Of all the Simpsons episodes out there, there is but one that I cannot watch to this day. It’s not because it’s violent or offensive in any way. In fact, it’s a Christmas episode. So one would think that something as tame as a Christmas wouldn’t have such a negative effect on me. Well, you would be wrong.
It’s the eleventh episode of the Simpsons seventh season, titled Marge Be Not Proud. With Christmas drawing ever so close, Bart wants nothing more than the must-have video game Bonestorm. But Marge refuses to buy it due to its violence and Bart poor grades. Upon visiting the local Try-and-Save, and pressured by temptation and his friends, Bart ends up shoplifting the game but it ultimately caught by store security. Bart is then banned from the store for life which phases him very little at first.
However, Bart’s actions come back to haunt him later when Marge takes the family for the annual Christmas photo at the exact same store. Bart tries to avoid detection from security, but fails. The security guard apprehends him and shows his stunned parents (as well as passing shoppers) security footage of Bart’s crime on not just one but multiple televisions. A disappointed Marge then begins to distancing herself from Bart shortly after, coming to decision that Bart’s ‘not her special little guy anymore’ and excludes him from family activities.
Mike Scully, the writer of the episode, based it on experience in his childhood when he was twelve years old and once visited discount department store . He states that a “bunch of guys” were shoplifting at the same store and they “pressured” Scully into doing it as well. He ended up getting caught outside, much like Bart, and claims that it “had one of the most traumatic moments” of his life. “To this day it still terrifies me,” Scully said. Now, I was eleven when I first saw the episode and can honestly say that I had that it was probably the most devastating and horrifying things I had ever seen. Not so much seeing the consequences of shoplifting (although that did have an affect on me) but watching the rift happen between Bart and his mom.
How Marge cuts Bart off from her motherly affection almost overnight, leaving him out of family activities and seemingly okay with it was a frightening thing to watch as a kid. I can understand that seeing Bart steal had to be tremendous blow to Marge and probably caused her to question her parenting, but to see her completely turn her back on her son and deny him even the simplest assurance that she still loved him was hard to see. She doesn’t talk to him about why he stole, but rather gives him the cold shoulder. In one uncomfortable scene, Bart can hear Marge tucking Lisa into bed and showering her with all her love. But when it comes time for Bart’s turn (keep in mind, he’s purposely loosen his covers ready for her), Marge simply greets him with a half-hearted goodnight, leaving Bart untucked and unloved and in the dark. The neglect continues throughout the episode with simple thing such as Marge not putting marshmallows in Bart’s coco and leaving him out building a snowman family, going as far as saying “there is snow trapped under the car if you want to build one.”
Bart is left feeling like his family, mostly his mom, doesn’t love him anymore. He begins to seek out motherly affection elsewhere from Milhouse’s mother, asking if it’s okay he watch her do ‘mom things’ for awhile. Even as an adult now, I found this scene to be so sad. Bart knows that he’s disappointed his mom and feels bad about it, but never is there a moment where Marge tries to reassure him. At one point, when Bart hears his mom’s laughing and it excites him so much that he exclaims, “That’s mom’s voice! She’s happy again!”, only to have it blow up in his face. In the end, Bart tries to make amends with his mom by going back to the store he stole from and giving her a nice Christmas photo. Of course, Marge accepts Bart’s gift with open arms and welcomes him back into her heart.
As a kid watching this, I came out of this episode with this realizations. One that I’m sure the writer didn’t intend. One: stealing is bad. Two: doing bad things will cause you lose your mother’s love leaving you feel lost and unsure of your place in the world. A bit of dramatic take-away I know, but if you were a sensitive kid with issues such as myself, this is the kind of thing that worried you. It’s the sort of thing scared the ever loving piss out of me and probably what made me not want to ever disappoint my parents out of fear of being kicked out of the family forever. This episode was so emotionally devastating to me as a younger and even as an adult I can’t watch it without getting that childhood fear of parental abandonment. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but if anything, it says a lot about the kind of impact and clever writing the Simpsons had back in the day. Writing that has lost its flair over the last 25 years, but still holds strong in some ways.
So here’s to you Simpsons! Thanks for the one episode that installed such a fear in me it put all your Halloween specials to shame.