168. Homer’s Phobia

(originally aired February 16, 1997)
Honest depictions of gays on TV have been slowly emerging the last ten to fifteen years, so if you think back to when this episode aired, they weren’t very prevalent at all. Then again, I was a kid and don’t remember, so someone out there can confirm or deny this. But Wikipedia informs me Will & Grace was still a year away, and Ellen DeGeneres had come out the month this aired, and later on her TV show (that then tanked.) The Simpsons seems to have been ahead of the curve, but not in a self-righteous way, just in that they thought it would an interesting topic to explore. It’s an interesting episode set when America was still very iffy about homosexuality. …well, iffy-er. But this isn’t an essay about tolernace of gays, it’s about a cartoon. The Simpsons find themselves a new family friend in John, energetic owner of a local antiques store. However, despite the incredibly obvious signs, Homer is absolutely shocked to discover that he’s gay, and wishes to cut off all ties with him. The rest of the family continues spending time with John, and Homer begins to fear that “the gay” will rub off on Bart. To combat this, he, Moe and Barney arrange a hunting trip so that Bart can shoot a helpless innocent animal to prove his manly manhood.

I’ve got mixed feelings about Homer’s exaggerated intolerance in this episode. On one hand, it comes from an understandable place; Homer is representative of the average American man, people who assume the worst about gays because they’ve never met any, or are just too oblivious to acknowledge those who are. Homer’s as oblivious as they come, and the fact that John maybe, just maybe might bat for the other team didn’t even occur to him (similar to “Simpson and Delilah;” even after Karl kisses him, I bet he didn’t even think he was gay). Once Marge spills the beans to him, he flips out, and spends the rest of the episode being completely (and hilariously) irrational (“Think of the property values! Now we can never say only straight people have been in this house!”) On that note, the allegedly telltale signs that Bart may be turning are just as ridiculous: picking pink snack treats over traditional chocolate (absurd since nobody likes Snoballs. Nobody), wearing Hawaiian shirts, and dancing to Betty Everett in a wig. Everything is ramped up to such an high level that it becomes absurdist, just as homophobia is in real life. But toward the end when Moe and Barney add more fuel to the fire, it becomes a bit more depressing. Yes, their anti-gay viewpoints are played for laughs, but there really are assholes who think this stuff for real. The episode mostly avoids villifying Homer for his ignorant viewpoints, but there are one or two scenes that don’t quite pull it off.

