Richland College professor’s ‘Simpsons’ book examines satire and American culture
Some might be surprised by the focus of Richland College Professor Matthew Henry’s scholarly work on American culture – the animated show “The Simpsons.”
While the show featuring Bart Simpson and his dysfunctional-but-funny family may not seem an obvious choice for academic examination, Dr. Henry says it’s a mistake to underestimate the significance the show’s satirical commentary on social issues.
“There is this level of wit, political awareness and satire on ‘The Simpsons,’” says Dr. Henry, who teaches courses at Richland College in composition, literature and cultural studies. “There’s a snobbery against television studies in the academic community. It’s still considered a lowbrow art form unlike film studies. Whether it’s film, graphic novels, advertisements or TV shows, my approach to all these art forms is they carry meaning and significance. They carry beliefs and ideologies that circulate in the culture.”
Dr. Henry’s new book, The Simpsons, Satire, and American Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), is the culmination of his studies on the show. Dr. Henry will be a featured guest on KERA 90.1 FM’s “Think” program on Nov. 15 to discuss the book and his insights into “The Simpsons” – America’s longest-running sitcom. The show began its 24th season in September on the Fox network.
In his book, Dr. Henry explores the way creator Matt Groening and the show’s writers employ satirical humor to comment on issues of race and ethnicity, national identity, gender and sexuality, social and economic class, and religion. The show also satirizes the American media, the tradition of the nuclear family sitcom, and even the history of the Fox network.
Dr. Henry’s involvement with “The Simpsons” began when the show debuted in December 1989 – first as a fan and then as a scholar.
His articles on the show have appeared in scholarly publications including Popular Culture Review, Studies in Popular Culture, and The Journal of Popular Culture. His scholarship on “The Simpsons” also is in two book collections: Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture (2004) and Homer Simpson Marches on Washington: Dissent through American Popular Culture (2010).
Joseph J. Foy, editor of Homer Simpson Goes to Washington, says that Dr. Henry’s book weaves together insightful commentary and humorous reflections that will appeal to both scholars and fans of the show.
“Henry masterfully demonstrates how ‘The Simpsons’ continues to shape the cultural landscape of the United States,” Mr. Foy says. “This book reveals how ‘The Simpsons’ is far more than entertainment; it is modern day pamphleteering in the greatest of democratic traditions.”
Satire has an important place in society because it addresses serious issues – but with humor, Dr. Henry says.
“Satire can soften the blow but cause people to think seriously and critically, consider a change while still making them chuckle,” he says. “There was a time in the 1950s and ’60s when satire was on TV but it was clashing with the commercial imperatives of network television. ‘The Simpsons’ kind of opened the door to make it safe to put satire back on TV again.”
Dr. Henry’s scholarly pursuits are not limited to “The Simpsons”; he has published articles on African-American literature and film as well as lesbian identity in film and television. As a Fulbright Scholar, Dr. Henry taught at the University of Potsdam in Germany during the 2010-11 academic year. He was a finalist in 2009 for Richland College’s Excellence in Teaching award for full-time faculty members.