Reading Television

This Study Guide prepared by:

Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

Elaine Bontempi, M.Ed.

Catherine Kerley


Learning Objectives

Upon successful completion of this unit, the learner will be able to 

1.      Write with an informed and critical understanding of the nature of television content and programming,

2.      Explain the techniques used by television;

3.      Describe the impact of television’s techniques;

4.      Explain how television produces meaning, how meaning systems are organized, how they reinforce or subvert cultural or social norms;

5.      Explain how television constructs reality. 



Robert Abelman, "Taking Television Seriously," Reaching a Critical Mass: A Critical Analysis of Television Entertainment. Mahwah, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998.

Robert Abelman has received the Distinguished Scholar Award at Cleveland State University for his work in media literacy and media literacy education, particularly among exceptional child populations, and numerous regional and national teaching awards. He has served as research and creative consultant to the commercial and public television networks and to the suppliers of their programs, including the Children's Television Workshop (Sesame Street) and the Lyons Group (Barney). In the Summer 1999 issue of Communication Monographs, Dr. Abelman was named one of the most prolific scholars in the history of communication research.

Multiple-Choice Questions

1.      The author begins with the premise that

a.      many people avoid television.

b.      virtually all of us watch television.

c.       television is becoming irrelevant to current contemporary society.

d.      people prefer flat screens.

e.      television is the mot essential educational tool available.


2.      Which is NOT one of the “indelible moments” of television mentioned by the author?

a.      The White Bronco Chase.

b.      The Challenger Explodes.

c.       Edith is Raped.

d.      Kramer Goes Tribal.

e.      All of the above.


3.      Television is the stepchild of other media because

a.      film was the first to create the illusion of instantaneous mass communication.

b.      film was the first to create the sense of experiencing an event as it was happening somewhere else.

c.       radio introduced the world to the reality of instantaneous mass communication.

d.      by the time television came around instantaneous mass communication was nothing new.

e.      all of the above.


4.      Televiewing is considered largely an entertainment activity, which

a.      tends to keep people from taking it seriously.

b.      makes us realize that even the news must entertain.

c.       makes us view factual information which is presented on television as “infotainment.”

d.      does all of the above.

e.      does none of the above.


5.      Detractors have told us that

a.      television is not good for us.

b.      television is popular art and nothing more.

c.       television-viewing is passive.

d.      television is all of the above.

e.      television is none of the above.


6.      The physical separation of individual televiewers scattered across the country is superseded and rendered meaningless by television’s ability to

a.      diffuse its messages widely so that it can reach a mass audience at precisely the same time.

b.      make everyone believe that elaborate hoaxes are real.

c.       create addiction.

d.      cause consumers to purchase expensive and useless items.

e.      turn once mindless viewers into critical thinkers.


7.      Television is a pastime, a leisure activity, and as such it

a.      is important to think of televisions as furniture.

b.      is important to color-coordinate one’s clothing with the television set.

c.       complements the lives of its consumers.

d.      attracts cockroaches.

e.      is wrecking the travel industry.


8.      Marshall McLuhan was

a.      a television anchor person in Canada.

b.      the voice of Loony Tunes.

c.       a professor of English literature at Canada’s University of Toronto.

d.      a partner of the Lumiere Brothers.

e.      the voice a Vegeta on Dragonball Z


9.      Marshall McLuhan coined the term

a.      global village.

b.      e-learning.

c.       Wag the Dog.

d.      spin-doctor.

e.      beyond the pale.


10. McLuhan believed that

a.      the one thing of which the fish is unaware is the water.

b.      the very medium that forms its ambience and supports its existence is the one that is “invisible” to the fish.

c.       the medium is the message.

d.      all of the above are true.

e.      none of the above is true.


Before You Read

Is television a “serious” medium?  List the elements necessary for something to be “serious” and describe how and why these contribute to the credibility or seriousness of a medium.

After You Read

Explain how you differentiate between entertainment, infotainment, and “serious” programming.  Use examples to illustrate your points.

Web Links

Robert Abelman, “Some Children Under Some Conditions:  TV and the High-Potential Kid” National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Bryant, J. Alison, and Jennings Bryant.  “Living With an Invisible Family Medium.”

Charles M. Young, "Beavis and Butt-Head on What's Cool and What Sucks." Rolling Stone August 19, 1993.

Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications. In the mid and late 1970s, Charles M. Young -- known then as The Reverend Charles M. Young -- reviewed for Rolling Stone.   After starting off covering New York City's Bowery punk bands at CBGB in 1975, Young wrote lively features on pop culture icons like John Belushi near the end of rock's most decadent decade.

Multiple-Choice Questions

1.      Beavis and Butt-head are

a.      dachsunds.

b.      the name of a line of inexpensive lawn furniture.

c.       characters in a popular television comedy.

d.      named in a lawsuit because they allowed their dogs to maul a neighbor to death.

e.      evil super-villains on Dragonball Z


2.      Beavis and Butt-head were created by

a.      Matt Judd.

b.      Mike Judge.

c.       the grunge band, Judge Not.

d.      the youngest daughter of an executive at NBC.

e.      Eric Cartman


3.      Beavis and Butt-head like to

a.      burn things.

b.      say FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!

c.       snicker Huh-huh, huh-huh instead of responding with an articulate answer.

d.      all of the above.

e.      none of the above.


