- Watching with “The Simpsons”: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality
Jonathan Gray’s book highlights the potentially powerful interrelations between intertextuality, parody, and television via a case study of The Simpsons. Drawing on scholarship in literary criticism, cultural studies, and media studies, Gray seeks to refute parody’s characterization as vacuous formal play and place it alongside its more “rational” generic brethren in the public sphere. Key to this goal is his notion of “critical intertextuality,” the process through which televisual texts talk to one another and open space for parody “to reevaluate, ridicule, and teach other genres” (4). Acknowledging the viewer’s crucial role in this process, Gray is careful to avoid simplistic accounts of The Simpsons’ parodic play as hit or miss, instead focusing on its potential to simultaneously mock and teach in a variety of ways.
To that end the book is ideally structured to guide the reader through Gray’s theoretical framework and his analyses of both the show and its interpretive communities. In part 1 he traces the history of textual theory and its implications for television. Part 2 examines the three favored targets of The Simpsons’ parody—the “domesticom” genre, advertising, and television news—and includes bountiful evidence for Gray’s claim that all televisual texts by their nature constantly function intertextually. Part 3, entitled “Talking with The Simpsons,” offers excerpts from interviews with Simpsons viewers and underlines parody’s power to teach us to engage with texts critically.
Gray utilizes The Simpsons to delineate the mechanics of televisual parody and argue for parody’s “great power and potential to write back to and even write over other texts and genres, to contextualize and recontextualize other media offerings, and thus to teach and engender a media literacy of sorts” (2). He characterizes parody more as a generic process than as a genre per se, noting that “genre is the grammar of a text” (28). In exploring both parody’s textual mechanics and its necessarily parasitic relationship with genre, Gray’s ideas are informed by both Dan Harries’ Film Parody (2000) and Jason Mittell’s Television and Genre (2004). Watching with “The Simpsons” represents an important intervention into this scholarship, though, because it examines not only how televisual texts circulate among cultural discourses but also how audiences activate texts’ myriad meanings at and beyond their moment of viewing.
One central conceit of the book is that of parody playing “fool to its generic king” (11). Drawing on Bakhtin and Hutcheon, Gray equates the fool’s ability to subtly undermine the king in his court with parody’s similarly subversive attack conducted on authority’s ground, claiming it has the “task of teaching media literacy in the very site where generic artifice must be challenged, and thus where viewers will have use for media literacy” (12). With this in mind, chapter 1 establishes parody as one particularly important manner by which we move through networks of interdependent texts. Gray identifies genre as the system by which we come to understand any textual becoming, noting that genres must remain fluid and contingent in order to remain culturally relevant. For parody to attack its target on transitory and ever-shifting grounds, then, it too must not remain static, resulting in continuous and wide-ranging decoding [End Page 88] possibilities for the viewer. Gray calls this a “reading through” process—when we watch The Simpsons, we are watching many other texts through it, creating various moments of meaning but never a fixed one.
At times, Gray’s heralding of The Simpsons’ power to foster media literacy among its viewers hews too closely to Douglas Rushkoff’s book Media Virus! (1994), which characterizes the show as a contagion that spreads a subversive “ideological code” among its viewers under the cover of Bart’s seemingly juvenile antics. Indeed, the idea of The Simpsons as a lesson in media literacy isn’t necessarily new, but Gray’s take on it is a refreshingly nuanced theorization and explication of exactly how both the show and its viewers function in the service of...