[ This first appeared in Columbus Day Riot, my blog-before-blogs, in 1999. It still works. ]
The Embiggening of Everything
“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man” is the quote that stands under the statue of Jebediah Springfield in the center of Springfield Park on “The Simpsons”. Forgetting for a moment that this is just a cartoon TV show, this really is a quote for the ages. For one thing, it seems to make a lot of sense even though it is gibberish. For another, it’s cast in bronze and displayed prominently. Can’t beat that as a lesson for our kids.
Springfield as a cartoon town in many ways says more about who we are than the cartoonish subdivisions and faux villages we have been building for the last couple of generations. It is an intact small town where everyone knows everyone else, and is willing to overlook such foibles as the Police Chief being lazy and Sideshow Bob’s murderous intent. After all, folks is just folks. And the close-knit nature of the town insures that every child knows exactly where they came from in ways that include cheesy filmstrips and amazing bronze statuary.
What makes the humor of Springfield work is that while it’s kind of dorky, it’s also an arrangement that runs deep in American blood. We all have the image of a town just like Springfield somewhere in our heads, and in often it’s where we long to settle down and raise our kids. The same image was taken for Main Street in Disneyworld, and many attempts at new “planned communities”. By playing off of this image, there is a comfort and a connection to the characters that makes the ultimate satire even more biting. Add to it a lingering discomfort about our wholesome longing for such a place, and you have comedy that hurts.
That is the soul of what I call “The Jebediah Effect”. While we often long for such a simple arrangement, at the very center this simpler bygone time is a call for embiggening. We’re not just a nation of small town rubes, we’re a nation of small town rubes with plans. We have places to go, manifest destiny to conquer, and all that other junk; we don’t need little-town blues holding us back! The small town image that we periodically crawl back to is more child-like than an arrangement that satisfies us as adults. There are limits to a small town, limits imposed when everyone knows everyone else intimately. These are actually quite comforting, but we rarely confront them honestly.
When we do try to create our own Springfield, there’s always something missing at the heart of it. Not just the statuary, but the way people interact with each other as they shop on old Main Street. Sure, Springfield is just a cartoon, but aren’t many of our oversized hunks of sprawl and towering shopping malls equally cartoonish in the way they overreach the human scale? Isn’t our attempt at having a small town (or at least calling it one) while at the same time hungering for the opportunities that embiggening create a cartoon attempt at having everything, regardless of the limits of reality?
The Jebediah Effect has forced many of us to live a cartoon life that is heavily tied to images of the past yet tries to keep the options of the future as wide open as possible. The present day invariably suffers, and our own cartoon is much more unpleasant than the safe and comforting world that Matt Groening laid out for us. That is why The Simpsons has been so successful for so long; we can relate to Springfield at the same time we wish our world was as simple. But the complexities of embiggening are really our own fault, and we can do something about them if we are a bit more honest about what we want.
And of course, we need to erect a lot more statues.