4.      Beavis and Butt-head enjoy

a.      scatological humor.

b.      dachsunds.

c.       going to the library and reading Schopenhauer.

d.      visiting universities.

e.      wearing Calvin Klein jeans.


5.     The interviewer claims that people say that Beavis and Butt-head are

a.     crude.

b.     self-destructive.

c.     antisocial.

d.    all of the above.

e.      intelligent and good examples for children.


6.      Beavis and Butt-head is

a.      a clever satire on the values, attitudes, and actions of Middle America.

b.      produced by the Home Shopping Channel.

c.       part of the Martha Stewart media empire.

d.      derived from a Dostoevsky novella, Notes from the Underground.

e.      the longest running show on prime-time television.


7.      In what ways are Beavis and Butt-head critics? 

a.      They watch a lot of movies.

b.      They criticize people.

c.       They analyze everything in terms of its perceived “coolness.”

d.      They write articles on music for The Rolling Stone.

e.      They work for Nike as cool hunters.


8.      What makes something “cool”? 

a.      It is intellectually challenging.

b.      It potentially offends or pokes fun at convention and/or bourgeois values.

c.       It is a fashion statement.

d.      They get paid a royalty for saying they like something.

e.      It is popular in the "hood."


9.      This article is

a.      a probing analysis.

b.      a supposed interview with two television personae.

c.      a translation of the original article, which was written in Slovenian and appeared in the magazine, Jana.

d.      written by two women who write columns for and The Rolling Stone.

e.      a telling artifact of our culture.


10.This article is a good way to talk about television because

a.     it makes the reader think about what Beavis and Butt-head are all about.

b.     one has to think of how and why the audience responds to Beavis and Butt-head the way they do.

c.     it makes one aware of the ephemeral nature of television humor, especially that which is based on cultural allusion.

d.    all of the above.

e.      none of the above.


Before You Read

Have you watched Beavis and Butthead?  Do you think that it is still “fresh” and/or relevant?  Do Beavis and Butthead still resonate with the viewing audience, particularly suburbanites who were duped into believing that suburbia equals utopia?

After You Read Satires are usually time and place-specific, and, ripped from their context or milieu, they lose their humor.  Is there anything timeless about Beavis and Butthead?  If so, what is it?  List examples.  So you think there are aspects of American culture reflected in Beavis and Butthead (fast food restaurants; fascination with violence) that will be slow to change?

Web Links

Jeff Schwartz.  “On the Couch with Beavis and Butt-head.”

“Beavis and Butt-head Quotes.”

Daniel Murphy.  “Beavis, Butthead, and the End of the Modern Age.”

Andrei Zolotov, Jr.  “Beavis and Butt-head Charm the Intelligentsia.”

Gary Kamiya.  “This Sucks More Than Anything Has Ever Sucked Before.”

Sallie Tisdale, "Citizens of the World, Turn on Your Televisions"  October 22, 1998.

Sallie Tisdale is the author of several books, including Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex (1995) and Stepping Westward: The Long Search for Home in the Pacific Northwest (1991). Her most recent book, The Best Thing I Ever Tasted : The Secret of Food, appeared in January 2000. Tisdale is a contributing editor of Harper's and Tricycle, and columnist for the online magazine Salon, where you can find her essays archived. She lives with her family in Portland. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals.

Multiple-Choice Questions

1.           This article is about

a.      Nielsen ratings.

b.      techniques for successful telemarketing.

c.       channel-surfing.

d.      attention-deficit syndrome.

e.      the high cost of Microsoft's X Box.


2.           The first paragraph describes

a.      snippets of what one would see on the various channels of the television, if one has cable.

b.      the origins of Little House on the Prairie.

c.       how to order angora yarn.

d.      the history of channel-surfing.

e.      the complexity of Tori Amos' lyrics.


3.           Why does Tisdale love “this great heterogeneous culture of tastes”? 

a.      Because it forces her to see how much she defines what is good and bad in the world.

b.      Because of how strongly she holds opinions about what people should think and do and want.

c.       Because she is forced to reconsider the centrality of her point of view.

d.      All of the above are reasons.

e.      None of the above are reasons.

4.           What does Tisdale NOT say about the “great equalization of a world beamed to all of us”? 

a.      Let them eat cake! 

b.      You are exposed to enough contradictory Weltanshauungs to fill a galaxy.

c.       No worldviews are more correct or powerful than the next.

d.      None of the above are said.

e.      All of the above are said.


5.           Tisdale likes television

a.      more than brownies.

b.      a lot better than the Internet.

c.       because she has bought a Watchman and can surf anywhere.

d.      while she is baking brownies for her daughter’s Girl Scout group.

e.      because her infomercials are shown at all hours of the day.


6.           According to Tisdale, television is

a.      the world’s common denominator.

b.      the world’s middle.

c.       the third most time-consuming activity in the world.

d.      all of the above.

e.      none of the above.


7.           What ideas about television is Tisdale seeking to correct? 

a.      Television viewing is a waste of time.

b.      Televisions are dangerous when placed in laundromats.

c.       The Internet was a silly fad.

d.      All of the above are factors.

e.      None of the above are factors.


8.           How does Tisdale approach television viewing? 

a.      She seeks to immerse herself in the diversity of the offerings.

b.      She looks at it as worldview-expanding.

c.       She feels it gives her a chance to examine her own responses to things, and thus develop self-awareness.

d.      None of the above.

e.      All of the above.


