On the week where Alabama Public Television banned an episode of the kids’ cartoon Arthur for showing a gay wedding (just after banning abortion the week before), let’s go back to a time when the entire country needed a little bit of an education on homosexuality and used The Simpsons and a guest appearance by director John Waters to make the point.
“Homer’s Phobia” premiered on February 16, 1997 in the show’s eighth season. Written by Ron Hauge, the episode casts Waters as John, the owner of Springfield’s antique and memorabilia store “Cockamamie’s”, who befriends the family. Bart and Lisa love the retro and campy objects on sale, Marge loves John’s compliments, but Homer freaks out when he realizes (and it takes some time) that John is gay. Panicking that Bart might become gay from John’s influence, he forces Bart to take a tour of the manliest thing he can think of, a steel mill, only to find that it doubles as a gay disco after work (“We work hard and we play hard,” says the foreman).
Homer doubles down, believing that hunting and killing a deer will make Bart a man. John saves the day of course, Homer learns a little lesson on acceptance, and only at the end does Bart understand what the whole panic has been about.
As comedy with a message, the episode still holds up. Homer’s cluelessness (when Marge says “He prefers the company of men,” Homer responds, “Who doesn’t?”) and his homophobia (referring to the word “queer” he says “I resent you people using that word. That’s our word for making fun of you! We need it!”) is both dopey and pointed, but never vicious. Also delightful is John’s visit to the Simpsons’ home, where he has a vintage collector’s swoon over the kitsch of the entire interior decoration, which as viewers we’ve never really considered. There’s plenty of visual gags, like a pink flamingo in John’s shop and the amazing Sha-Boom-Ka-Boom googie-architecture cafe.
According to Matt Baume’s recent video essay, this episode did more for awareness and exposing intolerance than any live action show at the time. John Waters, despite his filthy filmography, is fun, collected, and cool. He is neither a punchline nor a tragic figure. At this time in America, homosexuality was still a crime in many states. A head censor at Fox objected to nearly every line in the show (although not always from the right–there was also concern that gay people might be offended). Time solved the problem, however. By the time it came back from the animators that one censor had lost his job.
A few months later Ellen Degeneres came out on Oprah and the culture started to shift even a little more. But as this week proved, this episode’s insights still ring true today.
For Waters, it’s been a weird legacy, with kids and families recognizing him from the episode and not from his more infamous work. He now has out a new book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.