Directed by graffiti mastermind Banksy, this introductory “couch gag” for The Simpsons grimly depicts the factories that animate and merchandise The Simpsons itself. Despite objections from Korean animators that their working conditions are perfectly humane, we can call this opening sequence an exercise in realism—unicorn and all.
Through its recursive commentary on its own production, the video shapes the conditions of its appearance onscreen. The exploitation of Korean laborers becomes at once the occasion and the means of representing their very exploitation, however hyperbolically. Banksy hints at this reflexivity long before we enter his rabbit-hole. Bart’s copying in detention spills off the chalkboard and onto the walls: “I MUST NOT WRITE ALL OVER THE WALLS.” The rule provides the means and occasion for its own violation. Likewise, at the nuclear plant Lenny falls from a ladder he had climbed to update the “Days Without An Accident” sign. Safety becomes the cause of injury. By comparison, Homer’s perennial slip-up with the uranium seems little more than a toxic industrial surplus—not unlike the burning tires in the establishing shot of Springfield.
Little surprise, then, when the Simpsons’ couch flickers and reveals the factory that animates the couch itself. The rows of workers beneath a domineering screen recall Ridley Scott’s famous Apple advertisement, “1984.” This allusion to an ad for computers indicates that Banksy critiques not just one TV show, but also broader cultures of production and consumption. Yet those seated in Banksy’s hall are not Caucasian male spectators, but working Asian women, and no emancipating sledge-hammer transforms them into liberated consumers. Instead, each woman paints an identical image again and again: it takes all these to make an animated family sit before a TV, flickering with productive energy. But is that group rendered still on a couch the Simpson family, or our own? If the sequence’s product is production itself, it also produces the consuming viewer, transfixed by production.
Down the rabbit-hole, workers produce Simpsons merchandise—stuffed with kitten fur, sealed with a dead dolphin’s tongue. The brightest colors here are not the kitten blood but the merchandise itself; the most beleaguered faces are not the workers’, but the endangered (and imaginary) animals’ as they are worked to death. Like so many stuffed dolls, they produce fantasy itself. If Banksy seems to have fantastically misjudged labor in Asian animation factories, that is precisely the point of the current systems of production—to obscure this misalignment between our technological fantasias and the realities of productive labor. Hence we have a realist portrait of production: it’s fantasy all the way down to the factory floor.