Producing "The Simpsons": Banksy’s Realism on the Factory Floor



Curator's Note

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.


Great post!

The most unsettling part, for me at least, is the sonic dissonance between the eerie, haunting music of the 'behind the curtain' section and the familiar 'Simpsons fanfare' at the end of the couch gag. As the camera pulls back from the collapsed unicorn, the viewer locates Banksy's dystopian space within the 20th Century Fox logo. This ties in with the Simpsons' long-running Fox-bashing gag, but yet somehow exceeds that gag. And before we can put it all together, we are right back in front of the animated television within the frame of our laptop screen (for me, at least: I haven't watched The Simpsons on an actual television screen since the show was good). Rabbit hole indeed...I ponder the phenomenon of Asian animators animating Banksy's critique of his perception of the working conditions of Asian animators, and for some reason I can only think of this image.

This is an amazing video, and your reading of it is spot-on.  It is indeed a phantasmatic vision of Asian production, in my opinion deferring pointed critique by going over the top with the fantastic and endangered animals as part of the circuit.  As you say, if there is a "truth" about the realities of production, it's one that has to reach us via mediation of some kind, mediation that already lays both a cultural and a technological layer over the real.  Documentaries like Ge Jin's Chinese gold farmers, which will apparently be screened at some film festivals this year, depict an image of Asian digital labor that is quite like Banksy's hyperbolic images of exploited pre-digital labor styles, part of an economy of spectacle.  Bonnie Nardi and Yong Ming Kow wrote an excellent article on this entitled "Digital Imaginaries: How We Know (What We Think We Know) About Chinese Gold Farming" that takes Dibbell, Ge, and Gilmore to task for perpetuating an Orientalist image of Chinese game players and workers that depict them as classic "dumb" laborers, mindlessly performing the same task over and over in dehumanizing conditions.  Nardi is an ethnographer and far more concerned with the real than other types of scholars; she found that most Asian WoW players and perhaps even workers weren't like this, but rather create value from more highly-skilled jobs like account hacking and creating clever software exploits.

The "truth" about Asian labor in the digital industries is hard to get at.  This is an amazing video and I plan to use it in research.

Thanks to the three of you for these wonderful responses.

Ed, those sketches are really amazing, and I hadn't seen them yet. I appreciate your pointing them out. 

Lisa, I completely agree about the Ge Jin and the Dibbell. In fact, I taught some previews of the Ge documentary and some of Dibbell's articles last year, and in both cases the primary challenge was to help students understand them not simply as calls for justice but as themselves engaged in orientalist meaning-making. I appreciate the Nardi/Yong recommendation, and yes, I've found that ethnologists and social scientists can be particularly helpful in this capacity. If you haven't read it already, Pun Ngai's book, Made in China, is another great resource along similar lines.

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