Nancy Cartwright’s penis
One of the scenes that almost made my list as best of the year below was the scene from THE SIMPSONS MOVIE of Bart skateboarding nude — on a dare from Homer, natch. But I said there that “Showing the 8-year-old’s willie was a mistake though,” which has drawn two dissents from uncharacteristically misguided folks, both Christians as it happens. (As I recall, they both commented similarly when I initially wrote about THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, though their comments were lost when I had my Blogspot Booboo.)
And to be honest, I did laugh at that moment. Donna and Adam are right … it’s a brilliantly timed gag, one that works exactly because for so long you get the Austin Powers/Borat “show everything else with some ludicrous groin-covering” gag. Then suddenly, for no more than a second or two, you get the exact reverse: The rest of the screen being blocked out and seeing ONLY Bart’s boyhood — just showing it wouldn’t be funny.
Then, the minute I stopped laughing, I really felt … well … pretty disgusted. And violated. Not because it was news to me that Bart would have a penis (I distinctly remember having one when I was his age too. Younger even.) Not because it made the scene potentially erotic or was anatomically realistic (Bart is a cartoon). And not because the scene be an objective violation of any child (for that selfsame reason).
No … it was because I sensed a line having been crossed in our society’s damnable pursuit of “authenticity,” its puritanical hatred of “hypocrisy,” and its war on modesty. One more depressing prayer in our social liturgy of placing taboos on the altar of The Daring, Transgressive Artist, to be sacrificed in atonement for our repressions.
You don’t show a child’s genitals in a public place for the sake of what is it the end nothing more than a (very good) dirty joke. And doing so in such a pointed and deliberate way and not incidentally in service of something else, like the famous Vietnam War photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing the napalm attack. Even to have to argue why we shouldn’t display children’s parts is in some ways exactly the problem (yes, I am a big fan of Leon Kass’s “Wisdom of Repugnance”). Yes, it’s obviously in this case a cartoon child and not a real child, but even cartoons once respected that some things, even true things or things that are not bad, do not need to be represented.¹
It’s not a matter of corrupting or prematurely sexualizing children, as THE SIMPSONS MOVIE itself “thoughtfully” reduced things to in that very scene. I have written before about the unwisdom of protesting too much around children. But the disgust I felt was of desensitizing adults (“The Simpsons” has always been a cartoon with more appeal for adults than children) and giving them delight and a sense of “sophistication” for one more bit of envelope-pushing taboo-smashing. “Gee … one more thing to cross off my list of things I’ll never see in a movie,” I said to myself in the theater. Roger Ebert once said, comparing some of the monster movies he liked from his youth unfavorably to slasher movies, that “people say these recent films aren’t disturbing because children today are so sophisticated. You know what? I feel sorry for any child who’s that sophisticated.” In the same way … I feel sorry for any adult who doesn’t feel even a hint of embarrassment at being made to see a child’s privates.
¹ Even when they “raise” the issue unintentionally. I remember noticing as a boy that Donald Duck wore clothes over the top half of his body but was naked on his bottom half. But somehow I don’t remember wondering where his willie was (or thinking that Scrooge McDuck was really sexy.)