April 2011
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Censoring “The Simpsons”–the Nuclear Version

I’m sure you’ve seen the news that some countries, like Germany, are refusing to air reruns of The Simpsons that feature problems at Mr. Burns’s nuclear power plant. This is supposed to be a sensitive response to what’s happening in Japan.

The Simpsons people have said that this decision is fine with them. I’m fine with it if they are, but I can’t really see the need for it.

Might someone watching The Simpsons be reminded of the sadness of Japan? Yes. But viewers of The Simpsons know where Homer works already. And The Simpsons isn’t making light of the potential for disaster. In fact, The Simpsons has long been one of the few reminders in popular media about the dangers that this type of power pose, especially when combined with corporate greed. Many of the problems with Mr. Burns’s plant occur because he won’t spend the money to ensure safety (an emergency exit is merely painted on the wall, for example). The company that owns the plant in Japan has been hesistant to use seawater to cool down the plant for one simple reason–it means more money in repair costs afterwards (if I’m remembering correctly, that company is American).

So what are we supposed to do? Wait until this crisis is over, when we’ve all gone back to being complacent about the inherent problems that arise when safety and profit butt heads to see a cartoon satire of nuclear power?

Fine, but I’m still bothered by the censorship for two reasons.

One, the focus is narrowed in a strange way. When I watch The Simpsons, I am likely to see alcoholism, car accidents, and other common traumas. Am I so fragile that I expect the government or television stations should make sure that I don’t have to see these things? After all, in any given day, my life is likely to be ruined by a car accident. The legacy of many people’s alcoholism is ever present in my life–must I be protected from reminders about reality?

Second, if we censor for a certain amount of time, the implication is that there will be a time when we are over the crisis. After 9/11, many stations refused to show “Homer vs. The City of New York” because the twin towers are visible in the episode. The episode wasn’t about terrorism or death, but some felt that the factual depiction of what had been in that space at that time was something people couldn’t/shouldn’t be expected to deal with. It’s ten years later. I still think of 9/11 when I see that episode. I still like that episode.

While the wound isn’t as new and raw, it’s still there.

When the twin towers were referenced in a recent episode of The Simpsons, “Homer the Father,” there probably wasn’t a single viewer who didn’t think about 9/11, who didn’t gasp a little bit at the towers being mentioned (in a moment that reminded us they were gone now), and who didn’t wonder, “too soon?”

If it wasn’t okay to air depictions of the towers ten years ago, it’s not now, which is why I think it’s okay at all times, especially in comedy.

I know that I tend to be over-protective of free speech issues in comedy, but it’s because I know that comedy is what saves us, what keeps us whole, what allows us to get through the bad times. I don’t want the bad times to be what ruins comedy.

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