The Simpsons is the longest running American sitcom and animated program. Since 1989 it has produced 574 episodes and a feature film. The series is a satire of the American family lampooning everything from politics, popular culture, religion, and the general state of the human condition. It continues to explore various topics in its plots. One episode that is of particular interest is “The Strong Arms of the Ma.” This was a major milestone in the show’s history, because it was the 300th episode. The strange part was that it was not advertised as such. The following episode was called the 300th known as “Barting Over.” This episode is fascinating due to the fact it explores elements of gender politics, performance enhancing drug use, and society’s attitudes toward physically strong women. Female bodybuilding does not seem to be portrayed in a positive light, but weightlifting is. The remarkable aspect is these subjects are explored in a standard 22 minute episode. At first one would perceive this to be a story of empowerment, but that may not be the case. The end of the episode seems to have a mixed message. Overall, it was a typically hilarious episode. Yet, there are some elements that do reveal particular prejudices. This episode is a great example of the complexities of sexual politics, body image, and how gender norms influence women’s physical activity.
The basic story line starts off just like any normal Simpsons episode. Rainer Wolf Castle has a bankruptcy sale after three failed marriages. Homer purchases his old weight set thinking it will go up in value when Raiber dies. The Simpsons buy so much stuff that Homer cannot get in the car. Marge leaves Homer anyway, because Rainer offers to carry him in a giant snuggly. Maggie needs her diaper changed on the way home, so Marge stops by the Kwiki Mart to use the bathroom. Apu lets her use the employee bathroom in the alley way. When she comes out with Maggie, Marge gets mugged. After this event, Marge becomes agoraphobic. She confines her self to the basement. Bored she starts lifting the weights Homer bought. Weeks go by, until one day she leaves the house. Marge happy that she is no longer afraid confronts her mugger. She pulverizes him in a fight to which Homer responds “it’s like I’m married to Shaft.” Marge finds a new hobby in fitness. While jogging she runs into Ruth Powers. Ruth is different from the last time she met and is now a female bodybuilder. She tells Marge she should compete too, but Marge says ” I don’t have those kind of muscles.” Ruth then convinces her to use steroids. Marge refuse at first, but Ruth rebuttals with “if you want to remain weak and helpless.” This induces memories of vulnerability in Marge and she takes steroids. She begins to train intensely and becomes immensely strong. Marge seems to become more aggressive and forceful. After entering The Iron Maiden Fitness Pageant and placing second, Marge becomes vexed. There is a celebration held at Moe’s Tavern for Marge. Still unhappy about her loss a rude comment by Moe causes Marge to go on a rampage. She beats up all the people in the bar. Homer calms her down appealing to her reason. The episode ends with Marge burning the weight set in the furnace and carrying Homer upstairs. This is a general synopsis, but there are specific scenes and details that reveal more.
This episode if one watches closely does reveal certain aspects of gender politics. The concept of female as victim seems to be a theme. Society holds that belief and it is one that is being challenged. Marge becomes a victim and is immobilized with fear. Women do carry a certain level of fear with them in their lives. This fear of being a victim of rape, domestic abuse, or murder haunts them. The mugging scene in a sense captured that female anxiety. The following scene shows Homer saying “it’s my fault my wife got mugged.” This goes into an dynamic of chivalry. The idea is that women need men for protection still remains, even though it is a dated concept. It could be more likely that a woman would be abused by her significant other. Marge’s situation is that she has to rescue herself. Chief Wiggum is too incompetent to capture the mugger and Homer’s inadequacies are obvious. Marge has no chivalrous figure to save her. She does something constructive by using the weight set. Metaphorically Marge is empowering herself. The theme of empowerment is common in feminist’s terminology describing the process of freeing one’s self from male domination. From a feminist interpretation Marge conquering her fear and fighting her mugger is empowerment. Marge no longer feels vulnerable. She has gain a new sense of power.
