Written by Kate McCabe

In The News

Smithers steps out – so what?

Waylon Smithers’ sexuality has long been an open secret in The Simpsons, so why do a ‘coming out’ episode 27 series in, asks Kate McCabe.

Smithers and Mr Burns exchange a glanceFor the first time in a long time, there was a media buzz around an episode of The Simpsons. The big scoop that the producers and the media outlets wanted us to know was that, in an episode called The Burns Cage, the character of Waylon Smithers was going to officially come out.

The world collectively shrugged.

Smithers, for those who might need enlightening, is lackey to Mr Burns, the show’s chief villain and owner of the nuclear power plant where Homer Simpson works. Smithers has been at Burns’ side since the beginning, yes-anding his every cruel utterance and taking more abuse than Moe Szyslak answering a telephone.

Smithers’ sexual preference is hardly a revelation.

The characterisation of Smithers’ homosexuality started as – what seemed to me – a joke about the level of his slavish devotion (he’s such a toady, he’s actually GAY FOR his boss!) Eventually, that one-note jibe graduated to clarification that he’s more than just a lickspittle at work. He’s a fully-fledged gay character even when he’s not at Burns’ side.

Allusions to Smithers’ preference for men grew stronger and stronger as hundreds of episodes went by until eventually we’d see him in leather chaps singing Whip It and enjoying conga-lines at men-only holiday resorts. Here are a few of the many unsubtle clues planted over the years: http://www.simpsoncrazy.com/lists/smithers-gay

“In fact, the average gay person probably loses track of just how often they have to ‘come out’.”

The more puzzling mystery that this particular episode aims to clarify is precisely WHAT it is that Smithers sees in a man like Mr Burns. (If it was just money, there’s plenty of gay men out there who have pockets full of pink pounds.) What would a man like Smithers, who, to be fair, has shown several glimpses of nobility, see in the crooked withered husk of a supervillain that is Mr Burns?

It’s all charming stuff with some (believe it or not) actual laughs along the way. But, was all this necessary? How important in today’s age is it for a show like The Simpsons to have a ‘coming out’ episode… especially when they already have several LGBT characters in the cast including Patty Bouvier and Roscoe, who runs Ajax Steel Mill. (You know… the GAY steel mill in town).

If the producers of the show hadn’t touted it as a kind of ‘very special episode’, I’d have said it was unimportant. Not only is Smithers’ sexuality already well known, but The Simpsons has covered gay rights issues on numerous occasions. We’re now living in a world where any episode focusing on the romantic trials and tribulations of an LGBT character shouldn’t be a big deal.

Alas. It still is. And maybe it always WILL be. By sheer virtue of our ‘otherness’, LGBT characters might often find themselves featured in sweeps episodes and the focus of ratings stunts. The creaking open of the closet door will continue to grab the attention of our peers.

In fact, the average gay person probably loses track of just how often they have to ‘come out’. You do it the one big stomach-churning, cold-sweaty time – to your family, most likely. Then there might be further conversations, perhaps with close friends, where the butterflies in your stomach are less furious. Then, it’s pretty much the law of diminishing returns for gay people. Eventually, the information doesn’t feel big or special anymore. It’s your new normal.

But, even though it’s a boring detail to us it doesn’t mean we STOP coming out. It’s just a series of never-ending micro-revelations.

I remember when I started work at a job here in the UK. I had been working out in the field and was eventually promoted to an office-based job. Once I was ‘indoors’ I was able to chat more with my co-workers. My line-manager was surprised to learn I was gay. I think I had slipped a detail into conversation, something like ‘my girlfriend this’ or ‘my Xena Warrior Princess costume that’, casual but confirming.

“It’s a slow news day for the citizens of Springfield and they treat Smithers’ coming out with a nonchalance that’s refreshing.”

I’d always considered myself to be quite visible as a lesbian (comfy shoes, collection of leather jackets, a face that was constantly expressing frustration at the patriarchy), so I continue to be surprised when people assume I’m straight. But they do.

And it’s true for most LGBT people. They come out every day in little ways that they aren’t even aware of, just by living truthfully. So, I’m not sure if the ‘coming out’ episode, as a trope, is important anymore – but it’s not going anywhere.

In doing a bit of background reading on the episode, I learned that it was born out of a desire for writer Rob LaZebnik to show support for his gay son. His son Johnny, as quoted by The New York Post replied: “The revelation that my father loves me is not much of a revelation, thankfully. He’s unbelievably accepting. We’re as close as a straight dad and a gay son could be.”

The Simpsons should be praised for handling it well. Even if the media and production team drummed up the novelty of the episode, the citizens of Springfield don’t notice. It’s a slow news day for them and they treat Smithers’ coming out with a nonchalance that’s refreshing. It was the least special ‘special’ episode ever.

Yet in the weeks bookending this episode, we’ve seen anti-LGBT laws pop up in Tennessee and North Carolina. Perhaps the spotlight is just as crucial as it ever was. Thanks for releasing your hounds, Smithers.


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Written by Kate McCabe

Kate McCabe is an American comic living in Manchester. When not gigging as a standup, she improvises with ComedySportz Manchester, and contributes to local TV and radio including The Gay Agenda on Fab Radio.