John Waters plays John, who seems to just be playing himself, or at least how I imagine him to be from interviews and the like. He’s a wonderful one-off character, and the perfect foil for Homer’s battle of the sexual orientations; he plays off Homer’s accusations with gentle good humor, as I’m sure he’s dealt with hundreds of small-minded fellows just like him in the past. I also like how Bart becomes critical to the plot midway through unbeknownst to him, just getting dragged around by his father to various places without knowing why. The kicker, of course, is his critique about hunting, “Something about a bunch of guys alone together in the woods… seems kinda gay.” Also, despite the thick-headedness of his crusade, I did feel a little bad for Homer believing he’d failed as a parent, wishing he’d spent more time with his son to avert this “tragedy.” Even when he’s absolutely terribly misguided, there’s something about Homer’s earnesty that ellicts a positive response from me. John ends up saving Homer and Bart from serious maiming, which gives Homer newfound respect for the man. John summarizes the message perfectly (“I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you’d be set.”) Although in terms of general viewpoints on gays, this is as relevant then as it is now fifteen years later, this is a real great episode, with a lot of laughs, excellent performance by John Waters, and ends up having a heart admist all of the hilarious bigotry.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The episode starts with Bart’s antics slapping the family with a $900 gas bill. They resort to selling an antiquity of Marge’s, which leads them to meet John… then the money issue is never brought up again. Rather egregious hanging plot thread. I dunno, maybe while visiting the Simpson house, John could have found some little knick knack that was unknowingly worth a pretty penny and bought it, which would get him in the family’s good graces even more. Just a thought.
– Nice campaign buttons at the antique store (“Quayle Can’t Fayle,” “Click for Dick”) and Skinner’s desire to find some non-partisan ones (“Don’t you have any neutral ones? ‘May the better man win’? ‘Let’s have a good, clean election’? That sort of thing?”) Also, a really minor point, but next scene we focus on Bart and Lisa, and we see Skinner leaving the store in the background. Stuff like that makes things feel more cohesive, that each scene leads into the other, in that they weren’t separately and thoughtlessly produced.
– Love Homer’s strange indignance at John’s chiding of Jackie O’s poor crosswording abilities (“Give her a break! Her husband was killed!”)
– That Johnny Reb liquor bottle is actually a pretty neat item; I like the cavalier way John just unscrews the top and drinks whatever contents may be inside (“That’ll make your bull run.”) Marge is understandably crestfallen over the exposure of her fradulent family heirloom (“I guess it’ll always be a monument to Grandma’s secret drinking problem.”)
– I love Homer’s confusion and inability to comprehend John’s love of camp, or even what camp is (“The tragically ludicrous?  The ludicrously tragic?” “Oh, yeah. Like when a clown dies.” “Well, sort of.”) Also nice touch that Homer gave his Pin Pals shirt to Goodwill. At least he didn’t bury it like the Dancin’ Homer outfit.
– John is in heaven with the garish decore of the Simpson house, sort of like a campy critique on the look of the show (“Pearls on a little girl? It’s a fairy tale!”)
– Great act break where Marge attempts to get Homer to realize John’s true colors (“Didn’t John seem a little… festive to you?” “Couldn’t agree more. Happy as a clam.” “He prefers the company of men!” “Who doesn’t?”)
– Homer’s upset with John, according to him, is that he should have acted more gay so it would be obvious to him (how much more did he need?), giving us this classic line (“I like my beer cold, my TV loud and my homosexual fah-laming!”)
– As per any homophobe, Homer’s internal logic is full of holes; the only people who wear Hawaiian shirts are gays and big fat party animals, so it’s okay if he wears one. Later, he gleefully hums the “Shoop Shoop Song,” but is horrified to find Bart dancing to it. There’s so many instances of Homer acting effeminate in the past, the list would go on forever, so there’s so much delicious irony laced in this episode.
– When John confronts him, Homer gets more vehement. Only someone as lovable as Homer can make an ignorant hate speech hilarious (“They’re embarrassing America.  They turned the Navy into a floating joke. They ruined all our best names like Bruce, and Lance, and Julian. Those were the toughest names we had!”) He also takes displeasure of John using the word ‘queer’ (“That’s our word for making fun of you! We need it!:)
– Homer’s mission to straighten Bart out (ha ha ha) is fantastic: first he sits him in front of a cigarette billboard featuring two sexy ladies having a pillow fight for two hours, with not-so-effective results. Bart feels like he wants a smoke afterwards. which Homer thinks is a good start until Bart mentions he’d like “anything slim.” Then we have the steel mill scene which… words cannot properly explain the brilliance that unfolds. It’s one of the best scenes in the series’ history just because it’s off-the-wall crazy bonkers insane (“You’re all sick!!” “Oh, be nice!”) My best friend in high school put (“We work hard, we play hard.” – Anonymous Steel Mill Worker) as one of his senior quotes, and I am forever respectful for him for it. I also love how it carries into the start of the third act. Homer, at Moe’s, finishes his story (“…and the entire steel mill was gay.”) If you were just tuning in, what the hell would you have thought?
– When their hunting trip proves futile, Moe tries to cheer Homer up, that maybe they can try taking Lisa out hunting and make her a man. Homer says she wouldn’t since she’s a vegetarian. Moe is dumbstruck (“You and Marge ain’t cousins, are you?”)
– Love John’s explanation for why the reindeer fled his mechanical Santa (“Well the sound is just brutal, and I figured reindeer would naturally be afraid of their cruel master Santa Claus. I mean, wouldn’t you be?”)
– One of the best endings of the series: spending the whole episode in the dark, Bart is stunned that his father thinks he’s gay. Cut to C&C Music Factory as John’s car drives off into the night. Then “Dedicated to The Steelworkers of America. Keep Reaching For That Rainbow!” Unbelievable.

13 thoughts on “168. Homer’s Phobia

  1. My one big issue with this episode is that it’s one of the first episodes that ends with a situation in which Homer finds himself in an outlandish situation where he gets the living shit knocked out of him. A sign of things to come.

  2. “Also nice touch that Homer gave his Pin Pals shirt to Goodwill. At least he didn’t bury it like the Dancin’ Homer outfit.”

