As the first episode of Season 2, which is when the show really started to get its act together, “Bart Gets An F” is a pretty standard Simpsons episode. It has a basic sitcom-y plot: Bart gets in trouble at school, engages in a variety of hijinks attempting to get out of it, and ultimately pulls through at the last second. There are, of course, the characteristic Simpsons twists: Homer actively impedes Bart without realizing it, Bart gets consistently screwed over by the casual malice of his peers (both when they’re trying to hurt him and when they’re trying to help him), and the final cause for celebration is “just barely” a D- (part of which belongs to god). On closer inspection, though, the true situation is considerably worse, as the episode indirectly raises but never actually addresses a much deeper issue – one with horrifying implications.
Contrary to popular belief, Bart Simpson is not proud of the fact that he is an underachiever. Even before he’s threatened with retention, the episode specifically shows him trying to succeed. But his plans get derailed when Homer ropes him into watching Gorilla the Conqueror (“the granddaddy of them all”), and when he finally manages to sit down and study, he doesn’t really have any idea what he’s doing. He knows he’s supposed get some kind of information out of a textbook, so he opens it up and just starts reading. But with no contextual understanding and no ability to locate and retain relevant information, he doesn’t get anywhere. Keeping all of this in mind, the events of the episode begin to take on a much less innocent cast.
When Bart falls asleep studying, Homer and Marge come in to fawn over how cute it is, and this is disgusting. They think it’s a good thing that he’s “trying so hard,” not realizing that the reason he has to try so hard is that he needs help (and, in Homer’s case, not realizing that he himself is a large part of the problem). The idea that “parents know what’s best for their children” is one of our major political talking points right now, even when it comes to patently insane behaviors along the lines of refusing vaccinations. The fact is, “parent” is not any kind of privileged moral status. Any idiot is capable of becoming a parent, and most parents, like most everybody else, have no idea what they’re doing.
A worse dynamic applies in the case of Mrs. Krabappel, the person whose job it is to help Bart with precisely the difficulties that he is encountering. When quizzing Bart on his book report, she asks him for the name of the pirate in Treasure Island, and Bart mentally runs though a list of famous pirate names before settling on the wrong one. The thing is, though, one of the names he thought of actually was correct, so the fact that he answered the question wrong was basically a coincidence; Krabappel is implicitly teaching Bart that education is a matter of accumulating random facts. Hence, for Bart, the fact that he’s failing is also essentially a coincidence, leading him naturally to assume that there isn’t really anything he can do about it other than “try” and hope to get lucky. Similarly, when Krabappel chews him out in detention and he isn’t listening, he again guesses at the response she wants, but this time he gets it right. There really isn’t any reason for Bart to listen to her, because she isn’t saying anything helpful, or anything that he hasn’t heard before.
Even when the situation becomes critical and the school psychiatrist is called in, there is still absolutely no discussion of anything that could be done to actually help Bart. He gets interrogated as though he were hiding something, as though there must be a “reason” why a kid wouldn’t be doing well in school. In fact, it’s the opposite: doing well in school is not default behavior; the question that ought to be asked is why none of the authority figures, the people who are supposed to be in charge of this situation, have ever done anything about it.
Incidentally, the rarely-seen Dr. J. Loren Pryor is a perfect microcosm of this problem. Every character on the show is fundamentally a stereotype, but each of them is twisted in a way that makes them particularly ill-suited to the actual requirements of their job. Moe is unfriendly, Skinner is inflexible, Lovejoy is uninspiring, Hibbert is unsympathetic, and of course Homer is the least safety- and technical-minded person imaginable. Pryor fits the same pattern: his job is to deal with children’s emotional problems, and he’s a completely flat and uninsightful thinker. In each of his few appearances, his characteristic behavior is to deal with a nuanced problem by papering over it with the thinnest possible solution – to the extent that he here recommends a course of action which he himself characterizes as “emotionally crippling.”
So what’s notable about this whole sequence of events is that, throughout it all, Bart receives zero institutional support. His teacher chews him out several times and finally calls in a psychiatrist to chew him out some more, but nobody offers him any help or tutoring or anything. The system is quite happy to punish him as harshly and frequently as possible, but it’s not going to bother making his success possible in the first place. And this isn’t just a random event – the fact that everything that’s happening here is entirely quotidian, that there is nothing unusual about Bart’s situation, that exactly this happens to many people, every day, means it all points to one of our greatest lies. Even aside from all of the very explicit problems with our current educational system, the basic structure of it is also unsound. And, of course, the structure of our educational system is merely a reflection of the overall structure of our society. We do things that look “civilized,” we button up our shirts and sit down at desks and fill out paperwork, but we don’t actually engage in the practice of civilization. We don’t help each other, we don’t make space for failure, and we don’t learn.
