Welcome to Welcome to Springfield, a OneOfUs column that re-examines The Simpsons series episode by episode to establish what made it a cultural icon, and to determine what went wrong. It’s a lofty goal, but Andrew is just the man to do it.
Airdate: February 4th, 1990
After Bart gets into a fight with an underling of Nelson Muntz, the local bully, he becomes Nelson’s new punching bag after school. Failing to stop Nelson on his own, Bart goes to Grandpa Simpson for advice, who takes him to Herman, the owner of Springfield’s army surplus store. Herman in turn declares war on Nelson and instructs Bart in the way of military tactics. The next day, Bart uses what he’s learned to recruit and train other kids at school. Thanks to Bart’s efforts, Nelson is taken down in battle and later signs a peace treaty with Bart.
For all its adult humor, The Simpsons is still a cartoon and children are usually the primary target for animated shows. This episode was clearly made for kids. For starters, we have Bart talking about “the rules of the playground,” those non-negotiable regulations that govern the social hierarchy at school. To those who have grown up, these rules seem so stupid, but to kids, they are law. Many of us had our own version of the rules of the playground in our youth and we followed them to the letter, regardless of how silly they were.
Second, Bart’s nightmares about Nelson sum up the bully experience perfectly. While bullies may be a negligible few years older, slightly taller, or just a few pounds heavier than you, you feel like they’re invulnerable monsters. When kids are in Bart’s age range, there’s little that anyone can say that could stop them from thinking that a bully could commit murder and get away with it.
Finally, as a kid you know exactly what it’s like for Bart. While adults may have vivid memories of being bullied in school, by the time they’ve grown up, the idea of bullies isn’t likely to be as menacing as it is to a kid. This change in perspective is a contributing factor that explains why this episode doesn’t have the same appeal for older viewers.
As I watch this episode outside of the frame of childhood, I’ve come to realize that a war-themed episode like this one could only be done with children. Children play war on the playground all the time without understanding the full ramifications of war. Examining war from the eyes of Springfield’s children gives such a brutal subject matter a level of innocence.
One standout feature of Bart the General is its numerous homages to countless war movies and images seen in real wars. Whoever did this episode really knew their stuff. Even the iconic Kissing Sailor from the Second World War makes an appearance.
Despite the prominence of war and themes of war in the latter half, the actual battle is very short. It’s almost as if Bart was preparing for real war and forgot Nelson is just a kid. When Grandpa Simpson suggests that what he and Herman did could be their way of reliving their glory days, you begin to question who this was really for.
I think there’s a good chance the team behind the show knew it would be popular (or the just wanted to cover their asses). This is suggested by the episode’s close, which features Bart talking about war. It is likely that some kids who saw this episode figured Bart’s approach to his bullying problem was a good idea, but we’re being told the truth about war in this segment. While it maybe a bit preachy, it’s the honest truth. There are no winners in real war. To some degree, everyone loses. Sadly, this is a sentiment which doesn’t seem to be remembered by many.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this episode was made for children. It followed the rules kids go by while they’re in the schoolyard, it dealt with a problem most kids face on a regular basis, and unlike many shows that deal with bullying, it wasn’t telling them to go to a teacher. This episode was telling kids to fight back. There’s a lot of truth to what Grandpa Simpson said in the episode. You need to stand up to bullies. It’s a fact most shows don’t like to admit and a fact most kids already know. Bravo to The Simpsons for admitting it.
Final Score: 4.0/5.0