This was an assignment for a class I took on “The Simpsons, South Park, and Society.” The paper looks at how The Simpsons handles the intersectionality of gender and sexual orientation in the episode where Aunt Patty comes out.
Season 16, Episode 10 of The Simpsons (“There’s Something About Marrying”) satirizes the subject of same-sex marriage, which was legal in only a few states when the episode originally aired in 2005. It wouldn’t become legal throughout the entire U.S. for another 10 years. In the canon of the show, this is the episode where Patty Bouvier (aka Aunt Patty) comes out as a lesbian, making her the series’ only ongoing lesbian character. This gives the show an opportunity to comment on the intersectionality of gender identity and sexual orientation through this character, but disappointingly, the show does little to explore this.
In the episode, Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage as a means of increasing tourism revenue, hoping to draw an affluent gay clientele. Seeking to cash in, Homer gets himself ordained as a minister online and begins performing same-sex weddings in his garage, later expanding his services to include opposite-sex weddings. When Aunt Patty asks Homer to perform a wedding for her, Marge assumes Patty’s fiancé is male and asks excitedly who he is. This prompts Patty to state that her intended’s name is Veronica. Marge, who has been open-minded on the subject of same-sex marriage until this point, has a hard time accepting the idea that her sister is gay.
When Marge accidentally spies Veronica urinating from a standing position and then shaving “her” face (while singing “Dude Looks Like a Lady”), she is delighted with the discovery that Veronica is a man. Marge cruelly decides not to tell her sister before the wedding. However, she has a last-minute change of heart about keeping the secret and exposes Veronica’s Adam’s apple at the ceremony.
Veronica, whose androgynous real name is Leslie Robin Swisher, admits to posing as a woman in order to compete as a woman golfer. Veronica/Leslie really does love Patty and tenderly proposes that they go through with the wedding. After a suspenseful pause, Patty declares, “Hell no! I like girls!”
Despite the fact that a woman’s coming out is the pivotal part of the story, the portrayal of the LGBTQ community in this episode focuses mostly on gay male stereotypes. In the Town Hall meeting where residents are discussing the desirability of gay tourism, the emphasis is on gay men’s perceived affluence. “Them gay guys got lots of disposable income. I can serve fancy drinks and charge ten bucks a pop,” Moe enthuses.
The Springfield gay tourism commercial is aimed more at gay men than women. The majority of the people shown are men, and the lyrics to the jingle are, “When my man and I shopped for wedding gowns, we were mocked and shunned and pushed around. But yesterday we found a place to be gay—I’m going to marry my Harry in Springfield town!” It also ends with Mayor Quimby saying, “Springfield: A place where everyone can marry—even dudes!”
Springfield’s gay tourism ads are mostly aimed at men.
Later in the episode, Reverend Lovejoy shoos away a crowd of male and female same-sex-wedding seekers, telling them, “Go back to working behind the scenes in every facet of entertainment!”—a stereotype that applies to gay men.
The greater visibility of gay men than lesbians is consistent with the series’ emphasis on men in general. Outside of the core Simpson family, women in The Simpsons tend to be defined by their relationships to men. Either the character exists to support a more prominently featured male character (e.g., Helen Lovejoy, Maude Flanders, and Agnes Skinner) or she is depicted as lovelorn and man-hungry (e.g., Edna Krebappel and Aunt Selma). Aunt Patty is one of the few exceptions to this rule. Even Crazy Cat Lady (aka Eleanor Abernathy, MD, JD) is there to be a cautionary tale of what happens when a woman puts her career first.
In the early seasons of the series, Aunt Patty and her twin sister, Selma, are virtually indistinguishable except for a difference in how they wear their hair and the color of their dresses. (Interestingly, Patty is the one who wears pink.) They have identical voices, personalities, opinions, and enjoy the same activities (smoking, bashing Homer, and watching MacGyver). They even have identical jobs at the DMV. In the pilot, they are essentially a single entity. As the two characters develop, one difference that emerges is Selma’s desire to get married to a man; she has ill-fated marriages to Sideshow Bob, Troy McClure, and others, while Patty seems resigned to a life of celibacy prior to this episode.
In the Baltimore Sun article, “The Simpsons prepares for a gay outing,” Steven Kiehl writes that Patty’s celibacy is in fact a hint about what’s to come. “There have been some clues [about Patty’s lesbianism] along the way. When her sister Selma was looking for a husband to start a family, Patty showed no interest. When Homer, naked, runs by the sisters in one episode, Patty says, ‘There goes the last lingering shred of my heterosexuality.’”
With this kind of set-up, the show could have gone an interesting route and tried to show intersectionality by comparing the experiences of the twins, one gay and one straight, as in a scientific study. However, they instead choose to retcon Patty, showing a flashback to her childhood where she dresses up like a construction worker in a hard hat, tank top, and boots. Hanging on the wall of Patty’s childhood bedroom is a poster of Miss Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies—a masculine woman, whom many considered to be a coded lesbian character. This retcon is the first inkling that there was ever any difference between Patty and Selma in childhood.
A flashback shows a retconned childhood in which Patty dressed up like a construction worker and had a poster of Miss Hathaway on her wall.
The flashback, and Veronica’s being presented as a woman golfer, are humorous stereotypes, but they lack nuance—they are all based on the same notion that lesbians are unfeminine. The show presents issues of gender identity in a way that seems outdated today. Gender identity and sexual orientation are presented as binary, and the possibility that Veronica, with an Adam’s apple and male genitalia, might be a trans woman is something that no one considers.
In Kiehl’s article, which was published before episode aired, he suggests possible candidates for the character who would be coming out. In addition to Patty, he lists Smithers, Moe, Lenny & Carl, Duff-Man, Groundskeeper Willie, and Ned Flanders—all men, which again points to the fact that there are more male characters without family ties. The choice of Patty is a good one, since it provides the opportunity to show the intersection of gender and sexual orientation. It’s unfortunate that, for the most part, The Simpsons fails to do so.