Thirty years of episodes hint at the 10-year-old’s budding sexuality
I hate fan theories. Oh, sure, I can appreciate that with a certain kind of prestige TV show — your Stranger Things, your Westworld, your Orphan Black — viewers are propelled through the series by burning questions and outrageous twists that raise yet more burning questions. It’s just that when significant swaths of the internet are given over to people working to decode the grand designs of their entertainments, I’m tempted to argue they’ve spoiled the pleasures of passive watching.
Then again, I keep wondering about Bart Simpson’s sexual identity.
One of the curious side effects of The Simpsons’ maligned longevity — April will mark 30 years since the family’s debut on The Tracey Ullman Show — has been the near-subliminal continuity of a few motifs across those three decades, 10 show-runners and dozens of writers. There’s the continued refusal to specify which state the town of Springfield is in, Homer’s repeated false claims that some new ambition has been his “lifelong dream,” and Ned Flanders’ obscenely well-toned physique, to name but a few. And, perhaps, some hints about Bart’s sexual orientation, a characteristic that fascinates because it remains half-formed and necessarily ambiguous.
Every Simpsons fan recalls that in “Homer’s Phobia,” Homer suspects Bart is gay for a host of trivial reasons related to the influence of a family friend named John (voiced, in a timeless turn, by the national treasure John Waters): He starts wearing Hawaiian shirts, drops sassy phrases like “Homer, you are the living end,” and dances around the living room in a Hairspray-style wig.
That episode is rightly praised for its wry take on LGBT politics in the shifting landscape of the late ‘90s — it showed us how straights’ gay panic is not merely stupid, but rather passé, and easily overmatched by a little additional life experience. And, of course, the story is less focused on uncovering Bart’s “true sexuality” than on making a point about Homer’s ignorant prejudice: The kid is 10 years old and usually oblivious.
But do other episodes partly corroborate Homer’s assumption? Haven’t we seen frequent indications that Bart Simpson isn’t simply white-bread hetero, and instead complicated by a charming queerness? Indeed, some of Bart’s funniest moments involve him undermining his straight bad-boy persona. In season four, with Lisa reluctant to participate in a beauty pageant Homer has signed her up for, Bart teaches her how to walk in heels and even speculates he could win the contest. In the Rear Window parody “Bart of Darkness,” Lisa visits her secluded brother in his room — he’s broken his leg and been housebound for the summer — and is disturbed to find he’s writing a stuffy Victorian parlor drama in the vein of Oscar Wilde.
The strongest argument for Bart’s straightness is his string of dalliances with girls, yet these end up being neither evidence for or against a given reading of his sexual persona. They could just as easily represent the first fumbling advances of a hetero boy or the awkward liaisons of a kid who doesn’t realize that girls aren’t really his thing. In each case, the courtship seems motivated by Bart’s desire to show who he wants to become as opposed to who he wants to be with…