spring revolutions and about when this global conspiracy began.”
(Not that you need convincing, but The New York Times posted a thorough rundown on why—when you take into account the “crucial aspects of both Syrian history and details of the Simpsons episode”—the theory falls apart.)
Check out Badawy’s report below:
The Simpsons also has been accused of predicting 9/11.
When I asked Simpsons showrunner Al Jean about the Arab Spring theory, he offered a terse response: “Yes, we had the amazing foresight to predict conflict in the Middle East.”
At the time I assumed he was kidding—but given the obvious power and global reach of The Simpsons, we can’t be so sure.