The Smithers question: why do we keep retrofitting progressive narratives in pop culture?

Smithers is now “out” in The Simpsons, but does his gay narrative serve the show more than it serves the LGBT community?

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Last night, on US TV, Waylon J Smithers, Jr. came out as gay. The long-suffering, love-struck assistant of The Simpsons’s villainous Mr Burns, Smithers has played out stereotypes of closeted gay men for 27 years. But after nearly a year of build up, last night’s “The Burns Cage” episode was the first time he announced his sexuality on screen.

Except, he didn’t. For what was widely labelled Smithers’s “coming out” episode, there was no actual coming out. The episode could more accurately be considered the first official acceptance of Smithers’s sexuality from everyone else in Springfield: it has been the butt of euphemistic jokes for decades, but this was the first episode with dialogue that openly addressed it.

Homer seeks to set Smithers up with a man (thinking that his boss’s increased happiness and distraction from work will make his own work life easier), and does so successfully. Smithers finds himself going on several dates, quitting his job as Mr Burns’s assistant, and questioning the unrequited feelings he’s always had for his tyrannical boss. There are several moments in the episode where he almost confronts Mr Burns about them, but ultimately decides against it. The episodes ends with the two men hugging in an Italian restaurant as Smithers resigns himself to pining after Burns forever.

“We didn't really want to have that big moment of ‘I'm out,’ you know?” writer Rob LaZebnik told the New York Post. “Instead, just have it be a big embrace – like everyone knows it.”

If this seems a little unsatisfactory, perhaps it’s because (unlike his race) everyone has been utterly certain of Smithers’s sexuality since his character first appeared on screen. It’s been the target of homophobia for years. While he denied it, while Mr Burns was oblivious to his undying affections, we, the audience, knew his little secret, watching his fantasies of a naked Mr Burns popping out of a wedding cake or flying into his bed through an open window.

We were encouraged to laugh at jokes implying he had objects stuck up his arse – even the latest series includes a gag about Smithers crawling up the butt of a giant Mr Burns statue. Writers’ insistences that his character was simply “Burns-sexual” as late as 2007 seem insincere: in one 2002 episode Smithers was pictured in “the gay side of town” with rainbows adorning his very short shorts.

Scenes where Smithers is considered a full human being are few and far between. One moment in season eight’s “Homer Phobia”, starring John Waters as a camp collectable store owner stands out. As Dennis Perkins at the AV Club describes it:

John [John Waters], after taking Marge, Bart, and Lisa on a tour of Springfield’s scandalous past (Kent Brockman apparently pulled a Rosie Ruiz in a past Springfield marathon), runs into Smithers, who he’s apparently dating (and has blown off with a fake story about a sick mother). Poor Smithers’ barely-closeted gayness has often defined him, but John’s presence in the episode gives him unaccustomed agency, his snappish, dismissive, “I know the Simpsons” to John’s sheepish introduction suggesting, for once, that Smithers has a real existence outside of being Mr Burns’ lovesick lickspittle.

It’s a moment that is never replicated, even, oddly, in last night’s episode. Instead of a coming out, this feels more like a subtle act of retroactive continuity: The Simpsons’ writers struggle to make a cartoon born out of the late Eighties and early Nineties tessellate with contemporary social politics. It becomes especially notable in a cartoon where tone, technology and cultural references continue to evolve with time, but characters never age a day. Oh, you thought we were all weird about the Smithers thing, because of the euphemisms and wilful denial? Nope, we’re actually all aware and cool with it and always have been! Perhaps it is YOU who is the homophobe!

It’s the kind of retrofitting that irked readers when J K Rowling said in 2007, after the last Harry Potter book had been released, that Dumbledore was gay, adding, “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy.” Actors have done the same. Mark Hamill said of Luke Skywalker: “His sexuality is never addressed in the films. Luke is whatever the audience wants him to be, so you can decide for yourself.” Johnny Depp has insisted that “all” his characters are gay.

Of course, these instances are different to the Smithers question because they are all examples of how outing someone outside of the canon enables them to remain read as straight by mainstream audiences. That’s not the case here: as long as the show is still running, updating it has potentially has real merit. The Simpsons still holds a surprising level of cultural relevance: the show is still fertile ground for generating memes, its quote accounts continue to grow in popularity, and screencap site Frinkiac made headlines when it emerged online this year.

But the episodes with the most contemporary appeal are restricted to the first ten or so seasons: new episodes gain attention only when they kill off a favourite or offer us new information and shock twists regarding old characters.

Making Smithers out and proud – insisting that homosexuality isn’t just a punchline – 27 years into a programme works to serve the show more than it serves the LGBT community.  Yes, it’s arguably progress, but it feels at least ten years late.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.