9.           Tisdale’s argument is undermined by the fact that

a.      the representation of the world’s diversity is not accurately reflected in choices available on commercial television.

b.      worldviews are NOT equal on television—those with the most money and resources dominate.

c.       television, far from a being a great equalizer of people, simply reinforces the influence of the “have’s” of the world.

d.      all of the above.

e.      television can't hold a candle to the Internet.


10.     Tisdale returns to the following channels repeatedly while surfing: 

a.     QVC.

b.     a channel featuring George Bush talking about war, which puts her to sleep.

c.     ESPN.

d.    Weather Channel.

e.     all of the above.


Before You Read

Deep down, in your heart of hearts, do you believe that watching television is a waste of time?  When?  What is the “worst” way to watch television?  Is there a way of watching television that is not perceived as a waste of time?

After You Read

Do you agree with Tisdale’s argument, or do you think she is going a bit too far?  Is television programming really democratic?  Doesn’t it cost money to produce and air television shows?  Support your argument with three points and with explanations of these points.

Web Links

Sallie Tisdale.


Notable Writer: Sallie Tisdale.


FFE Speaker’s Network: Sallie Tisdale.


We're here, we're ... uh ... straight?.


Do you think "feminism" is, and has always been, on the side of sexual candor? What camps, feminist or otherwise, have been most resistant to your work?

Ariel Gore, "TV Can Be a Good Parent" (+gender) August 16, 1999.

Ariel Gore is the founding editor of the zine Hip Mama, and author of The Mother Trip and Hip Mama Survival Guide.  She regularly lectures on the culture and politics of mothering, and has appeared on CNN, MTV, CBS Evening News, and NPR.  She and her daughter, Maia, live in Oakland, California.

Multiple-Choice Questions

1.         Ariel Gore is

a.      a character from a Disney cartoon.

b.      a writer and single mother.

c.       the mother of seven children.

d.      a practicing bigamist from the Utah-Idaho border region.

e.      Al Gore's ex-wife.


2.        When Ariel was stressed out or had deadlines, she found it was useful to

a.      let her young toddler play by herself in a neighborhood park.

b.      drop her child off at a friend’s house.

c.       let her child watch television.

d.      cook a gourmet dinner on foodstuff purchased with food stamps.

e.      drink heavily.


3.       The author of this article points out that 

a.     there are numerous educational TV programs for children.

b.     there are programs like Teletubbies that provide a nice, cheerful view of the world.

c.     there are programs such as Sesame Street which teach children how to count, identify the alphabet, and to sing cute songs.

d.    all of the above.

e.      Tipper Gore has had several face-lifts - all of which failed miserably.


4.       According to the author of this article, the American Association of Pediatrics is giving advice that can only be followed by

a.     the wealthy.

b.     dogs.

c.     single mothers who work two jobs.

d.    day care workers.

e.     parents who home school their children.


5.       Ariel reports that her own mother did not have to rely on using the television as a babysitter because

a.     her mother hired a nanny.

b.     her mother lived in a commune and the women shared the responsibility for minding the children.

c.     the cost of living was lower and decent housing was more affordable when her mother had children.

d.    her mother took her children with her as she made deliveries of homemade yogurt and granola bars.

e.     b and c were the conditions.


6.       The problem with many of the policies suggested to single mothers is that the policies

a.     do not take into consideration the real conditions under which individuals live.

b.     are unrealistic and presumptuous.

c.     reveal a disdainful attitude toward the working poor and the lower middle class.

d.    contain all of the above.

e.      require single mothers to re-marry or marry for the first time within 6 months of learning about the policies.


7.       The author believes that

a.     more “living wage” jobs should be made available.

b.     single mothers should not be ostracized.

c.     children are not harmed by television.

d.    all of the above are true.

e.     dogs make excellent baby-sitters.


8.       According to the author, there is a heavy middle-class assumption at work in the AAP's new policy

a.     that all of us can be stay-at-home moms.

b.     that we all have partners or other supportive people who will come in and nurture our kids when we can't.

c.     that we have no need for television.

d.    a and b apply.

e.     that being a single mom is harder than being a single dad.


9.       The author argues that

a.     we need more -- and better -- educational programming on TV.

b.     we need to end the culture of war.

c.     we need to end the media's glorification of violence.

d.    all of the above are true.

e.      girls need action figures too.


10.   The author has been careful to teach her daughter critical thinking in a “one-woman 'mind over media' campaign” by

a.     starting with fairytales: "What's make-believe?" and "How would you like to stay home and cook for all those dwarves?"

b.     later moving on to the news: "Why was it presented in this way?"

c.     doing both a and b.

d.    letting her watch only wholesome Disney programming.

e.      teaching her the Xena war cry.


Before You Read

Did you watch a lot of television as a child? What were your favorite programs and why?

After You Read

What points do you agree with in Ariel Gore’s article?   Do you think that the key issue is not television-watching in children, but the factors that contribute to a lack of childcare support?  Why?  Please list them and provide a supporting examples.

Web Links

Michelle Goldberg.  “Mama Said.”

Lynn Siprelle.  “Ariel Gore:  A TNH Interview.”

Ariel Gore. “The Kidnapping.”

Ariel Gore.  “Escape from Parenting.”

Ariel Gore.  “Welfare Cinderella.”

Harry Waters, "Life According to TV" Newsweek December 6, 1982.

