Mascots of an Evil Corporation: The Disney Effect on Satire

In case you’re wondering why all of your cinephile friends on Twitter have been ringing the doomsday bells for the last few weeks, the Walt Disney Corporation fully acquired 21st Century Fox and all of its assets on March 20. This historically massive merger will have unprecedented effects on the film industry which has never before been so consolidated in so few enormous corporations spitting out so expensive blockbusters so frequently, but Deadpool might get to meet the Avengers so it’ll make a lot of insufferable nerds very happy.

One new toy in Disney’s toy box that has gotten the most attention is The Simpsons, the Fox network’s stalwart animated sitcom. Despite how funny all the jokes about a Springfield world in the next Kingdom Hearts are (“Woooah, you’re Xehanort!” “That’s right, Bart”), I’m one of those aforementioned cinephiles ringing the aforementioned doomsday bells. The Fox acquisition has been a tipping point for a lot of people’s feelings towards Disney, from “large media corporation” to “worryingly large media corporation” at the very least, and The Simpsons is just one show of several now bearing their banner that will have to ask whether making fun of Disney means anything if they’re Disney, now, too. It’s a takeover that portends a bleak future for satirical media in the ever-expanding House of Mouse — this actually might be a good time to start having a cow.

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Iconoclast to Icon to Bygone

It’s extremely difficult to think of The Simpsons as anything other than a cultural juggernaut nowadays, but it came from relatively humble beginnings. Its home, the Fox network, was formally launched in 1987 after Australian publishing tycoon and notable Hell escapee Rupert Murdoch desired a channel with the intent of disrupting the stranglehold of “the big three” on America’s airwaves: CBS, NBC, and Disney’s own ABC. Murdoch was throwing billions behind the endeavor, but taking on an oligarchy still isn’t that easy. Fox wouldn’t begin dribbling fascist propaganda to angry men in armchairs until the next decade, so in its fledgling phase, the channel could only court viewers with original and entertaining programming.

The network’s inaugural season was a smash. The breakout hit, Married…with Children, would go on to set an early record for the network’s longest-running live action sitcom and The Tracey Ullman Show captivated critics with its off-the-wall humor even if it didn’t show the same success in the ratings. Fox actually began to accrue a counter-cultural allure — it wasn’t doing so bad that no one was watching it, but it wasn’t doing so well that it was as mainstream as “the big three” just yet. Married would get caught in a controversy for overly adult content in its third season — how edgy, how cool! — while Tracey Ullman became a cult hit. And while I’m talking about Tracey Ullman, you know what happens next: those famous Tracey Ullman shorts were spun off into their own series as a midseason replacement in 1989, and Fox finally had their killer app, The Simpsons. It was an immediate phenomenon.

Fox would rise meteorically throughout the 90s and The Simpsons was why. Its progenitor, The Tracey Ullman Show, wouldn’t last another season. Married…with Children continued to chug along with excellent ratings, but the sharp satire and cultural commentary of The Simpsons was unmatched, as was the novelty of an animated cartoon for adults airing on primetime television. The show had a knack for absorbing everything about the weird state of America in the nineties and spitting it back out at American audiences like a funny and cynical Kirby — partially due to the political wit of creator Matt Groening (whose eclectic Life in Hell comic strip was especially pointed) and one of the most smart-assed writers’ rooms in history. The Simpsons spared few large targets, least of all their own increasingly popular channel: jokes about FOX being an unpopular and unloved channel would turn into jokes about it being a dumping ground for derivative sitcoms would turn into jokes about the very loud racisms from the news division down the hall.

And yet The Simpsons would eventually slip. It has yet to ever truly drop in the ratings, but at thirty years old this year, it’s an increasingly popular opinion that the show has been worse for longer than it’s been better. A viewer who was Bart’s age when it premiered is now as old as Homer. I don’t think the show its objectively “worse,” but remember that meteoric rise to success that it brought the Fox network? The early and intense commercialization could be charitably interpreted as Fox converting their flash in the pan success into much needed promotion for the network, but by the turn of the millennium, The Simpsons had completely outgrown its credibility as some kind of cultural underdog nipping at the heels of the big and powerful.

It was indisputably one of the biggest things on the planet. It was also leaving behind the decade that defined its sensibilities, one in which things like television clowns — an already dated holdover from a generation prior — were still relevant and recognizable enough to be satirized out-of-the-box. The core components of The Simpsons couldn’t update themselves fast enough to keep up with the new zeitgeist. It fell into a formula where each week’s plot was driven by a celebrity guest (since they were still popular enough to get anyone they wanted) and the once firmly but broadly late-century world of Springfield began to modernize itself with references to technology so ephemeral and faddish that individual episodes featuring them feel more dated than entire seasons from the prior decade. This isn’t to say that the show could have continued on some “golden age” forever or that it ever became objectively terrible. Rather, it’s just to say that The Simpsons used to be “with it,” but then they changed what “it” was, and it couldn’t satirize yesterday forever so it had to change, too.

