Narcissistic Dynamics in the Simpsons

Because I was raised a strict fundamentalist Christian, I was never allowed to watch the Simpsons. Actually, I was not allowed to watch any TV at all. I have since become very interested in culture, and music, and most art forms (modern art still eludes me). Knowing their cultural significance, I have always been interested in the Simpsons. Since we got Disney plus, I asked my wife if she’d be interested in watching them, and she’s game.
Four episodes in, I can’t believe how clearly the telltale signs of a narcissistic family are on display!

Episode one:

In the first episode, Homer is distressed because he cannot buy presents for his family. This distress is understandable, but his reason for the distress is classic narcissism. He says at several points, “I’m the worst father ever!” At the climax at the end of the episode, his wife’s family is over, making snide remarks about him while he is out desperately trying to make some money. He is worried about impressing the family. He is not (especially) concerned with the children. He cares about what people will think about him. At one point, when he feels snubbed by his sister-in-law, he (in a rage) goes out and steals a Christmas tree, just to prove he is a provider.
At one point, his son Bart finds out that he does not have the money. They have a last desperate plan to gamble what little money they have. Bart is discouraged, but Homer is excited. “C’mon son! Be excited for me! Sometimes your faith in me is the only thing that keeps me going!” That line felt like an arrow to my heart. I turned to my wife and said, “That is emotional incest. A parent should never make their child responsible for their emotions!”
Through their adventures, Bart and Homer end up adopting a “failed” race dog. “Why would we adopt him?!” Objects Homer, “Why, he’s a loser, a last place, a nobody…a Simpson” He concludes, petting the dog. This speaks to the incredible low sense of self worth at the core of every narcissist. They secretly see all of life as a competition, and constantly feel that they are losing.
However, it was the second episode that was incredibly revealing…
Episode two:
Bart is engaged in vandalism, spray-painting a characeture of the school principal on the school wall. This leads to his parents being called into the office. His mother marge is mortified, but Homer secretly admires his son, and lets it be known that he also thinks that the principal is a doofus, and that there should be no real punishment for the actions. Bart’s miscreant actions should be no surprise, as they are the only thing that get a positive reaction from his dad (causing him to secretly laugh, play along, or “team up” with Bart), until…
Bart cheats on a test, and is invited to join a private school “for smart kids.” This becomes a turning-point in the relationship with Bart and his father. Up ‘till this point, his sister Lisa has been the “golden child.” Narcissist parents always select a golden child, for a variety of reasons. They see the children as an extension of themselves, so when Lisa does something impressive, it is really like Homer is doing something impressive. And so narcissistic parents will select the most promising child, and choose to live life through them. The other child (in this case, Bart) will constantly be compared to the golden child. (In the first episode, for example, Marge wrote a Christmas letter, “…all the family is well…Lisa got straight “A’s in school. And Bart…well, we love Bart…) A lot of Bart’s acting out is because he longs for the affection the this sister is shown, but the only way to get it is to get in trouble of some sort. BUT all of that changes when he is called a genius.
“You might actually do it!” says his father, Homer, “You might do what all Simpsons have ever dreamed of…outsmart another person!” That line really stood out to me. It could have been the motto of my narcissistic upbringing. “Outsmart someone.” Not…be smart to better the human race. Not…be smart because you are talented, and have a lot to offer. No. Outsmart someone else. Life is a competition. You can tell how well you are doing by how many people you have passed. So outsmart someone. This is important because down inside, we all feel like absolute filth. So be better than someone, so we can forget about that sad fact for a short while…
At this point, the episode became so realistic it was difficult to watch. The dad started spending time with his son, playing catch, staying up late…showing a genuine interest in him. However, Homer’s pride in his son does not extend to helping him be a better person, or helping him integrate better into society. While at a classical concert, Homer and Bart try to outdo one another in being crude and disruptive during the performance — to the point that several other concertgoers are looking at them with disapproval, and Marge is mortified again. Homer wants his son to outsmart people: but he seems unwilling (or incapable) of teaching him manners, and respect for others — two very key lessons for any young boy, which will unlock society before them. Without these, Bart is doomed to a dead-end job, just as his dad is. But these matters aside, the affection that Homer is lavishing on Bart is making these days some of the best of his life.