Harry F. Waters is a journalist writing on contemporary culture and television for Newsweek.

Multiple-Choice Questions

1.      Harry F. Waters points out that heavy watchers of prime-time television, those who watch more than four hours per day, are receiving


a.      good, well-balanced family viewing.

b.      instructions in ethics.

c.       a grossly distorted picture of the real world.

d.      a user’s manual for life.

e.      recipes for Datura Shamanistic tea.


2.      According to the author of the article, viewers

a.      are happy.

b.      are hooked on the Home Shopping Network.

c.       aspire to go to college.

d.      tend to accept these distortions more readily than the real world itself.

e.      are losing sleep because of their addictions to late night infomercials.


3.      Distortions include

a.      a belief in crop circles and alien abductions.

b.      a willingness to try low-carbohydrate diets.

c.       a negative image of African-Americans.

d.      a hunger for South American-style telenovelas.

e.      a belief that people really can lose a dress size overnight.


4.      Most television series feature

a.      white people holding professional jobs, even though 60% of people in the real world hold blue-collar jobs.

b.      nice furniture and professionally-designed sets.

c.       angry women.

d.      families with two-parent households, even though there are many self-supporting minors who live on their own these days.

e.      shallow, self-centered yuppies.


5.      Television creates

a.      an increased fear of violent crime.

b.      a belief that violent crime only happens in domestic disputes; (c) a fear of standard-sized poodles; (d) too much heat in a room.

6.      Representations of older people are faulty because they

a.      make aging automatically associated with dementia.

b.      make it appear as though all people over the age of 55 are feeble and physically challenged.

c.       discount sexual activity in older Americans.

d.      are all of the above.

e.      are none of the above.


7.      Questions surrounding the media's point of view will lead us to ask:

a.      Who has created the images?

b.      Who is doing the speaking?

c.       Whose viewpoint is not heard? 

d.      From whose perspective does the camera frame the events?

e.      Who owns the medium? 

f.        What is our role as spectators in identifying with, or questioning what we see and hear?

g.      All of the above.


8.      All media productions embody "points of view" about the world. Whether these viewpoints are consciously intended or not, they manifest themselves through a variety of choices by the people who make them. Which question(s) determines the point of view?

a.      What story will be told (or reported)?

b.      From whose perspective will it be presented?

c.       How will it be filmed (camera placement, movement, framing)?

d.      Whose voice will we hear?

e.      What will the intended message be?

f.        All of the above.


9.      A definition of construct or construction is

a.      as a verb, the process by which a media text is shaped and given meaning through a process that is subject to a variety of decisions and is designed to keep the audience interested in the text.

b.      as a noun, a fictional or documentary text that appears to be "natural" or a "reflection of reality" but is, in fact, shaped and given meaning through the process already described.

c.       a housing project.

d.      both a and b.

e.      None of the above.


10. A narrative is

a.      how the plot or story is told. In a media text, narrative is the coherent sequencing of events across time and space.

b.      a fairy tale.

c.       a kind of sitcom.

d.      something from literature that has no applicability to anything else.

e.      an oral recitation of an epic poem.


Before You Read

When you watch television, do you ever have the feeling that it is somehow disconnected from your everyday life, and that you are watching something that you would like to be a part of, but are not?  In other words, do you ever feel disconnected or alienated after watching a great deal of television?  When?  Which programs contribute to that feeling?

After You Read

Given that television is a constructed reality, consider the possibility that its most deleterious effects could be due to the fact that it has a feeling of hyper-realism, and it seems “more real than real.”  The result is that the viewer has a sense that his or her own live is more or less a sham, and that the events that occur are a faded caricature of what happens on television. How can one gain control of the fantasy and keep from being dominated by dreams (to paraphrase Kipling)?  List five ways.

Web Links

Harry F. Waters, “David in the Daytime.”

Harry F. Waters, “Charting the Whims of War.”

Harry F. Waters.  “Review of In Living Color.”

Taking Television Seriously.

“Trashy or Transgressive?  Reality TV and the Politics of Social Control.”

Katherine Gantz, "Not that there's anything wrong with that." Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Hetereosexuality. Ed. Calvin Thomas.  Champaign, IL: Illinois UP, 2000: 165-190.

Professor Gantz's research interests include the Decadent movement of fin de siècle in France; early twentieth-century women novelists; notions of spectacle and display during the Ancien Régime; and gender theory and feminist criticism. Her current scholarly work compares the incendiary writing of contemporary author Michel Houellebecq to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. A second project seeks to demonstrate the ways in which the turn-of-the-century works of the unorthodox female writer Rachilde predate and predict current debates in postmodern gender theory.


Multiple-Choice Questions


  1. One reason we differentiate individuals who do not follow heterosexuality is because
    1. homosexuals are boring.
    2. homosexuals act differently than what society expects.
    3. it’s hard to tell who’s straight or gay if we don’t label them.
    4. homosexuals refuse to get identification tattoos.
    5. traditional gender roles are boring.


  1. Homosexuality has gone from being unspoken to being

a.      buried in the closet.

b.      widely accepted.

c.       publicly celebrated.

d.      accepted by the Christian Right.

e.      a common topic of debate.




  1. Homosexuality acts like a____________ our culture.

a.      plague on.

b.      doppelganger to

c.       mirror of.

d.      mockery of.

e.      relief from.


