"Homer's Phobia" is the fifteenth episode of the eighth season of the American animated television series The Simpsons. It first aired on the Fox network in the United States on February 16, 1997. In this episode, Homer dissociates himself from new family friend John after discovering that John is gay. Homer fears that John will have a negative influence on his son Bart and decides to ensure Bart's heterosexuality by taking him hunting.
It was the first episode written by Ron Hauge and was directed by Mike B. Anderson. George Meyer pitched "Bart the homo" as an initial idea for an episode while show runners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein were planning an episode involving Lisa "discovering the joys of campy things". Oakley and Weinstein combined the two ideas and they eventually became "Homer's Phobia". Fox censors originally found the episode unsuitable for broadcast because of its controversial subject matter, but this decision was reversed after a turnover in the Fox staff. Filmmaker John Waters guest-starred, providing the voice of the new character, John.
"Homer's Phobia" was the show's first episode to revolve entirely around gay themes and received a positive critical response both for its humor and anti-homophobia message. It won four awards, including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (For Programming One Hour or Less) and a GLAAD Media Award for "Outstanding TV – Individual Episode".
Needing money to pay for a repair after Bart damages the gas line, the Simpson family visits "Cockamamie's", an offbeat collectibles shop, hoping that it will purchase one of the family's heirlooms (an "authentic" civil war doll which turns out to be a decorative liquor bottle). Homer meets John, the antiques dealer, who explains that much of the merchandise is there because of its camp value. Bart and Lisa take an instant liking to John, and Homer invites him to the Simpsons' house to see the campy items that the family owns. The next morning, Homer tells Marge that he likes John and suggests they invite him and "his wife" over for a drink some time. Marge tries to hint repeatedly to an oblivious Homer that John is gay, and when she eventually can't she tells him face to face and Homer is horrified. Homer's attitude towards John changes completely, and he turns against him, refusing to join his tour of Springfield. The rest of the family joins John and has a good time, but Homer is upset with the family upon their return. The rest of the Simpson family continue to enjoy John's company, especially Bart, who starts wearing Hawaiian shirts and dancing in a woman's wig. This makes Homer uneasy, and he begins to fear Bart is gay.
Homer endeavors to make Bart more masculine by forcing him to look at a cigarette billboard featuring scantily clad women in hopes Bart will be attracted to girls, but instead Bart gets the urge to smoke "anything slim." Homer then escorts him to see a steel mill to show Bart a manly environment, however, much to his surprise and dismay, the entire workforce is gay, and during their breaks they turn the mill into "The Anvil", a gay disco. A desperate Homer insists on taking Bart deer hunting with Moe and Barney. When they cannot find any deer, they decide instead to go to "Santa's Village" and shoot the reindeer in the corral, despite a tearful Bart being reluctant to do so. This backfires when the reindeer attack them. John, with the help of Lisa and Marge, uses a Japanese Santa Claus robot to scare off the reindeer and save the hunting party. Homer accepts John, more or less, and tells Bart, who is still unaware of his father's concerns, that any way he lives his life is fine with him. After Lisa informs Bart that Homer thinks he is gay, Bart is stunned. The episode ends with everyone driving off in John's car.
Just before the end credits a dedication to the steelworkers of America is shown, reading "Keep reaching for that rainbow!"
The original concept for the episode came from a few lines of show ideas written by George Meyer. One of them read "Bart the homo", and Ron Hauge was selected to write the episode, with the story stemming from that line. The idea of using filmmaker John Waters as a guest star had been around for a while. Many of the staff were fans of his work, and showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein had planned to use him in an episode called "Lisa and Camp", which revolved around Lisa "discovering the joys of campy things". Their idea was combined with Meyer's and it became this episode. The episode was originally titled "Bart Goes to Camp", but was renamed because the joke was too oblique. Mike B. Anderson directed the episode, telling The Gold Coast Bulletin: "When I read the script I was enthralled, not only because of the visual possibilities, but also because the story felt very solid. It was engaging and surprising and I really put heart into that episode."
Waters accepted his invitation to be a guest star instantly, stating that if it was good enough for the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who appeared in the season four episodes "Lisa's First Word" and "Krusty Gets Kancelled", it was good enough for him. He joked, however, about a negative reaction if his character would be made to look like fitness personality Richard Simmons. John's design was based largely on Waters' own appearance; for animation reasons, Waters moustache was changed from straight to curvy, so that it did not look like a mistake. As thanks for his performance, the show's staff sent Waters an animation cel from the episode, which he now has hanging in his office.
According to Oakley, the Fox censor objected to "Homer's Phobia" being aired. The normal procedure is for an episode's script to be sent to the censor and then faxed back with a list of lines and words that should be substituted. However this episode came back with two pages of notes about almost every single line in the show. The censors stated that they did not like the use of the word "gay", or the discussion of homosexuality at all, and closed with a paragraph which stated that "the topic and substance of this episode are unacceptable for broadcast". Usually the censor notes are ignored as the offending lines and problems are dealt with after the episode has been animated. In this case the entire episode was deemed a problem, so it could not be solved in this way. The staff asked Waters if he thought the gay community would find the episode offensive. Homer's use of the word "fag" to insult John was his only problem, so the writers changed it to "queer". The censor problems ultimately came to nothing as when the episode came back from animation in South Korea, the then-Fox president had just been fired and replaced, with the censors being replaced as well. The new censors sent back merely one line: "acceptable for broadcast".
