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The Mass Media

2-26-24 PDF
February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

Coming Out Smithers: A Review


After almost 27 years living in the closet, Simpson character Waylon Smithers finally came out on the April 3 episode. Go get ’em, Smithers. 

“The Simpsons” debuted on the “Tracey Ullman Show” just a few months before I was born in 1987. So, for the last 28 years, I have grown up with Bart, Lisa, Homer, Marge, and Maggie.

It also means I’ve grown up with the entire cast of characters, including one character in particular, the curiously obedient assistant to Mr. Burns, one Waylon Smithers.

Smithers debuted in the third episode of the first season of the show’s syndicated run in 1989, but his true-to-form character didn’t develop until later in the series.

Those dedicated to the show followed along as he bent to the will and demands of Mr. Burns, along the way planting seeds of undeniable attraction and affection toward his domineering employer.

Over the last three decades, Smithers had been in the closet. That is, until two weeks ago, when he finally came out on the show—a decision that the show’s producers felt was finally well-timed.

TV shows in today’s pop culture landscape are doing many great things for the queer community, in terms of promoting important inclusive ideals, and carefully constructed characters that challenge the often cis, white, heteronormative narrative of mainstream culture—shows like “Modern Family,” “Transparent,” “Happy Endings,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

Yet, on the animated side of things, shows tend to have a little more exploration and symbolism involved in how the characters express their identities.

Characters like Ruby, Sapphire (Garnet), and Pearl from “Steven Universe,” Roger from “American Dad,” Princess Bubblegum and Marcelline from “Adventure Time,” Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty,” and Ray Gillette from “Archer” all challenge the norms of gender, sexuality, and heteronormativity.

Titling Smithers’ coming out episode, “The Burns Cage,” was a fitting homage to the classic flamboyantly queer film, “The Birdcage.” Yet the deeper story is that the episode is an homage from “Simpsons”’ producer Rob LaZebnik to his gay son, who gave much of the guidance on how to go about writing the episode—including important details of how Grindr works.

For a quick recap, the episode begins with Smithers and Mr. Burns skydiving, and after a parachute mishap, Smithers saves Burns’ life—a gesture to which Burns pays little respect. After a series of frustrations at work, Homer and his pals are convinced that” we gotta find that man a woman…to find him a man!”

Homer invites many men on Grindr over to his place for a coming out party, of sorts, for Smithers. When Smithers shows up, he is understandably apprehensive, but ends up falling for a man at the party. Cue: fun-time montage of Smithers and his new boyfriend on many dates.

As the montage ends, Smithers quits working for Mr. Burns and there is a sense of liberation for Smithers. And the viewer feels it, too.

This was the first moment in the show where I was incredibly proud of the Simpsons folks for giving Smithers a powerful moment of defiance for the sake of saving his own sanity. This singular moment gave Smithers the opportunity to even outwit Burns, who tried to retaliate with trapdoors—but Smithers created the trapdoors, so he knew how to avoid Burns’ attacks. This was a clear analogy to the unaccepting parent trope in queer culture.

On a trip to Havana, however, Smithers and his boyfriend have a falling out when it’s clear that Smithers is not over Mr. Burns: Smithers’ biggest reaction is to the use of the word “sir.”

Eventually, Smithers reconciles with Burns after an “excellent” performance review, but it doesn’t necessarily seem like Smithers will be able to truly be himself—in spite of the confidence of the entire episode.

This is the moment in the show where I pressed pause and had to reflect on my own coming out as a queer man.

It was hard. So I completely understand the hesitation of “The Simpsons” crew to keep from going all-in on the character’s identity before they truly knew how to do it right.

But ultimately, there is no right way.

Because coming out is different for everyone. It took me years of confusion in my teens and a revelation during college to even acknowledge that I was comfortable being a queer man. So coming out with this revelation scared me, as it does many other members of the queer community.

My parents had the same response Mr. Burns had when I came out. They weren’t happy. They wanted nothing to do with me.

But eventually, we worked things out. Yet it’s very hard for me to go home sometimes. Being out with a family that doesn’t support you makes it tough to genuinely be yourself; you can tell that those who you love the most don’t accept you for your identity.

Alas, toward the end of the episode, Millhouse, who was preoccupied with acting in the school production of “Casablanca” opposite his long-time love interest, Lisa Simpson, asks Smithers, “Mr. Smithers, why do guys do such stupid things to get with dames?”

“Lemme tell you about dames, Millhouse,” Smithers begins. “I know nothing about them. But as for love, what keeps you going is the thrill of the chase, the possibility that one day you might get what you want. Even though the reality is that you probably never will.”

The episode ends on a more somber note than one would expect from such a lively and beautiful moment in the show’s history. And I could go into a more dutiful critique of the episode, but I’d rather allow this moment to breathe.

Allow Smithers to have his Swan Song. Allow America to bask in a coming out story that was nearly three decades in the making.