The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Fifteen, “Homer’s Phobia”

Now here’s a plot you probably won’t see as much anymore! I’ve seen other queer people who didn’t like this episode because they didn’t like the idea of their hero (or at least someone they like) being bigotted towards them, but I think that if you’re going to do a story about homophobia, this is one of the ways I’d prefer it be done. Something that comes up sometimes in discussion of empathy and especially empathy in storytelling is the question ‘why do bad people deserve empathy?’, which is a question I find viscerally offensive in conception and impractical in execution*. One of the reasons it bothers me is that it assumes empathy takes away your ability to object to something on moral grounds, which this episode decisively proves isn’t true. The Simpsons’ ability to empathise with its characters is perhaps its only virtue more underrated than its worldbuilding, and this episode dives deep enough into Homer’s perspective and into his genuine fear and fatherly feelings to reveal the absurdity of it all. When Homer takes Bart out to the woods to make a man out of him, I do care about his regret over not bonding with his son enough and his desire to get closer to him, even as I laugh at the utterly terrible way he expresses it. If anything, empathy allows us to judge someone with more clarity, as we see an understandable emotion taken in a terrible direction. Someone who empathises will never ask ‘how could this have happened?’

(*When the question is ‘why is empathy for white, straight, cis, and male people emphasised over POC, queer, and female people?’, I sympathise more.)

I want to zig back to the first act, where Homer first meets John via his love of camp, because I love how it underlines the inherent campiness of the show. Camp is generally divided into two categories – high camp, which is intentionally tacky or silly works (like the 60’s Batman, Riverdale, or Rocky Horror Picture Show), and low camp, which is something tacky or silly that unintentionally becomes entertaining for those qualities. The Simpsons embraces and uses tropes from low camp entertainment (and in fact often steals from low camp’s cousin, kitsch, which I use to mean cultural detritus of little to no value to anyone, like bad sitcoms), because it’s commenting on the bland entertainment that informed the images the family tried to live up to; this was often old-fashioned at the time and passed into legend by the time we got to this point in the show, and John’s enthusiasm for the whole thing feels like an honest reflection of the way the show’s ideas have mutated. I do love that neither Homer nor Marge have any comprehension of John’s ironic appreciation for them. It feels true to who they are as well as what they represent – the sincerely boring squares of the middle class.

Anyway, it’s fun how the topic and style of the episode come together well. The things it actually has to say about homophobia aren’t particularly unique (although what unique point can one possibly make on homophobia at this point?), and the show has made absurd expressions of ridiculous thought processes its bread and butter for a long time, but filtering homophobia through the Simpsons sense of humour ends up generating some great comic setpieces. The fundamental joke of the episode is that Homer is projecting his expectations of manhood onto Bart’s innocent childhood actions; some of what he’s doing is just imitating an adult he thinks is cool, and a lot of it is a kid just playing like a kid always does – I love how many shots there are of Bart looking up in almost literal wide-eyed innocence. A homophobe has made up an idea of what people are supposed to be like that doesn’t match the reality, and that’s something “Homer’s Phobia” demonstrates on both a macro and micro level (“There’s only two guys who wear those shirts – gay guys and big fat party animals, and Bart doesn’t look like a big fat party animal to me!” / “So if you wore a Hawaiian shirt, it wouldn’t be gay?” / “Right! Thank you!”). The ending walks a fine line between predictable and zany. On the one hand, it’s a fairly straightforward example of the target of bigotry healing that rift by saving the life of the bigot; John gets a great line satirising the underlying idea of that (“Well, Homer, I saved your life. Now if every gay person could do that, you’d be set.”). On the other, it involves shooting reindeer and an a robot Santa Claus.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: Someone attempt to load the family via America Online, and it takes so long that they give up and try to click exit.

This episode was written by Ron Hauge and directed by Mike B Anderson. The concept came from a list of ideas George Meyer wrote, including “Bart the homo”, with the discussion on camp coming from Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. John Waters guest stars as John, and he accepted his invitation instantly, on the basis that if it was good enough for Elizabeth Taylor, it was good enough for him. John was largely based on Waters, though they drew his moustache with a wavy line to make it more clearly a moustache. The episode was nearly completely canned by the censors; the staff asked Waters if the gay community would find it offensive, and the only note was that he found the use of the word ‘fag’ objectionable, so it was changed to ‘queer’ (which is a better joke to me anyway). The censors issues came to nothing when, in a lucky break, the then-Fox president was fired along with the censors.

There are two great, tiny character beats in this – Bart destroying the dryer with a kid lottery, and Skinner trying to find a non-partisan election button. I admit, this episode has precisely one queer trope I find annoying: someone using everything other than “he expressed an interest in men” to guess someone’s sexuality. My favourite satirical line is “Well, that or John.” I love the note that John clearly knows more about hunting than Homer does. “I don’t, but I loved hearing about it!” is possibly the purest Marge line ever. The episode won a GLAAD award, so clearly I’m not the only gay in the village who liked it.

Iconic Moments: “Camp! The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic?” / “Oh yeah, like when a clown dies.” / “Well, sort of.” | “He prefers the company of men.” / “Who doesn’t?” | “I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaming!” | “Zzzzzap!” is shitpost material. | “Dad, why did you bring me to a gay steel mill?” | “It looks like suicide again for me.”
Biggest Laugh: