American Stereotypes of English Society & Life in Television

‘The Simpsons’, one of the most popular American shows of the last decade and a thought provoking universal phenomenon, has often dealt with political and social issues in a controversial manner. For instance when the Simpsons went to Japan, Homer lectured the Japanese game show presenter on their (the Japanese) lack of morals and sadistic fascination in pain and misery. As someone who has know knowledge of Japan apart from their exploits in World War Two, I can’t comment on the credibility of that episode.

However I can examine the episode titled ‘The Regina Monologues’, an episode which saw the Simpsons travel to England on holiday and saw the creators of the show exploit almost every English stereotype and clichi?? , for the amusement of the American audience. Perhaps English people found it funny as well; I was only amused by the Changing of the Guards sequence. The onslaught of English references begins whilst the Simpsons are still in America. ‘Museum of Bart’ is the typical English museum, with a typical heritage sector (being a ‘friend of Bart’), an idea which rose to prominence in England.

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The Simpsons arrive in London through a montage to numerous films involving the amorous relations between American servicemen, stationed in England, and English women during World War Two. During the flashback Grandpa Abe Simpson has we are given two very English things to remember, the name of Abe’s love, Edwina, a very English name (if a very old and almost obsolete name). We also must note the dramatic music playing as Abe’s boat carries him away, Mars Bringer of War, composed by Holtz, a English musician.

Having walked through a swarm of Mary Poppins’ in flight, the Simpsons are met at the airport by Tony Blair. Some might consider this scene to make some sort of international political statement, especially as Mr Blair takes a dollar bill from Homer. However I believe people read too much into this scene, I think it is more a statement of how poor the country has become in comparison to the United States of America. However the scene might convey how the government is more concerned about foreign affairs rather than its own people.

Mr Blair rushing off to meet a Dutch couple in a James Bond style jet pack might not only convey how eager the government is to open up to foreigners but also how government resources and funds are wasted on this sort of behaviour (exactly how much would a jet pack cost? ). Homer’s exclamation at the end of their encounter is hilarious, “I can’t believe we met Mr Bean! ” Rowan Atkinson is probably one of the most recognisable English men in the whole world, fame brought to him by the world wide success of his hit television programme, Mr Bean.

St Paul’s Cathedral is perfectly clean and not enveloped in hundreds of tourist as often is the case in reality. However this image of London being perfect and upholding ‘dated’ ideals seems to be all the rage in ‘The Simpsons’, the black cabs are black, not covered in advertisements for sponsors. The occupant of the cab the Simpsons chose to ride in is a certain Jeeves. Inevitably he is your perfect, stereotypical English butler from the ‘Worcester and Jeeves’ series of books. Expectedly he ends up serving the Simpsons a cup of tea each.

The Simpsons meet J K Rowling and Lisa is surprised by her peculiarity, was this because the Americans do not fully comprehend the success and almost obsessive following behind the ‘Harry Potter’ books, after all many schools in America ban the excellent book. We see numerous English landmarks and tourist hot spots (all void of tourists as previously), such as the Planetarium, Harrod’s, the famous, open-top No. 15 double decker and Big Ben. Our encounter with the London Eye ends with yet another homage to the hit series of films, the James Bond series.

We also come across a fast-food vendor run by Dame Judi Dench, the first of the two great English thespians to appear on the show. The employee is the recognisable, yet nameless, ‘common bum’ found in many different episodes of ‘The Simpsons’. The fact that the same boy appears in all these different locations, ranging from Australia to Japan, maybe yet another of the many subtle social statements found in ‘The Simpsons’, the fact that poverty, ill-education and lack of skills in people is existent in every country of the world. This is after a significant part in the show, Bart and Lisa coming across English ‘candy’.

This seems very odd, the team behind ‘The Simpsons’ are usually very good at small details so it seems odd that they did not pick up on the fact that the word candy is almost non-existent in England. As is the term, “across the pond”. The chocolate seems to send Lisa and Bart on some sort of elevated state (how hard I tried not to say ‘a high’ there). This reaction to English chocolate by American children may be common, I’ve neither seen it nor have I experienced it so I am in no position to comment on this. Though even I can say that it might be rather far-fetched, but then most things in ‘The Simpsons’ are.

Could this scene be a reference to the great ‘Willy Wonker’? After all it was written by a great author, a man, who may have been Norwegian by birth but British by choice. Rhoald Dahl was a superb writer, one who has had many of his books turned into films popular in England. Through this scene there are numerous montages to cult films from the Seventies and in particular one of the greatest English films of recent times, ‘Trainspotting’. At the end of the scene, when Bart and Lisa are found by their parents we see a reference to ‘My Fair Lady’ with the two old bachelors kissing.

I think this was put in because of how the Americans find homosexuality amusing, in many shows, such as ‘Will ; Grace’, homosexuality is a joke. The Americans don’t seem to be very reserved about this issue; any act of companionship between two male friends often results in them being called gay. As England has had an image of having rich, old bachelors in past times, perhaps the producers thought this would generate a laugh in their American audience. This issue about homosexuality maybe a poignant (and slightly callous) prelude to the appearance of Sir Ian McKellen, star of Macbeth and an openly homosexual, gay rights activist.

Theatres are very prominent in English culture, unlike the USA, where theatres are centred mainly in New York and the West Coast, there are theatres in almost every city in England. The superstition behind Macbeth may not be understood in America, or Homer maybe showing his stupidity yet again. He seems to think that England took part in the Vietnam War. Just before we meet Sir McKellen we see ‘Joe Millionaire’ the show was a success in America and after the American version was screened in England, a second rate English version went into production.

The missing ‘H’ in ‘ertz’ maybe a jibe at the Cockney accent, there is a second, when Homer is locked in the Tower. The Cockney accent seems to be one of the trademark English accents, following the haughty, plumy accent. The Simpsons rent a Mini, a classic English car seen in such legendary films such as ‘The Italian Job’ (the recent remake, really was a let down). The Simpsons enter a roundabout with the Mini and as Americans don’t have roundabouts, they seem rather agitated and anxious to get out. In the end the do, crashing through the gates of yet another landmark, Buckingham Palace and crashing into the Queen’s Coach of State.

The following scene is hilarious, the Changing of the Guards, a tourist, especially American, favourite, is put into use to beat Homer into submission. The story gets into the tabloids, another English trademark. The Sun is noticeable with its regular Page 3 photo, this time with a top less Homer. The Tower of London is where Homer has been locked up, ready to face a gruesome death. He’s the attraction to a group of Cockney tourists, and he gives his wife one last piece of advice before they are to part. Not to buy videos as they would not work in their VCR back home.

The torture that many NTSC tourists often face, without a PAL system. Homer’s speech to the Queen is provoking. He calls America the son of England, and even though they aren’t as good as their brother Canada they should still be loved. Homer takes a jibe at Canada, the Americans possibly see Canada as a spineless country which hasn’t really influenced any world events. The Queen allows Homer and his family to fly back home as long as they take back Madonna. Madonna is known to be trying to become more English, having married Guy Ritchie.

This is the cause of some ridicule as many find it ridiculous how she is trying to be something which she is not. Also it might be a dig by the producers, resenting how Madonna is willing to turn her back on her motherland. We are left with one final picture, Edwina and Abe are re-united and Abe is introduced to Edwina’s daughter (who is obviously his as she has a striking resemblance to Homer Jay). Homer having unknown relations in foreign countries is rather like Del Boy and Rodney’s predicament in ‘Only Fools and Horses’. The Simpsons’ presents a view of London being a archaic, clichi d place. They obviously don’t understand various things, such as football (“Giggs got a yellow card for going down in the box”), football hooliganism (“You punched someone”) and many other things. However numerous other shows have offered different viewpoints. ‘Friends’ once had a story-arc set in London, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ had Giles, a librarian/Watcher from England, ‘Angel’ had Wesley and in ‘Off Centre’, one of the flat mates was from London. ‘Friends’ gave us the impression that London was a sexy place to be.

Like ‘The Simpsons’ it had it’s own guest stars, Richard Branson and Lady Sara Ferguson both appeared. In the plot that took place in London, not only did one marriage fall apart but the seeds for another were sown. Monica and Chandler slept together and from then on it became known as doing ‘a London’. Their excuses for sleeping together went they got back to New York included, “I’m still on London time”. The inhabitants of London are portrayed to be more friendly and helpful; however Emily’s parents are haughty, plumy, adulterous and very stingy.

How many of these characteristics do the American public associate us with? ‘Off Centre’ was a sit-com about two flat-mates and the other inhabitants of their flat. One of the flat mates was English. He seemed smarter, more intelligent, well dressed, well mannered and more respectable out of the two. Yet he was also the more uptight, violent and promiscuous. It seems Americans have mixed feelings about England and English people. In ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ one of the most important male characters was Rupert Giles.

He was a stuffy librarian who seemed thrown by the fast world of an American teenager. However unlike the aforementioned, cold, almost methodical characters, Giles was made a lot more human and a lot less outrageous. He is known to be highly intelligent, very brave, attractive and unlike the others he has a history which is not uncommon in English men. He is an Oxford graduate, who was once the lead singer in a band and was also in a gang. He raised demons and had funs with his friends. Just like a normal person would (okay not the raising demons).

However he had a change of heart and grew to be more serious. However he does have sharp, dry wit, a sense of humour that goes over the heads of his younger, American counterparts. Unlike other English characters in American programmes, he doesn’t take insults about his homeland very well, often retorting back with a cutting comment about America. However the Watchers Council (it’s inexplicable, you would have to watch ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’) were based in London and unlike Giles they were very stuffy, uptight, conniving, deceitful megalomaniacs.

They considered Giles to be far too American. One of the other lead characters is Spike, a vampire. A former poet and punk Goth he is a very important character in the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ mythology. In the final episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ he sacrifices his life to save the world. Even when he was purely evil, as all vampires are, he wanted to change, and change he did, regaining his soul and becoming capable of love. His favourite football team was Manchester United and he loved Happy Meals and he was at Woodstock.

He was a true hero, upholding the values of good and fighting for good even when he was bad. However he is very shallow and not very clever, his fashion sense however and fighting abilities were amazing. And like other English exports, such as David Beckham to Real Madrid, he was noted for his determination and wholehearted approach to things. Wesley from ‘Angel’ had a similar background to Giles. However he had a shaky past, a bad family. Yet he remained sweet and caring, a true hero. He is very clever and like Giles he is capable of love and is very human and normal.

In the final episodes of Season 2 of ‘Angel’ we see him take responsibility of other people, command a squadron of guerrilla soldiers and make tough decisions. These things are admirable traits and are for once found in a English character. Giles, Spike and Wesley are all strong, masculine characters with strong ethics and morals. They are all romantic as well and this seems to be appealing to American audiences. They often portray Britons in amorous escapades or as romantics, where they get this idea from however is quite beyond me.

Taking all these different examples into account it is apparent that Americans consider England to be quirky and weird. Perhaps even bad, yet the fact that much of this has been done in humour might suggest that England is actually respected by them. In these examples the bad out-weighs the good but the good seems to have a stronger claim to the light. Americans are like all other groups of people, they are a set of individual, unique people with individual ideas and individual programmes express these in individual terms.