The common idea is that everything we do in society has the basic justification of avoiding Hobbes’ “state of nature,” where the only thing that can be accounted for is survival. But as things actually are, this only pertains to a charmed few. Most people are still solely engaged in the struggle for survival, it’s just that it’s a different type of survival. The fact that you won’t get eaten by a wild animal doesn’t mean you won’t get eaten. We strut around like we’ve created an infallible safeguard for human dignity, but all we’ve actually done is to create alternate sets of claws for people to be impaled on. People like Bart are merely being thrown to different wolves.
More than that, far from everyone’s perception of Bart as a “problem child,” Bart himself is the only one who even cares. Nothing actually requires him to succeed. Saying that people like Bart are the people who “fall through the cracks” of society implies that society was trying to help them in the first place, when in fact they are merely the “surplus population,” people who can be taken or left as is convenient. Bart was preemptively placed in the cracks, and it’s entirely of his own volition that he is attempting to climb out. Even as Bart defines himself primarily based on his resistance to authority, he does not want to be a failure. There would be no story to this episode at all were it not for the basic human dignity inherent to his lonely struggle for a passing grade. See the sincerity in his eyes? See the conviction? See the fear?
And so, Bart has to take it upon himself to get the help he needs, and with all authorities being entirely useless, he can only turn to the other kids – which almost ends up being worse than nothing. He tries to get help from “good kids” Sherri and Terri, and they stab him in the front out of pure malice. He calls up his actual friend Milhouse for backup, and that just ends up screwing him over even worse. The fact that Bart is failing while Milhouse is apparently passing is yet another mere coincidence (Bart does worse than Milhouse despite copying his answers exactly).
(Incidentally, it’s notable that the world of adults in this episode is flat and monolithic, while the world of children is varied and dynamic. More broadly, it’s notable just how much stuff is crammed into this episode. This post is however many goddamn words long and I’m still glossing it. You can say that about almost any Simpsons episode, but it’s still impressive.)
Ultimately, then, Bart has to resort to bargaining with something that is within his abilities. The one thing Bart is genuinely skilled at is evading the rules, and this becomes his ticket to success – or so it would appear. He has something that he can offer Martin in exchange for what he needs. But careful consideration of the ensuing montage reveals otherwise. The things that Bart teaches Martin are substantive and apropos (the “inverse proximity to authority figures” line is particularity great – Martin translates Bart’s advice accurately and Bart understands and verifies the translation). Martin ends up successfully applying his new abilities and adventuring away from the forecastle of the Pequod.
In contrast, everything that Martin teaches Bart is entirely superficial. He cleans up his study area and gives him a plant and shows him how to use a highlighter, but they never get around to the one thing that Bart actually needs to learn, which is how to study. The bit with the highlighter is particularly pointed: Martin closely monitors Bart’s progress before concluding, “pretty soon you’ll be ready to try it with a real book.” Bart learns that he’s supposed to be highlighting key passages in his reading, but he never learns the thing that actually matters, which is how to identify those passages in the first place. Worse, Bart doesn’t even realize that he’s missing something here; he thinks the problem is that he’s just not good enough. In the last studying scene, we see Bart doing the exact same thing he was doing in the first one: reading straight through a chapter and trying to cram all the information into his head, indiscriminately (and, worse, without understanding it; he tries to memorize the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” but he doesn’t know what it means).
And this isn’t Martin’s fault. Unlike almost everyone else in the episode, he is good-natured enough to make an earnest attempt to help Bart succeed. The problem is that Martin is actually in the same position as Bart: he happens to be good at school, so he thinks that this is just who he is, and he doesn’t realize that there are actual skills involved. Hence, he is only able to teach Bart the surface-level stuff that is under his conscious control. Even if Martin hadn’t ended up betraying Bart, he still wouldn’t have been able to provide any real help.
In other words, Martin, someone who really is smart and good at schoolwork, also has no idea what he’s doing. This is set up rather subtly by his introductory book report. By obediently following the dictates of his social role, Martin is able to recite what Hemingway had to say about life, but it’s not until Bart takes him outside of that context that he is able to understand the practice of what he was preaching. Hilariously, Bart is the one who holds up his end of the deal here: he really does teach Martin how to be less of a square. Furthermore, it works, and it’s basically the only thing that anyone in this episode accomplishes successfully. Bart is very close to being the only person in his social sphere who is actually competent at what he does.