But alas, all was not well at the school for the gifted. Bart knew that he did not belong. However, knowing this was the only way to hold on to his father’s approval, he toughed it out as long as he could. Finally, he does the right thing, and confesses. A repeated theme we will see is that when Bart does the right thing, but it reflects poorly on Homer, he is punished, and not rewarded.
In this case, Bart (who came home covered in green chemicals, due to a failed chemistry experiment) is being lovingly scrubbed off in the bathtub by his dad when he opens up and reveals the truth. He adds quickly, “But I wanted you to know that these last few days with you have been amazing. You have spent time with me, played ball with me…it has been really special! So I really want that to continue.”
…This part is achingly realistic…
Homer hears none of that. He completely ignores the fact that his son is opening his heart to him. He does not notice the pain in his voice. He is blind to the tears that Bart wipes away. All that he cares about is that he has lost his chance to outsmart people (and maybe, he is offended that his son lied to him). He says, “Why you little…” and Bart says, “uh oh!” and jumps naked out of the bathtub, runs to his room and locks the door. For his own safety.
He then sits and reads a comic book naked while his father beats on the door. This powerful image says a number of things to me:
  1. Bart opened up to his dad, and was hurt deeply: now he is closed, and no amount of beating will let his father into his “room” (heart) again
  2. Bart now has an “I don’t care” attitude. He is looking at a cartoon naked while (I believe) eating some snacks
  3. Bart perhaps remembers at this point that the only thing that really caught his fathers attention was breaking the rules. This will be his method for getting his attention in the future.
Episode three:
There is less depth in this episode. Except that Homer is fired, and rather than take responsibility for his own emotions, he lazes around the couch, demanding that others accommodate him, provide for him, etc. He finally becomes so depressed he becomes suicidal. He writes a suicide note in which he instructs his family, “always be brave, and face life with courage. I only hope I can be a better example to you in death than I was in life.” The sad irony of this is that he is a lousy example in both (attempted) death and life: he never takes ownership of his own emotions, but forces his family to come running out int he night to find him, and convince him that life is worth living after all.
The act of threatening suicide, in order to force others to convince you to live, is, in my estimation, one of the lowest and most manipulative things that someone can do to another.
Episode four:
Homer takes his family to a work party, and becomes extremely ashamed of them when he compares them to another family, whom he deems to be essentially perfect. In his imagination, his family all turn to devils and tell him, “you belong with us!!” We notice that Homer is not concerned for the individuals of his family. He does not care about Marge and her drinking, or the kids and their fighting. He cares about their image, and about how that reflects on him. This desire to “win the competition” of being “perfect family” has them sneaking around the neighbourhood spying on other families, trying methods at home, and finally attempting an expensive therapist and shock therapy.
His proudest moment is when Homer gives up on having a perfect family and decides to just buy them a gift of a large TV. This is a proud moment (and it really feels right when you watch the episode) because 1) Homer is giving up on his selfish idea of a perfect family, 2) Homer is deciding to love and accept the people that he actually has in his family, as they are, 3) he is buying them a gift. Granted, the gift is a TV that Homer will probably use more than any of them. But still. For a narcissistic parent, one needs to take what they can get, in terms of love.
Episode five:
In episode five, Bart runs into a school bully. What I found interesting about this episode was how often Bart cries. He is really surprisingly in touch with his emotions, and he tells his dad very clearly how he is feeling, and sends a clear appeal for help. This is not the “wild-skater-boy” image we often have of Bart. The second thing I found interesting was the advice that his father gave him. Homer advises that it would be against the school-yard code to report the bully. Rather, he should try dealing with the problem on his own.
Why do narcissists refuse to use legitimate authority structures to protect their children, when in need? I suspect because that would imply some form of a need for someone else. Also, perhaps, because it breaks what I have called, “The victim’s code.”
At any rate, his mother suggests compassion and understanding, while his father suggests fighting back. Neither strategy works.
At this point, the episode becomes “silly tv” instead of real-life, as Bart raises an army of students to deal with the problem. In real life, the children of narcissists just get picked on, because they have been made to be outsiders by parents who don’t teach them to behave and study and be themselves, and also because these same parents don’t have their backs when times are hard.
*** this is as far as I have watched in the Simpsons so far **