  1. Shows with homosexual characters are said

a.      to demoralize homosexuality even more.

b.      to be a breakthrough in gay rights.

c.       to push more gays into the closet.

d.      to help more gays come out of the closet.

e.      to confuse children.


  1. The lesbian couples on Seinfeld are portrayed

a.      as still needing a man.

b.      being unhappy about their sexuality.

c.       as terrible parents.

d.      as an accurate example of American lesbians.

e.      through a heterosexual view.


  1. The audience prefers to treat gays and lesbians as

a.      threats to society.

b.      as normal people.

c.       as sinners.

d.      as entertainment.

e.      God’s joke on humanity.


  1. The essentialists are a group of people who believe that

a.      identity is determined by culture.

b.      identity is natural and fixed.

c.       identity is mutable and created.

d.      identity is a figment of the imagination.

e.      identity has no basic is reality.


  1. Thus, essentialists hold that there are two distinct types of people:

a.      gay and straight.

b.      black and white.

c.       gay and lesbian.

d.      men and women.

e.      fun and boring.


  1. At first, homosexuals were only identified in terms of

a.      how they dressed.

b.      whether or not they were cross dressers.

c.       whether or not the had a lisp.

d.      jargon they used.

e.      their sexual behavior.


  1. “Queer theory” focuses on

a.      oddities.

b.      anything that is considered outside the most conventional heterosexual relationship.

c.       homosexuality.

d.      hate speech toward homosexuals.

e.      anything that is considered outside the most conventional homosexual relationship.


Before You Read

How is anything besides conventional sexuality or a conventional relationship depicted on television sitcoms?  Think of Bewitched, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, Three’s Company, and others.  Do the views undermine and satirize conventional, middle America, or do they subtly reinforce the values embodied there?

After You Read

Do you agree with the view of the author, or do you think he is going overboard; that is, do you think that the homosexuality and “queer” elements are a “wink-wink / nod-nod” inside jokes to the audience and not an affirmation of non-normative, conventional relationships?

Web Links


“What Is Queer Theory?”   Theory, Gender, and Identity Resources.


“Judith Butler and Gender Trouble (1990)” Theory, Gender, and Identity Resources.


Martha Nussbaum.  “The Professor of Parody.”  The New Republic Online.


Jonathan Ned Katz.  “The Invention of Heterosexuality.”  Frontline: Assault on Gay America.


“Acquiring Expertise:  Queer Theory in the Kitchen.”  Third Course: Salade.

The Simpsons Suite

Bill Brioux, "Keeping Up With The Simpsons." TV Guide (Canada), Mar 29 1997, p16-19.

Bill Brioux writes on television and popular culture for the Toronto Sun.

Multiple-Choice Questions

  1. Even though the show has been on the air for eight years, The Simpsons has managed to
    1. stay as dull as its first year.
    2. find new ways to be offensive.
    3. have the highest ratings on TV.
    4. find new ways to upset the Christian Right.
    5. stay fresh and funny.


  1. The Simpsons got its start on

a.      Saturday Night Live.

b.      The Tracy Ullman Show.

c.       South Park.

d.      Dave Letterman.

e.      Conan O’Brian.


  1. When Homer lurched violently out of character, the producers

a.      had to pull things back to reality.

b.      started killing him on every show like South Park’s Kenny.

c.       had him arrested.

d.      made him check into rehab.

e.      wrote him out of the show.


  1. Instead of hiring writers from sitcoms, the producers prefers to get writers from

a.      soap operas.

b.      The National Lampoon.

c.       Australia.

d.      weirder areas.

e.      Britain.


  1. One reason the Fox executives don’t hang around the set is because

a.      hanging out with cartoons is boring.

b.      Homer and Bart are impossible to be around.

c.       there aren’t any beautiful young starlets to hangout with.

d.      Lisa is always trying to get them to sign some petition.

e.      Marge won’t date any of them.


  1. When asked to do voices on The Simpsons, many Hollywood stars have

a.      demanded millions to risk their careers.

b.      jumped at the chance.

c.       laughed at the producers.

d.      blatantly refused.

e.      were willing to sign if they could get photo ops with Bart.


  1. When stars are on the show, the writers

a.      let the actors have free reign.

b.      have trouble getting the script right.

c.       go on strike because they are so hard to deal with.

d.      make the actors write their own lines.

e.      never write around a star.


  1. When Liz Taylor agreed to be on the show she had

a.      a terrible time in makeup.

b.      a hard time dropping the British accent.

c.       trouble fitting into the costume.

d.      only one word to say.

e.      way too much to drink and was fired.


  1. Groening feels that if people think the show is subversive and anarchistic

a.      just don’t get it.

b.      are right on.

c.       are stupid.

d.      are too simplistic.

e.      are probably fans of South Park.


  1. The main goal of the show has been

a.      to offend as many people as possible.

b.      to make fun of America.

c.       to make the show a celebration.

d.      to make fun of the Brits.

e.      to make as much money as possible.



Before You Read

Before The Simpsons, can you think of a sitcom(s) that both parodies other sitcoms, and makes visual allusions to “classic moments” in film and television?  What are they, if any?  How does The Simpsons allude to “classic moments” in film and television?

After You Read

How does The Simpsons celebrate American popular culture, rather than simply lampooning or criticizing it?  Name specific instances.

Les Sillars, "The Last Christian TV Family in America"? The Alberta Report.  October 21, 1996.

