Frank Grimes - Neo-liberal Stalking Horse
Not too long ago, I was drowning in my usual social media tide, when a floor plan of the house from The Simpsons came floating through my stream. Most of us are pretty familiar with the inside of 742 Evergreen Terrace, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it laid it out so plainly.
It’s nothing to sneeze at. Four bedrooms, 2 bathrooms on the second floor. And on the main floor a warren of rooms for each gradation of wakeful activity: a kitchen with a breakfast table, a dining room, living room, family/TV room, and on the other side of the kitchen, the rarely seen rumpus room. Oh, and a carhole/garage that holds two cars.
And taking it all in, I could only think of the spot-on reaction of Homer’s ill-fated nemesis, Frank Grimes: Good heavens, this…THIS IS A PALACE!!
Appearing twenty-five years ago this week in the episode "Homer's Enemy", Frank Grimes is one of the more enigmatic characters to ever show up in Springfield. After 7 seasons of a fairly familiar (and popular) routine of storylines, Grimes’ appearance in Season 8 took the show in an unexpectedly dark direction, at least for one episode.
Frank Grimes comes into Homer’s orbit after Mr. Burns hires him based on a "feel-good" news piece that depicts Grimes as a "self-made man” who had to scrap and claw for everything in life. Homer tries to befriend him but Grimes is immediately put-off by our hero’s brashness and total lack of work ethic. Homer tries to ingratiate himself to Grimes by showing off his “perfect” family. This, of course, backfires spectacularly. Seeing Homer Simpson’s beautiful house, beautiful wife and kids, not to mention his Grammy award, moves Frank Grimes from being merely exacerbated by him to plotting his downfall.
Before storming out of the Simpson home, he charges Homer Simpson with being the source of the country’s downfall: “You’re what’s wrong with America, Simpson. You coast through life, you do as little as possible, and you leach off decent, hard-working people like me! If you lived in any other country in the world, you’d have starved to death long ago.” He goes on to tell his co-workers that “he would die a happy man if I could prove to you that Homer Simpson has the intelligence of a six year-old”. Frank Grimes failed attempt to embarrass Homer leads to a breakdown wherein he grabs some high voltage wires and promptly dies.
"Homer's Enemy" was written by Jon Swartzwelder, a prolific comedy voice who wrote dozens of episodes of The Simpsons when it was at its peak years in the mid-to-late 1990s. Swartzwelder's gift in his writing on the show was a subtle but firm grasp on the cultural tides of late-20th century America, and an ability to place our favourite animated family at their intersection. At the time of airing, Grimes’s rage rang true both as an indictment of Homer and of America. After emerging from World War 2 with an unassailable economic and industrial global advantage, the United States of that era felt like it had fallen back to the pack and even been passed by re-emergent German and Japanese industrial engines.
Who bore the blame for this trend was harder to pin down. But there was an emerging narrative, pushed by an ascendent conservative political and media ecosystem, that unionized workers living high on the hog were to blame. Frank Grimes’ animosity towards Homer certainly echoes that.
Grimes is effectively employed in this episode as a foil that that lays bare the possibility that Homer Simpson is not the hero of the story we know so well. Viewers of that era had been primed to side with Grimes's critique of Homer's cushy ignorance. The media and politics of the period were saturated with the notion that less security for people who weren't rich was the only way forward. Unions were painted as malignant tumours sapping life out of the free market, and a generous welfare state was so out of fashion that even ostensibly left-wing political parties became deficit hawks.
But seeing the layout of Homer’s gigantic house 25 years on, in an age where stable, well-paying employment and the realistic opportunity for home ownership that accompanies it have all but evaporated, it starts to feel like Frank Grimes was playing us for suckers. Many millennials, a generation now reaching their 40s and trying to find stability, would envy basically everything about Homer Simpson’s life. So why is he “what’s wrong with America?”
Several decades into the neo-liberal economic revolution, which prizes less government, fewer trade barriers, and less worker security than anytime since World War 2, it’s increasingly clear who wanted us to see Homer as the bad guy. His comfy home and secure, unionized job that made it possible were coming at the expense of corporate profits. Which isn’t to say that companies weren’t profitable. Homer’s boss Montgomery Burns is obscenely wealthy, even while paying his lugnuts in Sector 7G a stable middle-class wage with benefits (including a dental plan!).
But CEOs and shareholders resented having to share their bounty with the workers who made them rich, now did they want to do the hard work of innovating to maintain America’s competitive industrial advantage. Even as Japan’s auto industry was running circles around Detroit’s heavyweights, American cars were still inefficient, unreliable gas guzzling tanks. The sole “innovation” of recent decades, making cars slightly smaller and lighter, had been forced on automakers by the Oil Crisis of the 1970s.
The Simpsons touches on this creative stagnation in an episode where Homer’s long-lost car magnate brother asks him to design a new car for the “everyman”. The resulting design leaves the company in ruins, begging the question: if Homer’s brother couldn’t figure out how to make cars that people wanted, what business did he have running a car manufacturer?
So instead of doing the hardwork of innovation to increase profits, corporate America, along with its compliant media (from 1986 to 2011, NBC was owned by General Electric), pushed a narrative that entitled unions, with their “gold-plated” health insurance plans, were the true drain on American industry (conveniently omitting that America's mid-century economic ascendency coincided with a historic expansion in union membership and economic stability for workers). This image of the American layabout was accompanied by seemingly laudatory but often racist stereotypes of self-flagellating Asian workers that were devoted to the well-being of their company above their own personal comfort or reward.
Maybe Homer Simpson couldn’t design a car, but the virtue of the Western social contract of the late 20th century was that that type of know-how wasn’t a necessity for a financially secure life. Sure you could reach the corporate elite if you could create something like the personal computer, but unions and a progressive tax code meant that wasn’t necessary to ensure good health care and a decent-sized roof over your head.
Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that the image of Homer being “what’s wrong with America” was the show shining a light on a shifting view of the American working class. And while we might find ourselves sympathizing with his bitterness, we should look more closely at what the writer saw Frank Grimes as representing: a revival of the old canard of the hardscrabble worker who is made virtuous through the obscene obstacles he overcomes to achieve a modicum of success. This re-emergence was accompanied by the lie that the rich were self-made. Despite pretending to identify with Frank Grimes, Mr. Burns, like many of America’s 1%, inherited his nuclear power plant from his father.
But no matter. While Frank Grimes may not have survived the episode, Swartzwelder grasped that he was the future of the American worker: constantly beat back by supposedly mysterious forces to triumph in an entry level job, getting by in unstable housing above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley, and made resentful of the well-paid, supposedly entitled workers like Homer Simpson.