    Due to her nervous laughter, the show pretty much implied that Marge donated it behind Homer’s back.

    1. But how? The last time we saw Homer’s Pin Pals shirt was when he wore it to steal back the bowling trophy from Mr. Burns, then the hounds came after him and mauled him to the point that the shirt was shredded. Does Marge have magical sewing skills that can put it back together? It would explain why it was small on John, yet it used to belong to someone as fat as Homer.

  3. This episode is great, and I love the DVD commentary for it too. John Waters is on it, and he brings up so many hilarious topics of conversation, from Smell-O-Rama cards to children’s wigs to the pros and cons of growing a squiggly mustache. And Bill Oakley has a great behind-the-scenes story of how this episode almost didn’t get made due to the FOX censors objecting to nearly every single scene.

    On the topic of the campaign buttons, it took me a few years before it dawned on me why “I Fell For Dole” was funny.

  4. The opening scene with Bart’s lottery stunt:

    * How was Bart going to draw the numbers? Was he going to open the door while the dryer was in motion? Not only would that have been dangerous, but he might have ended up drawing more numbers than he intended.

    * Ironic that the pink shoe – the only one of the “balls” that one would expect to find in a dryer – is what causes the machine to break. And the dryer itself must be of a fairly crappy design, too, if the shoe can somehow end up wedged between the door and the drum.

    * I may or may not be alone here – but watching the bit where Bart tries to reach the “off” button as the dryer vibrates wildly, it does feel like he *should* succeed. But of course, if he did, we’d have no story…

  5. Fun episode. Really was pushing the boundary at the time, despite seeming retrograde and homophobic by today’s standards.

    I love that scene in the kitchen
    Marge: Homer, John is a ho [Homer: Uh-hunh] mo [Homer: yeah] sexual [Homer shrieks]

  6. While I’m usually critical of Homer acting like a dick, looking back on this episode, his behavior is actually not too far off the mark regarding real homophobes. Plus I like how everything he does to make a man out of Bart is baseless, and again, quite in line with how some real-life parents act when they suspect their sons to be gay (the only thing left for Homer was to take Bart to a red light district, but TV standards, I guess). I do admit that the recent gender role upheaval wave has made me uncomfortable, but that’s only because man and woman are biologically distinct due to evolutionary differences, and if my son wants to play with my daughter’s dolls, hell, why not? I used to play with my older sister’s dolls every once in a while when I was a kid, and that never made me anything other than straight. But I digress. I’d also like to point out that John is one of the best one-off characters in the whole series, being a tactfully-written level-headed homosexual (I honestly don’t know John Waters that well to say how far the inspiration went, but if they’re that much alike, he must be a pretty cool guy), which makes the acceptance message more poignant than what we’d see later in episodes like “Three Gays of the Condo”.

  7. What? No mention of the scene when Smithers runs into John with Marge and the kids? That one is funny as heck. Although, I totally agree about how awesome the steel mill scene is.

    This is a really great episode. I’ve never understood why people hate gay people. Like how does someone being gay affect their own personal life? And why does no one ever ask them that whenever these people go on tirades about gay marriage.

    As for the Pin Pals shirt, my guess is that Homer had more than one. Or maybe the one Marge donated actually belonged to Moe, Burns, or Apu. Who knows, who cares! It was a funny scene.

    Although, for me the best moment is when Lisa tells Bart Homer thinks he’s gay and his eyes and response are like, “WHAT?!”

  8. A pretty astounding episode. Homosexuality was a pretty risqué topic for 1997, and it’s surprising how well they pulled it off (even if they pulled it off really well back in 1990 as well). John is a pretty fun character, and I like that he’s a fairly normal guy who happens to be gay rather than a stereotypically flaming effeminate cartoon caricature. I’m certain that’s how he’d be if this episode were made in the later seasons.

    There’s tons of amazing jokes in this episode, of course. I like Skinner’s want for neutral campaign buttons, the ways Marge tries to tell Homer about John’s sexuality and him just not getting it (especially when she slowly tells him… and he screams after the full word has finally been said), “I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals fa-lamin’!”, Homer’s upset over John using the word “queer”, “You and Marge ain’t cousins, are you?”… It’s an episode that’s both funny and has some great social satire… just what I want from an episode of this series.

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