Les Sillars is the Research Assistant for WORLD, and a graduate student of the University of Texas at Austin. He is a former reporter for the Alberta Report. Sillars has been published in The National Post, Reader's Digest, and Calgary Herald. He holds an honors degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and a BA from Briercrest Bible College

Multiple-Choice Questions


  1. Sillars claims that The Simpsons is the most ___________________ show on prime time TV.
    1. awkward.
    2. religious.
    3. satirical.
    4. offensive.
    5. satanic


  1. Bowler argues that The Simpsons “takes religion’s place in society seriously enough to”

a.      make fun of it.

b.      ignore it.

c.       treat it only with respect

d.      include it as part of the show

e.      refuse to include it in the show’s jokes.


  1. The name of Springfield’s Christian bowling team is '

a.      the Apostles.

b.      the Saints.

c.       the Eighth Deadly Sin.

d.      the Holy Rollers.

e.      the Soul Bowlers.


  1. People pray on The Simpsons because

a.      they have nothing better to do.

b.      they’re desperate to get what they want.

c.       the characters understand that God, the devil, heaven, hell, and angels are real.

d.      it’s one of the requirements Fox has to keep the show on the air.

e.      the writers like to mock religion.


  1. In one episode, Homer sells his soul for

a.      ten dollars.

b.      a doughnut.

c.       a hot babe.

d.      better children.

e.      beer.


  1. When one of his children swears, Ned sends them to bed

a.      without dinner.

b.      at a neighbor’s house.

c.       in the garage.

d.      after a huge sermon.

e.      without a Bible story.


  1. Ned’s says his wife sometimes underlines passages in his Bible because

a.      it makes him mad.

b.      she wants to make sure he knows that part.

c.       she can’t find hers.

d.      she has a mental disorder.

e.      she thinks the colors are pretty.


  1. With the possible exception of Jeopardy, The Simpsons is likely the most

a.      culturally literate show on the air.

b.      the dullest show on the air.

c.       the most offensive show on the air.

d.      the most culturally illiterate show on the air.

e.      finely crafted.


  1. One atheist fan has complained that the show

a.      doesn’t have enough atheist characters.

b.      makes fun of atheists.

c.       doesn’t have enough jokes about his religion.

d.      is too pagan.

e.      puts the fun back in fundamentalism.


  1. Bowler says that many Christians have a problem with humor because

a.      they believe that Jesus never laughed.

b.      the Bible says jokes are sinful.

c.       they are being over sensitive.

d.      they have no imagination.

e.      Jesus didn’t tell jokes.


Before You Read

Do you think of The Simpsons as a television sitcom that respects religious faith?  How are television shows that call into question televangelists treading on dangerous ground?  How and why would middle America laugh at its own “sacred cows”?

After You Read

What are the elements involved that allows a culture to laugh at itself, and at its most revered institutions? Does this require a kind of cynical separation from itself – and moments of rupture, in which faith in icons and heroes is tarnished (if not completely destroyed)?  What were some of those moments in American history, and how do they set the stage for a show such as The Simpsons?  (Would you include Watergate, Monica Lewinsky, Enron, and others similar to that?)  Support your answer with specific examples.

Jaime J. Weinman, "Worst Episode Ever" January 24, 2000 Anne Waldron Neumann, The Simpsons Quadrant (Australia) December 1996

Jaime Weinman is a writer in Nepean, Ontario.

Multiple-Choice Questions


  1. Some fans have complained that The Simpsons has turned into
    1. a satire that rivals South Park.
    2. a cold, cynical, anything-for-a-joke series with one-dimensional characters.
    3. a capitalistic sell-out.
    4. a sorry excuse for a comedy.
    5. a bad imitation of Japanese Anime.


  1. For the show to continue its success, some argue that the producer need to

a.      ignore feedback from the viewers.

b.      honor the requests of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

c.       charge more for commercial slots during the show.

d.      pay attention to feedback from the viewers.

e.      put the show Online.


  1. The die-hard fans are more interested in the characters as people – not as

a.      vehicles for social criticism.

b.      action figures.

c.       subjects of academic debate.

d.      pop culture icons.

e.      cartoons.


  1. Despite its satirical nature, many viewers consider The Simpsons to be

a.      a drama.

b.      mindless eye candy.

c.       politically active.

d.      a driving force in American culture.

e.      a character comedy.


  1. One problem the show has with satire is that it tends to

a.      do too much with character development.

b.      forsake character realism.

c.       forget that it’s just a cartoon.

d.      celebrate racism.

e.      be overtly sexist.


  1. One complaint about the show is that almost every episode

a.      ends with a violent action.

b.      makes fun of some minority group.

c.       celebrates masculinity.

d.      promotes alcoholism.

e.      encourages kids to talk back to their parents.


  1. One of the most important things about the show is that it continues to

a.      mock religious minorities.

b.      promote traditional family values.

c.       include prayer in every episode.

d.      take on big cultural targets.

e.      make fun of the Brits.


  1. Writer Maxtone-Graham admitted that he

a.      hates the show.

b.      took the job for the money.

c.       liked the show better before he was one of the writers.

d.      hardly watched the show before he was hired.

e.      watched the show religiously before he was hired.


  1. In recent seasons, Homer has stopped being just dumb, he is now also

a.      fat.

b.      unemployed.

c.       abusive.

d.      bi-pola.

e.      disgusting and semi-sociopathic.


