The Simpsons, Frank Grimes, the Just-World-Hypothesis and Obsessive Personality: Psychology in TV and Movies
This post is part of a series of posts that I’m calling Psychology in TV and Movies. I’ll be writing about the films and shows which capture interesting ideas and theories from the world of psychology.
Homer’s Enemy: Season 8, episode 23
Homer: [Taking Deep Breaths] Welcome to the Simpson residence or "Casa de Simpson," as I call it.
Frank: [Chuckles] What did you want to see me about, Simpson? This better be important.
Homer: It is, it is, but first let me introduce you to my family- My perfect family - This is my wife, Marge.
Homer: And our beautiful baby….My daughter Lisa- I.Q. 156.
Homer: See? And my son Bart. He owns a factory downtown.
Frank: How do you do? Homer, I'm late for my night job at the foundry so if you don't mind telling me- Good heavens! Th-This is a palace! [Stammering] H- How in the world can you afford to live in a house like this, Simpson?
Homer: I don't know. Don't ask me how the economy works.
Frank: Yeah, but look at the size of this place. I live in a single room above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley.
Homer: Wow! Frank: I'm sorry. Isn't that...
Homer: Yeah, that's me, all right. And the guy standing next to me is President Gerald Ford. And this is when I was on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. Oh! And here's a picture of me in outer space. Frank: You went into outer space? You?
Homer: Sure. You've never been? Would you like to see my Grammy award?
Frank: No! I wouldn't. God. I've had to work hard every day of my life and what do I have to show for it? This briefcase and this haircut.
And what do you have to show for your lifetime of sloth and ignorance? - What? - Everything! A dream house, two cars, a beautiful wife a son who owns a factory, fancy clothes and- [Sniffing] lobsters for dinner. And do you deserve any of it? No! [Gasps]
Homer: What are you saying?
Frank: [Laughs] I'm saying 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. [Laughs] If you lived in any other country in the world - you'd have starved to death long ago. Bart: He's got you there, Dad. Frank: You're a fraud-A total fraud. It was nice meeting you.
In season 8 episode 23, Homer’s Enemy, the character of Frank Grimes is introduced into the show’s extensive cast of characters. His appearance is brief. He only appears on the show for one episode. In the space of 22 minutes we learn a few things about Frank Grimes:
- At the age of 4 he was abandoned by his family and spent the rest of his childhood working as a delivery boy instead of attending school.
- He has worked hard his whole life and has not obtained any assets by the time he lands a job at the nuclear power plant at the age of 35.
- He studied his science degrees by distance.
- He finds the character of Homer, a person who has lucked his way into his job, a great wife, and who has deceived his father into helping him buy his house, as a fraud, as an idiot, and as what is wrong with America*
*There are probably people much more knowledgeable and well read people in the areas of economics and political science who can comment on what Frank is saying in his rant to Homer about unjust outcomes in societal structures. I am not nearly credentialed enough to comment on that.
In an interview with The Simpsons fan site "NoHomers.net", writer on the show Josh Weinstein is quoted as saying:
‘We wanted to do an episode where the thinking was "What if a real life, normal person had to enter Homer's universe and deal with him?" I know this episode is controversial and divisive, but I just love it. It really feels like what would happen if a real, somewhat humorless human had to deal with Homer. There was some talk [on NoHomers.net] about the ending—we just did that because 1. it’s really funny and shocking, 2. we like the lesson of "sometimes, you just can't win"—the whole Frank Grimes episode is a study in frustration and hence Homer has the last laugh and 3. we wanted to show that in real life, being Homer Simpson could be really dangerous and life threatening, as Frank Grimes sadly learned.’
This brings us to what appears to be the pressing concern for Frank Grimes. He is burdened by a struggle with a world that does not abide by meritocracy. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. On many occasions this does not even out in the end. If you work hard, it often pays off, but not always. In fact, many people who do not work hard are often rewarded equally or moreso. To me, Grimes has a really rigid sense of the Just-World-Hypothesis - the cognitive bias that a universal force in the world will ensure that noble actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished. This is sometimes referred to as Karma, or encapsulated in the phrase ‘what goes around comes around’. The Beatles famously had their own twist on this hypothesis at the conclusion of Abbey Road that rings true for many: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”.
When watching this episode recently, I began to think that the degree to which Frank Grimes loves order (for example, his perfectly laid out stationary) and becomes overly preoccupied with fairness is reflective of a personality style that mental health professionals call obsessive compulsive personality traits. This is quite different from obsessive compulsive disorder, where repetitive intrusive thoughts and the need to carry out rituals dominate one’s life. The personality style is defined by inflexibility in the way a person approaches their life tasks, relationships and day to day interactions. It is often correlated with perfectionism, but most of the time the destructive element of the personality style is that it can position a person as impossible to deal with for their loved ones and workmates. This ‘my way or the highway’ approach to living may create predictability, but it often won’t help to maintain healthy relationships.
The 22 minute episode has a really interesting trajectory. For the first half of the episode, the audience finds it really natural to empathise with Frank Grimes. Homer’s luck and laziness would be infuriating to most if placed in the same workplace.
As the episode progresses, Homer’s workmates Lenny and Carl argue that Homer is basically a decent human, and that Grimes should adjust to unfair circumstances in ways that how most people would; either accepting the reality of injustice or accepting your own limitations in changing the behaviour of other people. He doesn’t.
At around the halfway mark of the episode, the audience view of Homer and Frank turns - they now want to see Homer win or at least be spared. This is because Homer is an overall sincere, kind hearted person, and primarily because Grimes goes in hard with two underhanded tactics. One is to plead with other people in the workplace to join him in being outraged, a trait which begins to turn him into an insufferable person to those around him. The other tactic is to devise ways to have Homer incur some kind of humiliation for his years of laziness, fortune and ignorance. Grimes turns somewhat psychopathic by tricking Homer into entering a child’s design competition hosted by the Nuclear Power Plant. Homer enters and wins the competition with a mediocre design (beating out Martin Prince’s design which is literally “lighting this room right now”), an event that sends Frank into an incredulous rage.
It’s one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons and one that gets better with each re-watch. I think the episode is so interesting in exploring, without moralising, on the areas of empathy, luck, and the dangers of holding tightly onto comparisons with others.**
The tragedy of Frank’s take on Homer is that he misses so much of what Homer struggles with in his life. Homer has had quite significant low points in his marriage, his parenting and in his friendships, and he misses a lot of Homer’s sweetness and sincerity***.
**For a contrast to dangerous comparisons with others, I’m reminded here of the interesting work coming out of Dr Kristin Neff’s lab at the University of Texas and her focus on ‘common humanity’ - the knowledge that we all relate to our fellow human because we all share suffering, feelings of inadequacy, and events of disappointment.
*** One of the sweetest sentiments that Homer displays in this episode is that he chooses to try develop a friendship with Frank in the face of of Frank telling Homer that he hates him.
Patrick Sheehan is a clinical psychologist who works with adults and adolescents in his private practice located in Glebe, Sydney. If you want to enquire about an appointment, please head over to the contact page.