The "gay steel mill" scene was written by Steve Tompkins. He first pitched that Homer and Bart would encounter longshoremen, but it was too much work to animate the lading of ships, so a steel mill was used instead. Tompkins also wrote a different third act for the episode, which was never produced. Instead of Homer, Bart, Barney and Moe going deer hunting and ending up at "Santa's Village" they would go back to the steel mill. There, Homer would attempt to prove his heterosexuality by having a human tractor pulling contest with some of the steel mill workers. It was decided that it "didn't really service the story" and was dropped.
The episode features numerous cultural references. The song "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" by C+C Music Factory is played twice during the episode: first as the steel mill transforms into a disco, and second over the closing credits. Homer's record collection includes music by The New Christy Minstrels and The Wedding of Lynda Bird Johnson, the albums Loony Luau and Ballad of the Green Berets by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. The song that John picks out and he and Homer dance to is "I Love the Nightlife" by Alicia Bridges, and the song that Bart dances to is "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)" by Betty Everett. When John is introduced there is a plastic pink flamingo lying in the background, a reference to John Waters's film Pink Flamingos. Items in John's store include several buttons endorsing political campaigns of Richard Nixon, Dan Quayle and Bob Dole as well as an issue of TV Guide owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis which features the titular characters from the sitcom Laverne & Shirley on the cover.
Ratings and awards
In its original American broadcast, "Homer's Phobia" finished tied for 47th place in the weekly ratings for the week of February 10–16, 1997 with a Nielsen rating of 8.7. It was the fourth-highest-rated show on the Fox Network that week. The episode won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (For Programming One Hour or Less) in 1997. Mike Anderson won the Annie Award for Best Individual Achievement: Directing in a TV Production, and the WAC Award for Best Director for Primetime Series at the 1998 World Animation Celebration. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called it "a shining example of how to bring intelligent, fair and funny representations of our community onto television" and awarded it the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV – Individual Episode. Several of the episode's animation cels were selected for display at the Silver K Gallery in Melbourne, Australia in 2001.
Critical reviews and analysis
"Homer's Phobia" has been cited as a significant part of The Simpsons' exploration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) themes. The series made several references to homosexuality before the episode aired. In the 1990 episode "Simpson and Delilah", the character Karl (voiced by Harvey Fierstein) kisses Homer, while the recurring character Waylon Smithers is often shown to be in love with his boss, Montgomery Burns, initially suggestively and since then more overtly. However, "Homer's Phobia" was the first episode to revolve entirely around homosexual themes. Two later episodes that explored LGBT issues were "Three Gays of the Condo" and "There's Something About Marrying".
When the episode aired, the production team received "very few" complaints about its content, with most of the response being positive. Alan Frutkin gave the episode a positive write-up in the LGBT-interest magazine The Advocate, calling it "vintage Simpsons." Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood stated in their book I Can't Believe It's a Bigger and Better Updated Unofficial Simpsons Guide, that: "Only The Simpsons could do this so tongue-in-cheek that nobody could get in a tizzy about it. Very good indeed." In the book Leaving Springfield, Matthew Henry praised the episode's critiquing of "the most common misconception about homosexuality: namely that gayness is somehow contagious", as well as its other themes. Catharine Lumby of the University of Sydney cited the episode as an example of good satire as it "managed to explore a lot of [homosexual] issues in quite a deep way [...] without being overtly political", which she claimed, along with the episode's humor, made its anti-homophobia message more successful than that of other gay-themed shows like Queer as Folk. In his review of The Simpsons – The Complete Eighth Season DVD, Todd Gilchrist said that "Homer's Phobia" "certainly qualifies as one of the all-time greatest episodes."
It was placed fifth on Entertainment Weekly's top 25 The Simpsons episode list. In 2003, USA Today published a top 10 chosen by the webmaster of The Simpsons Archive, which had this episode listed in tenth place, and it was again placed tenth on AskMen.com's "Top 10: Simpsons Episodes" list. IGN.com ranked John Waters's performance as the ninth-best guest appearance in the show's history, with TV Guide naming him the third-best film related guest star. In a 2008 article, Entertainment Weekly named Waters as one of the 16 best Simpsons guest stars. John Patterson of The Guardian wrote that Waters' appearance "felt to me like a summit meeting between the most influential pop-culture figures of the last 25 years."
In 2002, Off the Telly writers Steve Williams and Ian Jones named "Homer's Phobia" one of the five worst episodes of The Simpsons, stating that it "leaves such a nasty taste in the mouth", as Homer is "quite simply a bastard" throughout the course of the episode. The pair concluded by saying "this is a side of the show we'd not seen before, nor particularly wanted to see." In June 2003, Igor Smykov sued the Russian television channel REN TV on claims that The Simpsons, along with Family Guy, were "morally degenerate and promoted drugs, violence and homosexuality." As evidence, "Homer's Phobia" was shown to the judge to prove that The Simpsons promoted homosexuality, and thus should not be aired again on the channel. The case was thrown out after one day.
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