British graffiti artist and activist Banksy has directed a controversial opening sequence for the most recent episode of "The Simpsons," and it's a doozy.
In this episode, "MoneyBART," the iconic couch gag sequence starts the way it has for more than 20 years, with the middle-class Simpsons family lined up on their tired orange sofa. But soon the image flickers and the viewer is taken on an extended tour of an underground sweatshop where lines of Asian women stencil images of the Simpsons onto sheets of paper while being watched by a male foreman.
At the end of the line, one of the workers hands her image to a child, who submerges it in a vat of toxic sludge which drips green ooze into a cavern, where, further underground, children push carts of Simpsons merchandise and kittens are thrown into a woodchipper to be turned into the stuffing for Bart Simpson dolls. An emaciated unicorn on a chain in a dungeon is used to punch holes in Simpsons DVDs. The sequence ends with the 20th Century Fox logo shining against a night sky, surrounded by a barbed wire fence.
The BBC reported that Banksy's sequence was a response to news that the show outsources portions of its animation to a company in South Korea. Banksy has said that his storyboard caused delays and a threatened strike by the animation department.
The opening couch gag on "The Simpsons" has been a staple of the show's subversive humor for years, featuring self-referential skits and tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that the animated show both critiques the largesse of consumer culture while simultaneously benefiting from it.
Banksy's guest artistry has generated a number of questions about why Fox would air something that is so blatantly critical of the capitalist processes that perpetuate its success: worker exploitation, human rights violations, environmental abuse, animal cruelty and mass production are all lampooned.
But, of course, it is Fox that has the last laugh. The network doesn't need to censor content like Banksy's couch gag because Fox is "the man." Fox is the place viewers go to get a dose of the show's subversive humor, and where other viewers go to get Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and pundits that reinforce the very institutions and systems that bring us the vast inequities that "The Simpsons" reviles.
Through this nontraditional couch gag, Banksy also seems to be wrestling with larger questions surrounding his rise to stardom: What does it means when an underground activist achieves a measure of mainstream success? Earlier this year, his documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop" was released to acclaim; now he is a guest artist on "The Simpsons." What happens when art and subversion become commoditized?
Perhaps his answer can be seen in the way he scripts Bart's chalkboard scene -- Bart scrawls, "I must not write all over the walls." But his chalked sentiments cover the classroom door and the green schoolhouse paint in uneven lines. So this is the imperfect rebellion open to those of us who support the broken system: Write what we are told to write, (maybe) in places where we shouldn't.
Question authority and stay away from hypocritical conformity, Banksy tells us, while he (and the show) pander to pop culture values. When it comes to the depravity of consumerism and our collective reverence for it, it seems that few of us actually see the writing on the wall.
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