The anxiety does still remain when Ruth Powers says “if you want to remain weak and helpless.” This line is significant, because it is a common gender stereotype. It is one that even women have adopted as truth. Marge who wants to rid herself of fear wants to become a physically strong as possible. The reasoning comes from the old saying ”might makes right.” that same attitude has been used by misogynists as an excuse to subjugate women. Their view is that seeing as men are stronger, that gives them that right. As savage as that is Marge adopts this attitude. It is not that she is trying to become a man, but adopts stereotypical masculine ideals. During the second half of the episode Marge demonstrates this by forcing Homer to have a “good night snuggle.” She forces herself upon him, which is an act of rape. Although this is meant to be comedic, there is a perverse element. When a man gets raped it’s humorous, but if it happens to a woman it’s a tragedy. The reason both are not taken seriously on the same level exposes a double standard. Marge asserts herself aggressively pinning Homer down. Here you can see dated gender roles being reversed. Normally it would be the dominant male taking control of the submissive female. Marge has in this context taken on the role of dominant male, without being one. She at this stage believes everything feminine is low. When Homer says “you bulked up and managed to keep your femininity” Marge injects “and that’s why I didn’t win!” She then vows to work out harder.It seems the episode has mixed messages. It has an empowerment story at the first half and at the end reverts to the gender role status quo.
After the fight at the bar Marge is down in the basement burning the weight set in the furnace. She turns to Homer and says “I do really miss being a lady.” Then Homer replies “and I miss being your knight in flabby armor.’ The level of contradiction is enormous. The idea that women who are strong are not” real” ladies seems sexist. Marge relinquishes the power she gained to return to being a woman who is gender appropriate. Gender appropriateness is a term of sociology meaning certain behaviors and activities are to be done by males and females. Both sexes must not violate these codes or mores. It is worse for women,because it focused on what they are not allowed to do. Marge has in this episode violated certain mores of gender appropriateness. The first was demonstrating a level of independence. She began doing other activities besides being a homemaker. Marge does exercise with the intent of becoming stronger, which is erroneously thought of as a male trait. She becomes so strong she can challenge many men. The major violation was that she showed assertiveness and anger. These are seen as negative qualities in a woman, even though they are natural emotions. Marge’s transformation some what represented a woman trying to break away from one dimensional gender norms. However, she chooses to go back to the traditional role of wife and mother. The subtle message that could be extracted from this is a strong woman is a terrible thing. It is interesting that the weight set was destroyed and not the drugs. It is common that after every Simpsons adventure, everything goes back to normal, but that scene was telling. Society does not like strong women, or at least a portion of it. Some feminists make the claim that most men do. This is not accurate.
Those who offer their support are shunned as well. This leads to a larger discussion of the public perceptions of the physically strong woman.
Public attitudes are generally negative toward the physically strong woman. There has been progress to an extent, with some people being open minded. Most have become accepting of a woman with a certain level of physical fitness. Marge starts exercising and gains some noticeable muscle and Homer compliments on her abs. She clearly is strong but on a level that is gender appropriate. Her muscles are on the level of being “toned.” This is no threat to traditional gender norms. The negative reactions come when she pushes her strength to the maximum. It is at a level where she is not only physically strong, there is visible evidence. This disturbs some characters in the show. When Bart exclaims “I’m off women forever” during Marge’s contest it represents how some people feel about females with muscular bodies. They are viewed as an anomaly or freakish. Even their biological sex is questioned. The announcer’s comment in the scene explains this negative attitude perfectly : “let’s meet the contestants our doctors assure as are women, the iron maidens.” Muscle is believed to be masculine, even though both sexes have a muscular system. The fitness goal for women can be to have some muscle, but not “too much.”
A phrase that is used for women who pursue high levels of muscular development is “they crossed the line.” This coded language means a woman no longer fits into the acceptable feminine archetype. This is related to body image, because the slim body type is favored. Only recently has a “toned” look become partly accepted. Moe’s rude comment to Marge stating “I ain’t got enough booze in here to make you look good” shows a level of body image conformity. Marge does not look so radically different aside form the fact her body is more muscular. There are women who can have different body types and still be attractive. However society wants conformity in not only values, but image. The female as delicate and soft has been the ideal, when women in reality come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Moe’s comment represents a person who wants to maintain the gender order. The idea that strength and power are solely a male domain are still common beliefs. Normally he makes attempts to be with Marge, however at this point she is too much woman. Women like this face not only ostracism, but one dimensional stereotyping.