So with nothing on Earth to rely on, Bart’s last hope is otherworldly assistance. Lisa’s observation here is actually inaccurate: prayer may be “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” but Bart hasn’t been scoundreling. He’s been trying, and nothing has worked. His resort to prayer is a genuine last resort. As such, the miracle that saves Bart is portrayed as a literal miracle. This is unusual. Fiction normally tries to avoid this sort of thing, because it strains credulity. When you have to rely on a deus ex machina, you want it to be as understated as possible – you don’t accompany it with the literal Hallelujah Chorus. Here, though, this is the point: Bart’s situation requires a miracle. The show means us to understand that, from any kind of realistic perspective, someone like Bart is deeply fucked. That’s what makes the ending more than just a cynical TV joke; indeed, it’s not really a joke at all. There are a great many living humans for whom the equivalent of a lucky D- constitutes literal redemption.
But even then, it isn’t the miracle that saves Bart. He’s more than ready to waste the day playing in the snow – and this is actually entirely justified. Everyone else really does have a great time. The fact that Bart can’t join in because he has to memorize a bunch of dumb history facts for basically no reason really is bullshit. I mean, he’s ten. The psychosis of a society that requires a ten-year-old to hole himself up doing paperwork like a listless accountant cannot be overemphasized.
Anyway, the point is that, as events unfold, god has nothing to do with Bart’s salvation. It is Lisa and not god who causes Bart to put in his final effort, and she does it for no reason. She didn’t make a deal like Martin, and there’s nothing in this episode giving her a positive motivation to want to help Bart. In fact, she has reason to resent him, as she knows that he faked an illness to get out of his responsibilities. She acts out of pure principles, and not even particularly well-developed ones (this is actually-an-eight-year-old Lisa, not Magical Buddha Lisa); she simply has a general sense of what the right thing to do is. And this is able to accomplish what the weight of society and the power of god herself could not: it gets Bart to hit the books.
This points to the fundamental problem with appealing to god or any other source of external authority in order to get people to behave in a certain way. Any god that happens to exist can say or do whatever it wants, but it’s still up to each individual human to choose whether or not to obey. Lisa convinces Bart of what the right thing to do is, which is something that can only be done on the human level.
And yet, even in the circumscribed world of happy-ending fiction, this is still not enough – nothing is enough. Bart does the right thing and tries his hardest (he actually barricades himself in the basement in an attempt to avoid distractions, which doesn’t work. He just ends up imagining something more interesting than what he’s trying to read), and he fails. And this is where the claws really come out: Bart applies his full effort and is still unable to accomplish a basic, everyday task.
The episode moves through the last test scene so efficiently, even including jokes (“it’s a high F?”), that it’s almost difficult to notice how harrowing it really is. The uncomfortableness of Bart’s breakdown is the synthesis of everything that’s so deeply wrong about the events of this episode: the fact that Bart was constantly harassed by his ostensible caretakers and never helped, the fact that he tried everything and was screwed over at every turn, the fact that his future hinges on a number written in red marker on a piece of paper, the fact that he just plain lacks the ability to do what he’s trying to do and he doesn’t even have the most basic understanding of why that is, and the fact that all of this is happening to a fucking ten-year-old. And it’s the last, undeniable bit of evidence that Bart really does care, that his apparent nihilism is something that society has forced on him against his will, that he does not want to be a loser.
But Bart is saved in the end, and what saves him is not society or friendship or innate ability or divine intervention or moral principles. It’s pity. His burned-out, apathetic teacher, a natural enemy, someone who has never helped him and towards whom he has never been anything less than a headache, takes pity on him, and gives him a passing grade for no other reason. It’s important to realize that Krabappel’s justification for the extra point is total bullshit. Her line saying “it’s only fair” is a particularly incisive bit of dialogue, because the entire point of this scene is precisely that it’s not fair. Nobody else got the chance to blurt out random facts for extra points, and indeed, from a structural perspective, there’s not really any reason why Bart’s knowledge of extraneous material that isn’t on the test is at all meritorious. The deciding factor is basic, in-the-moment human emotion, and it isn’t even one of the good emotions. It’s something that motivates Krabappel to break the rules and pass someone who doesn’t deserve it.
So the real happy ending here is not that success is still possible under even the most dire of circumstances; indeed, the episode establishes thoroughly that this is not the case. Rather, it is that even without success, even as one’s bones are being crushed by the unfeeling gears of the machine, there is still such a thing as human decency. We value mercy, not despite but because it is the absence of justice.