  1. Instead of Bart, the show’s new cultural icon is

a.      Marge.

b.      Lisa.

c.       Homer.

d.      Ned.

e.      Maude.


Before You Read

What makes social satire so compelling?  Does it have a direct correlation to the sense that a society has of it’s a) own helplessness; b) awareness of what is happening while others presume the witnesses are blind; c) a chance to see the high and arrogant brought low in a gesture of social justice?

After You Read

 After reading the essay, what do you think of Homer?  Do you think he is aptly described?  When can one tell when the pendulum has swung from social satire, or satire about the human condition, to being simply cultural ephemera filled with cheap shots that poke fun at the scandal-du-jour?

Peter Parisi, "'Black Bart' Simpson: Appropriation and Revitalization in Commodity Culture/" Journal of Popular Culture Summer 1993, p125-142.

Peter Parisi teaches courses in journalistic writing and press criticism, theory and history at the graduate and undergraduate levels. He has taught media studies at Penn State Harrisburg, C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, as well as at Hunter College of the City of New York. He has taught English composition and literature at Bucknell and Rutgers universities. His critical essays on journalism and popular culture have appeared in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly, The Howard Journal of Communications, New Jersey Journal of Communications, Urban Geography, Journal of Popular Culture, Journalism Educator, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and College English.

Multiple-Choice Questions


1.      In one parody t-shirt, Asiatic Bart declares himself

a.      “My Hero.”

b.      “Cream of the Planet Earth, Dude.”

c.       “Rasta Dude.”

d.      “Rastabart, Master of Respect.”

e.      “Home Boy Bart.”


2.      Black Bart was ____________________ popular icon appropriated and modified to reflect African-American culture.

a.      the most offensive.

b.      the first.

c.       the most overdone.

d.      the only.

e.      not the first.


3.      The Black Bart t-shirt was the most popular Afrocentric

a.      appropriation of mass culture iconography.

b.      t-shirt of the early 1990s.

c.       cultural irreverence.

d.      reflection of oppression.

e.      replacement for the Black Man t-shirt.


4.      John Fiske says popular culture is

a.      a load a crap.

b.      a ridiculous department in universities.

c.       rarely interesting.

d.      always a culture of conflict.

e.      always a culture of oppression.


5.      If we focus too deeply on black culture as expropriated victim and reactor, we risk

a.      feeling guilty.

b.      under-valuing its vitality and effectiveness.

c.       being label as elitist.

d.      over-valuing its vitality and effectiveness.

e.      confusing identity and attitudes.


6.      African-American culture be definition and necessity works

a.      against dominant culture products.

b.      in opposition against dominant culture.

c.       against being adequately assessed.

d.      to mock white American entertainment forms.

e.      in relation to dominant culture products.


7.      African-American culture’s ability to actively absorb, rework, and develop

a.      does not operate solely in melodic spheres

b.      scares the conservative right.

c.       works against itself.

d.      operates solely in melodic spheres.

e.      is cheered by the Democrats.


8.      The Black Bart t-shirt _________________ group identification and cohesion.

a.      prevents.

b.      delays

c.       furthers.

d.      hastens.

e.      detours


9.      Fox Television adapted the possible connection between

a.      black Bart and Asiatic Bart.

b.      black Bart and white Bart.

c.       Black Bart and Michael Jordan.

d.      Rasta Bart and drug use.

e.      homeboys and black Muslims.


10. For its wearers, the Black Bart t-shirt possesses

a.      little importance.

b.      a passive-aggressive meaning.

c.       an active, affirmative meaning.

d.      a curious meaning.

e.      an adaptation of minority status.


Before You Read

If you saw a person wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt in which Bart Simpson is black, what would you think?  Would the message seem relevant and timely, or would be like melted ice cream bar – once appealing, but ultimately ephemeral except for the sticky residue it leaves behind?

After You Read

What are the dangers in making a subversion of an already subversive text?  Can it backfire?  Is that what might happen to the “black Bart” concept?

Dale E. Snow and James J. Snow, "Simpsonian Sexual Politics."  The Simpsons and Philosophy: D'oh of Homer.  Ed. William Irwin, Mark Conrad, and Aeon Skoble. Peru, Ill.: Carus Publishing, 2001.

Dale E. Snow is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola College in Maryland.

Multiple-Choice Questions


  1. The Simpsons extends  __________ in three ways.
    1. its radical notions of feminism.
    2. its satirical views of the American 1950s.
    3. conservative sexual politics.
    4. American patriotism.
    5. market shares.


  1. The town of Springfield is more ______________ than the world is satirizes.

a.      liberal.

b.      conservative.

c.       radical.

d.      boring.

e.      realistic.


  1. The gender ratio in Springfield is

a.      four men to every woman.

b.      perfectly balanced.

c.       four women to every man.

d.      three men to every woman.

e.      three women to every man.


  1. Marge Simpson is descended from a long line of

a.      blue haired women.

b.      radical feminists.

c.       evil and powerful TV women.

d.      Disney heroines.

e.      saintly and long-suffering TV wives.


  1. The first sexualized TV moms were

a.      freaks of nature.

b.      June Cleaver and Wilma Flintstone.

c.       Morticia Addams and Lily Munster.

d.      Shirley Partridge and Carol Brady.

e.      a and c.


  1. The first TV mom to completely subvert all traditional roles is

a.      Marge Simpson.

b.      Peg Bundy.

c.       Mrs. Cartman.

d.      Harriet Nelson.

e.      Jane Jetson.


