"Hey--chill out, man!"
That's what I had hoped Bart Simpson would say to all this flap in the schoolyards over Bart T-shirts, on which he boasts that he's an "Underachiever--And Proud of It, Man."
Some school officials, including one right here in Orange County, are actually banning the shirts. Carumba, dude!
Actually, according to Fox Television, which airs "The Simpsons" every Sunday night at 8:30, Bart said, "I have no comment. My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear."
Braying fearfully that kids are going to model themselves after a nerd like Bart, local school officials are proving themselves to be the biggest nerds of all.
"Basically, what we're saying is that we want to spend some time reinforcing good behavior and self-esteem rather than looking at an anti-hero."
Zzzzzzzzzz. . . . Oops, sorry. That was La Habra City School District Supt. Richard Hermann talking, stopping just short of an outright ban on the Bart shirt, like those being enforced at Cambridge Elementary School in Orange and another school in Ohio. Hermann simply has asked parents not to let their children wear the shirts to school. Unless, that is, the Simpsons people market one with a more socially redeeming message.
"Maybe Bart could actually start talking about achievement rather than underachievement, just as cartoons have been used to send out an anti-drug message," Hermann suggested.
Terrific. Let's turn Bart into one of those smarmy do-gooders that populate the "Smurfs."
Gordon Berry, a professor of counseling and educational psychology at UCLA--who you'd think would know better--actually said: "If I had my option, the T-shirt would say: 'I'm Bart Simpson. I'm an underachiever and I'm trying to do better.' But that's not much fun, is it?" Darn straight, Sigmund.
The slightly skewed perspective of "The Simpsons" makes them a far more human and believable family than such carefully conceived, endlessly responsible TV facsimiles as the Huxtables, the Keatons, et al.
Give the kids a break, OK?
It's eminently possible that "The Simpsons" has become such a grass-roots hit precisely because it allows the better part of America to breathe a sigh of relief and say "Whew--it's not just my family."
That's not to shortchange the stingingly funny writing and quasi-mutant drawings created by cartoonist Matt Groening. But it's Groening's amazing memory for the details of life as a 10-year-old that seem to strike the chord of response, both in today's 10-year-olds and in those who have been forced to grow older and encouraged to forget.
Even some of the relatively good guys in this fracas are missing the point.
Jackie Goldberg, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, is against banning the T-shirt. "I think that for most of our kids, wearing a T-shirt has nothing to do with achievement in school. They see it as totally separate," she says, and she's right. Yes, Bart flushed a cherry bomb down the toilet at school one day. Did the millions of kids who saw that episode try the same thing the next day? Nope.
But Goldberg goes on to say that the "Underachiever" T-shirt "represents an anti-intellectualism that is not healthy and is within our culture."
Anti-intellectualism? Oh, please.
The message I get from that shirt is not that mediocrity should be a life goal, but that it's OK to be less than perfect.
Through the '70s and '80s we were conditioned to try to "have it all" because we "only go around once." Be a Superachiever.
But by the '90s, most of us have discovered that "having it all" is a Madison Avenue pipe dream. And "The Simpsons" reflects the notion that it's no sin to be one of the confused, groping beings that all us humans are from time to time.
Let's pray that the creators of "The Simpsons" don't succumb to idiotic adults who want every TV show to hit viewers over the head with the bland, socially uplifting "always do the best you can" message.
In one episode, Bart's sister Lisa was depressed about injustices she could see throughout the world, and nothing anyone said made her feel better.
First, Lisa's mother Marge tried to pass on a lesson taught by her own mother, which was to put on a smile no matter how you feel. But good old Marge quickly recanted and let Lisa know it's not a crime to feel sad occasionally, and to show it.
If these "educators" paid closer attention, they might learn that the real message of that episode was extremely healthy: that we should teach our kids what's right and what's wrong, trust them to know the difference and, above all, not to be afraid to be true to themselves. That way, they won't be swayed to the dark side by pinheaded schoolyard bullies. Or those knuckleheads in the principal's office.