Goliath Eats David

Nevertheless, as massive as The Simpsons got, it was never — and could never be — bigger than the Walt Disney Corporation. The stability, familiarity, and influence of Disney meant that they were just as easy to satirize in 1989 as they were in 1999 as they were in 2009. Itchy and Scratchy Land, Sherry Bobbins, and “See My Vest” are just a few of the most memorable jokes at the company’s expense, with a litany of others being far less tame. Even in their own feature-length theatrical movie The Simpsons could get a jab in at that “evil corporation.” Fox was up against Disney from the very beginning, since they owned one of the “big three,” and through the success pioneered by The Simpsons, it pulled a fourth chair up to the table. As of last month, however, that chair has been eaten by another chair. Disney is actually better off now than it was before, commanding a full half of the supposed “big four” — its new acquisition Fox alongside its longtime flagship ABC. The Simpsons itself thought that’d be pretty funny in 1998, but I’m not sure if it’s so funny now.

When it comes to parodying from below, being a media underdog, it’s about speaking truth to power. When The Simpsons gags about Walt Disney having the “evil gene,” it’s subversive and irreverent because, gasp, you can’t say that about Walt Disney! And parody only allows you to go so far before you’re infringing on copyright in an actionable manner, which is why the Itchy and Scratchy Land episode had to take place at the fictional Itchy and Scratchy Land, not Disneyland itself, and why they had to invent the expy Sherry Bobbins instead of Julie Andrews’ actual famous nanny.

But what if they weren’t under such restrictions? What if real Disney properties could just be plopped into the show for the sake of parody? Well, it becomes a weaker parody. From an artistic standpoint, Itchy and Scratchy Land could evoke Disneyland without sacrificing that distinctly Simpsons look and feel. It fits right in because it was created for the show, not imported from our real and five-fingered world. Additionally, explicit appearances of one property in another lose their shock value when you know they live in the same house. One of my favorite jokes in The Simpsons is a catchy little song about “Bart’s moon party from outer space / with R2-D2 playing the bass,” and sure enough there’s a two-second long shot of the droid plucking a four-string lick. It comes out of nowhere and I’m sure that that shot is so short because any longer would have invited threats from LucasFilm’s lawyers. But now Disney owns both The Simpsons and Star Wars, meaning that if that joke was made today… who gives a shit? It goes from being an unexpected if not risky cameo to a reminder that one corporation owns almost everything that enters your eyeballs.

As Disney consumes more and more of the media landscape, the media that they own satirizing other media that they own will start to resemble the old practice of companies paying their employees in scrip — it’s functionally worthless and cannot possibly be used against the company by design. I’ve used The Simpsons as a case study for this grim warning because satire is so central to the show’s original identity and its legacy, but the it’s far from the only satirical show under the shadow of the mouse now. The Disney references will increase not just, I predict, because of a corporate mandate to convert these shiny new acquisitions into showrooms for Disney media, but because media itself is becoming so dominated by Disney that a parody of any given thing is just statistically most likely to be a Disney parody.

And it’ll all be so empty and toothless — no risk, no subversion, no irreverence, at least no more than a toe can have against the body it’s attached to. These incestuous ghosts of satire will not be truth spoken to power but power speaking to itself in order to remind everyone who is listening just who the power is around here, and that’s all it’ll ever be, just the lateral shuffling around of properties. It’s Mickey’s gloved hands grasping action figures (let’s be real: Funko pops) and smushing them together to make money fall out.

The real, bona fide Disneyland has been mentioned rarely on The Simpsons and actually appeared even more rarely. In a 2005 episode, a photo in a family album depicts Homer being gut-punched by Mickey and Goofy. It’s a single shot and a single joke. Yet The Simpsons of the post-acquisition present will almost certainly have a Disneyland episode so obtrusive and forced that it would make Disney’s own T.G.I.F. sitcoms blush, and Bart will meet Kylo Ren and there’ll be some kind of epic prank war during the park’s stormtrooper march, and Lisa will probably express feminist concerns about Disney princesses only to be placated by regurgitated girl-power talking points handed down from corporate, and Homer will probably get insecure after Marge thinks Thor is so handsome, and Maggie will probably get into some kind of shenanigans with the Boss Baby.

Scratch that last one, Disney doesn’t actually own the Boss Baby. Well… not yet.