  1. The Simpsons is intended as a parody of

a.      free-wheeling capitalists.

b.      the normal American family in all its beauty and horror.

c.       communism.

d.      mainstream television.

e.      bumbling idiots.


  1. Mr. Burns takes capitalism to its logical conclusion and reveals it to be

a.      an exaggeration of motherhood.

b.      existentialist despair.

c.       the construction of the perfect wife.

d.      a load of crap.

e.      a barren way of life.


  1. The real acid test for the influence of Lisa Simpson’s moral idealism is

a.      not Homer, but Bart.

b.      Marge.

c.       not Bart, but Homer.

d.      Mr. Burns.

e.      Eric Cartman.


  1. During Marge’s employment, she didn’t sell a single house because

a.      she lied to every client.

b.      she was late to every meeting.

c.       she is a woman.

d.      she couldn’t lie to her clients.

e.      she was having an affair with her boss.


Before You Read

Have you read such works as the Tao of Pooh, Buddha-Snoopy, Shia’-Crow, or The Dalai Cartman?  What do you think of attempts to “read” a work of art from the point of view of a popularized version of a Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, etc.?  What are a few of the positive elements?  What are negative ones?

After You Read

Try your own hand at “reading” a cartoon in terms of a religious philosophy.   Does it help your understanding of the philosophy or of the cultural context, or is it simply a strategy for reading and meaning-making that reduces things to their absurd extreme – and thus, becomes “humor”?

Web Links

Jaime J. Weinman.  “The Worst Episode Ever.”

“Trash of the Titans:  Cultural References”

“Subtle Allusions in The Simpsons”  Subtly Simpsons.

Keith Gessen.  “Simpsons at the Gates” Hermenaut.

Tiina Jarvinen, “Thoughts on The Simpsons”


Visual Analysis

“A Family Portrait.” Leave It to Beaver, 1957-63.

Essay Questions

1.   Describe the family roles of the individual characters in Leave It to Beaver.  In what way does it reflect an American nostalgia for what it might consider to be an ideal middle-class family?

2.  Look closely at the “Family Portrait.”  List ways in which the characters in Leave It to Beaver formed an ideal family for the 1950s, but perhaps not so for the 2000s.  How would one create the ideal “Family Portrait – 2005” for an updated Leave It to Beaver?

The Munsters, 1964-66.

Essay Questions

1.  The Munsters were based on the Addams Family comics featured in The New Yorker, and which was later made into a movie.  There are, in many ways, a subversion of the “normal” family so prevalent in the 1950s sitcoms.  Why do you think that a subversive family was appealing to viewers in the 1960s?  What resonated with their experiences?

2.  Since The Munsters, have there been other sitcom families that have subverted or poked fun at the prototypical Leave It to Beaver-type family?  Describe them and explain how they deviated from the middle-class suburban “norm.”


Lucille Ball pictures

I Love Lucy, 1951-58.

Essay Questions

1.  Much of what makes I Love Lucy is the physical humor.  What makes Lucy’s antics funny?  Take a look at the photographs in the “pix” page and describe at least thee of the scenes that use physical humor to create a humorous effect.  Why is physical comedy funny? Offer three explanations, with examples to support your claims.

2.  What are some of the gender roles that are being subverted or questioned by I Love Lucy?  Analyze the sill shots on the “pix” page and describe gender expectations that are being subverted.  Some may include ideas about women and glamour, motherhood, the “ideal” wife, women and cooking, women and fashion, and women and knives or other phallic symbols.

“Family Portrait.” The Simpsons.

Essay Questions

1.  How does the Simpsons’ “Family Portrait” differ from that of Leave It to Beaver and the Cleaver family portrait?

2.  What makes the Simpsons a hybrid ideal television family?  What are the elements of that are considered the middle class ideal, and what are the elements that are not part of the middle-class ideals?

“Deep-Fried Rat.”  Beavis and Butthead.

Essay Questions

1.  What has Beavis just done in this cartoon cell? Why is this funny?  What does it say about American viewing tastes, and the desire to reinforce gender roles (boys will be boys) while self-reflexively commenting on the fact that this is a television sitcom undermining and subverting television sitcoms?

2.  In what ways does Beavis and Butthead parody political correctness, and thus speak to the viewing public’s anxiety or ambivalence about changing roles for women, minorities, families, etc.?   How does Beavis and Butthead subvert the idea that suburbs would create utopias, and that a planned community would result in balanced, emotionally healthy and responsible young people?

Read and Respond

Web Links

“Television Rots the Mind” from Font of Knowledge.

Donella Meadows. “You Are What Goes Through Your Mind:  Television Rots the Mind.”


A&E Television Networks is defying the notion that TV rots the brain.

Essay Question

How can television be used in a way that does not “rot the brain”?  Is it possible?  Describe five approaches and cite sources.


Gavin McNett.  “The Wacky World of Television.”

Joyce Millman. “Twenty ways the '90s changed television.”

Joyce Millman.  “Joyce Millman on Television:  L.A. Without Guilt.”

Ian Rothkerch.  “24: A Day in the Life.”

Scott Stossel. “The Man Who Counts the Killings.”

Nicolas Johnson.  “The Media Barons and the Public Interest” 1968.  The Atlantic Monthly.


Center for Media Literacy.

Media Literacy Project.

“What is Media Literacy.”