Female bodybuilding and female bodybuilders do not seem to portrayed in a positive light. The episode depicts female bodybuilder Marge as a bully, oversexed, and acting unfeminine. These negative attributes are placed upon female bodybuilders. The idea that the physically strong woman is aggressive is a myth that is repeated constantly. The fact is that Marge by lifting weights was doing some form of bodybuilding. Marge reaches a level of physical fitness to which she replies ” I can bench twice from what I started.” Here her new physical strength is accepted in praised, but when she becomes stronger than men it is inappropriate. Women sometimes restrict their physical activity, due to the fear of becoming muscular or too strong. The female bodybuilder evokes sometimes hatred or fear from men who see them as a threat to the gender order. They destroy the woman as the weaker sex stereotype and could literally challenge men in contests of physical strength. Someone viewing this episode would think steroids and “unfeminine” women is what female bodybuilding is all about. For fans and people with knowledge of the sport their are some inaccuracies that one sees.
There is one scene in which an unnamed bodybuilder sings “the man who shot liberty valence.” The peculiar part about this is a contestant will pose with music in a routine rather than singing. A small element, but done for comedic effect ( she was making a pass at Dr.Frink).
Sometimes posing routines allow competitors to use props. That quick scene captured that well. Also Marge is seen earlier pulling a bus by her teeth. Strength feats are not always part of bodybuilding competitions. Strong women competitions differ. Female bodybuilding is mostly posing. This is another great joke, but not entirely accurate ( as Agnes Skinner. said “this is the cheapest vacation you’ve ever taken me on.”). Fans would also realize another detail at the end of the contest. The winner is announced first rather than person coming in second. It is strange that in Marge’s contest we do not hear an announcement of which woman won. Depending on the competition only a select number of contestants make it to the final round. Yet, on the screen you see all the competitors on stage.
The viewer should be aware that some of this done for the sake of comedy, but at times there are inaccuracies. It did depict correctly the women holding hands at the end of the contest. It is customary that competitors hold hands before the announcement of rankings. This they got down, but a pose off usually happens before that. This is the last attempt to impress the judges for higher points. At this point the episode is almost over, so there would not be enough time to depict that. Society does not like physically strong women, nor women who deviate from cultural mores.
Another issue that is explored her is the use of performance enhancing drugs. This adds another element to the episode. It is clear that the public classifies various substances into “good” and “bad” drugs. The truth is even legal drugs and have deleterious side effects. Anabolic steroids are just like any other drug. There are risks and positive aspects. Again, a mixed message arises between “drugs are bad” to “some are okay.” Homer says in the episode ” I feel that illegal performance enhancing drugs are too common these days.” This does have truth and the potential for abuse is present. Yet, there is one drug Homer has been using through out the series: alcohol. Duff beer is one of his favorite things. This is seen as acceptable use of drug, because it is endorsed by a corporation. While it could be as or more dangerous as the steroids Marge used, it is acceptable. This represents two different perspectives on certain types of drugs. It is contradictory and it is ironic that Marge fights at Moe’s Bar. The show seems to repeat the same myths and scare tactics about anabolic steroids. The first myth is the depiction of what is dubbed “roid rage.” Marge becomes so vexed that she completely loses control and beats up everyone in Moe’s. There is limited evidence that anabolic steroids induce a type of mania. Mood swings could be a side effect, but sociopathic behavior is not.
This could also depend on what type of steroid was used. Popular culture depicts this as drug induced psychosis and is not accurate. Roid rage may not exist. Medical literature is even questioning it. Besides this inaccuracy steroids in this episode are shown to be a “wonder drug.” One cannot merely take drugs and become massive instantly.
Training is a major part of athletic development and if not done correctly results will be minimal. Marge was one seen training a for a small portion of the episode. It took her two weeks to build up strength without chemical assistance, but when she gets it her gains are immense. Steroids would not make a person super human, but just add to the natural physical ability to the user. A person with limited genetic athletic ability would not advance far even with steroids. Marge makes gains in an unrealistic manner. Then again, this is a cartoon. True it is a fact that performance enhancing drugs are a part of numerous sports, but these substances cannot make champions. This episode seems to not be aware of that.
