OTH- The Simpsons- "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge"

The show aims for big questions, and gets a masterpiece for an answer.

Season 2, Episode 9

Aired December 20, 1990

Directed by Jim Reardon

Written by John Swartzwelder

What’s the difference between Michelangelo’s David and a violent little cartoon like Itchy and Scratchy?

This is a question Dr. Monroe asks, but he has a good point. Art is subjective, and there should be room for it in all of its form. Yes, even violent cartoons qualify as art- have you seen a Looney Tunes short recently?

One of the things that works surprisingly well about “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” is that the show tries to play both sides as neutral as possible, and doesn’t try to suggest that cartoons are or aren’t a bad influence on children. And it’s especially refreshing for how it treats Marge, who could have been written as an obsessive nutjob, but is allowed nuance in her position.

The episode throws a bone to the critics of cartoon violence by showing us the gorgeous sequence of children going outside and enjoying their youth. This works because it’s so out of left field for the show, on top of its beautiful use of music and timing. Although you could make a case that the children are playing as a means of rejecting the domestication of their favorite cartoon characters.

That’s a fun little moment, and helps to back up the belief that children are impressionable. However, it would have been a poor way to end the episode, despite Brooks’ suggestion to. Not only would it affect the status quo, but there would be no punch, making this episode come off as limp.

However, while everyone involved is willing to meet halfway, it’s fairly clear which side writer Swartzwelder is on. Children are impressionable, yes, especially those as young as Maggie, but children have grown up watching violent cartoons for decades, including as far back as Marge’s time, and have mostly turned out okay. Itchy & Scratchy are meant to resemble the classic predator and prey cartoons of lore, primarily Tom and Jerry (the gold standard), Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks (who were namedropped in the commentary), and Herman and Katnip (who I’ll talk about in the observations).

That’s what I think makes the difference- most children can tell that Tom and Jerry and Road Runner cartoons aren’t real, and that cartoon logic doesn’t apply to the real world. Incidents like Maggie are more of an anomaly, and evidence of Marge and Homer being negligent with watching her than anything. But still, even if I don’t agree with Maggie being an example of cartoons like Itchy & Scratchy promoting violence, I couldn’t be too mad at its extended Psycho tribute, which is easily one of the more elaborate pop culture spoofs seen thus far.

I can’t help but think about “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” in the present (or I guess this episode’s future), with Pepe Le Pew and cancel culture being in the news. Granted, Pepe is being “cancelled” less for promoting cartoon violence and more for his cartoons supposedly promoting rape culture, which I’d argue is harsh, but has evidence based in reality. Still, I don’t think a horny cartoon skunk has taught boys that it’s okay to harass women by any means, just like I don’t think Bella and Edward from Twilight taught young women that toxic relationships are good, actually. Just as I don’t think that cartoons like Tom and Jerry, or Itchy & Scratchy, teach children that wanton violence is okay.

My political leanings should be clear by now, but I will say that I’ve never sided with the belief that characters in fiction should be role models. Many of the best works involve downright despicable protagonists, and if you come out from watching them thinking that you’re supposed to idolize them, that’s on you. Hell, the head of Itchy & Scratchy Studios’ voice actor comes from The Godfather, which has some truly heinous characters, yet I wouldn’t change a thing about the first film.

Let’s be real, though- cancel culture isn’t really a thing. Very few people, if indeed anyone at all is offended enough by Pepe or old Dr. Seuss books very few people have read in comparison to Green Eggs and Ham or whatever controversy we’re still fending off this week (Potato Head?). A certain set of people get off and profit from starting culture wars whenever the opportunity arises, and they know that they can rile up an impressionable crowd by saying the right words. No, the Muppets aren’t cancelled- you can enjoy the majority of The Muppet Show at the speed of a Disney+ search, even if there’s a reminder of how certain episodes have questionable content. And no, you’re not a bad person for still liking Pepe, or Itchy & Scratchy, despite Marge’s protests.

Sorry for this rant, but the internet is aggravating sometimes, and I don’t see why we can’t just enjoy a dumb cartoon in peace. This is a vibe that’s easy to pick up from this episode, which really succeeds at everything it does. I enjoy what it has to say, and it’s funny as all hell, giving us some of that iconic Swartzwelder wit that was only hinted at in earlier episodes. I’d go as far as to call “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” the first episode to air thus far that may crack into my very favorites. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Stray Observations:

  • So for the time being, I’m going to space these reviews apart a little. I still want to do two episodes a week, but I think part of what has been holding me back lately is the pressure to get to the next episode before I finish what’s already on my plate. So until my work schedule calms back down a little, I want to try this- I’ll still do an episode on Sundays, but I’m also adding one on Thursdays. Now we’re cooking on both days of the week the series aired!

  • I’ve been watching some Herman and Katnip cartoons out of curiosity, and these really are the influence for Itchy & Scratchy. These are some really dumb, gruesome little cartoons. See for yourself. It’s like the executives of Famous Studios saw the success of Tom and Jerry, deduced that they sell because of violence, and tried to make their mass marketed version with no hint of the timing or wit that made Hanna and Barbera’s cat and mouse so beloved. When I hear people tell me how much better TGI Fridays used to be in the 70’s before streamlining everything, that’s how I feel between watching a Tom and Jerry vs a Herman and Katnip.

  • While we’re at it, Marge in squirrel form reminds me of Sammy Squirrel, seen here.

    Look at Homer’s spice rack.

  • Moe easily has the best protest sign of the bunch. “Bring back Wagon Train” indeed.

  • “Twenty million women in the world, and I had to be married to Jane Fonda.”

  • The cities included in David’s tour- New York, Springfield, MAYBE Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles

  • Yes, Marge sure is soft on full frontal nudity

  • New Character Column- We meet Roger Meyers Jr, the head of Itchy & Scratchy Studios, in this one. Voiced by the late Alex Rocco half the time (Hank Azaria will voice him for certain episodes that Rocco couldn’t come in for- Meyers has become all but silent after his passing), he’s an enjoyably sleazy chairman, and always comes in with a couple of notable lines. We also meet Sideshow Mel this week, who has a similar pompous personality and voice to Krusty’s previous sidekick, but is missing the murderous streak.