Use may improve strength and recovery from workouts, but this does not guarantee success in sports competition.Another inaccuracy is how Marge actually takes the drug. When Ruth powers convinces her to use them she drinks it. Anabolic steroids are usually taken in pill form or by syringe. What Marge takes looks like some sports drink. They do depict her doing a steroid stack, but erroneously in a smoothie form.
They are correct that some athletes use different drugs ( like estrogen blockers and fat burners). However, the amount Marge takes is large. Women could see enormous strength gains with minimal dosages of anabolic steroids, because their bodies are that sensitive to the hormone. The only side effects depicted somewhat accurately were increased libido and hair growth. Some do experience this, because testosterone is responsible for healthy sexual function in both males and females. Adding more to the body in synthetic form would result in heightened sex drive. Homer says to the kids “your mom had a lot of stuff to shave.” One can assume he meant the face. This happens to some women when taking certain steroids. Depending on which type used it could either be hair growth on the face or hair loss. Another mistake is that apparently Marge gains vascularity instantly. This does not happen from steroid use, but when body fat becomes very low. The removal of the body fat allows some veins to be visible.
The depictions of Marge gaining superhuman strength are for comedic effect. So, that element does not need to be criticized for factual inaccuracy. Although the viewer has to accept a level of suspended disbelief. Another aspect to this is how society views drug use. There are drugs that are dangerous and have FDA approval, but they are acceptable. There are unacceptable drugs that society condemns, but they are probably not as harmful as the product s of pharmaceutical corporations.The episode almost turns into an after school special with the “anti-drug message.” Drugs are like any other substance. They can be overused, cause addiction, or health issues. Marge’s conversation with Ruth Powers presents two sides of the debate. Ruth is pro-drug stating that nothing could possibly go wrong using them. Marge provides a counter point of side effects. She claims “she would be making a liar out of her tailgate.”Yet, through peer pressure she is convinced to take anabolic steroids. She was at first anti-drug. The issue is more complex than whether or not drugs are negative or positive. It it how society views their use, how we perceive addiction, and what laws are appropriate. If we truly value freedom of choice, we would not be concerned about what people put into their bodies. This issue will not be resolved anytime soon.
Analyzing this episode reveals a level of multifaceted dynamics .The reason The Simpsons is so popular and has longevity is because of its subversive and controversial nature mixed with witty humor. Numerous episodes make allusions to literature, film, and television. These are fascinating to watch closely from different perspectives. “Strong Arms of the Ma” would be of much interest to a person wanting to further understand the nature of power relation between the sexes. At first, one would assume this episode has some subtle misogyny, but it was written by a woman. Carolyn Omine wrote this episode, which makes this somewhat ironic. Maybe it is not directing hatred at strong women, but criticizing a particular paradigm. “Might makes right” is a perverse value to hold. Marge not wanting to be a victim made her self as strong as possible and as a result became a bully. So, much so she became almost a predator. Victims of trauma react in different ways. Marge reacts by retreating, coping, and then a gradual recovery. Besides agoraphobia, it would seem as if Marge as some post traumatic stress disorder as well. During the scene were the family does a mock set up of the Kwiki mart, Milhouse comes in with a toy gun. Marge terrified of the memory of the robbery runs down to the basement. Marge’s situation could be a metaphor for how women feel certain anxiety.
Women’s lack of physical strength does put them in a more precarious situation. Domestic abuse statistics do confirm this. Women are many times at the mercy of men’s greater physical strength. It is no surprise that a parody of a Lifetime original movie “The Woman Who Died in Her Home” was mentioned. The Lifetime Channel features shows about women either being abused or in the role of victim.Marge overcomes her victimhood and then embraces the stereotypical masculine virtue of violent aggression. Take note in the bar fight scene she is beating up only men. The subtext is that Marge is doing what some men do on a regular basis to women. Violence against women is prevalent globally. Women have to make extra considerations regarding their safety that men never think about. Countering this with more aggression may not be the solution. The episode may suggest this. Viewers could interpret in a myriad of ways. What the creators intentions were exactly seem ambiguous. One simply must draw their own conclusion.