Sanctioned and isolated, Iran boldly bans the Simpsons

Following a ban on Barbies, Iran's ban on the Simpsons is part of a soft culture war that can mean only one thing. We're just not sure what it is.

Photo: 1998 Fox Broadcasting company/AP, Illustration: Jacob Turcotte/Staff
Iran bans the Simpsons.

You’re the leader of a pariah nation. The world’s biggest superpower accuses you of developing nuclear weapons. One of your close neighbors is threatening airstrikes against you.

So what do you do? If you’re a nation like Iran, there’s only one thing to do.

Ban the Simpsons.

This week, the Iranian government’s Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults placed the Simpsons on a list of banned Western toys, a list that also includes Barbie. According to Mohammad Hossein Farjoo, the institute’s  secretary of policymaking, the Simpsons were placed on the list because they promote Western culture.

For his part, Simpson’s executive director Al Jean was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as proclaiming, “This means war.”

On the streets and in the toy stores of Tehren, a quiet war of cultural influence is being waged. Morality police comb through shelves, pulling out toys that have “destructive cultural and social consequences” on Iranian society and Iranian youth. In their place are locally produced toys that are more sensitive to Iranian culture. One doll, named Sara, wears a proper veil and traditional dress, while Dara, a male doll, presumably just isn’t Bart Simpson. Even so, as of 2011, Iran was still importing an estimated $57 million worth of toys each year, with another $20 million more smuggled in, according to Associated Press.

And for a regime that as recently as 2010 faced a short-lived Green Revolution led by Iranian youth, it’s understandable why the Iranian regime would want to keep tabs on Iranian young people. At least one-fourth of Iran’s 75 million people are under the age of 15, and nearly two-thirds are under the age of 25. So keeping an eye on what toys young Iranians play with, how they behave, and their propensity to blurt out “cowabunga” in public places is certainly a matter of deep concern.

The truth is that Iran isn’t alone in its discomfort for the four-fingered, foul-mouthed “typical American family.” American evangelicals have long been uncomfortable with the snarky family down the street, and their treatment of religious themes. Ned Flanders, the nice evangelical next door, has always been the butt of jokes. Homer Simpson is hardly an ideal father figure, and Bart Simpson has a propensity for saying grace like this: "Rub a dub, dub, thanks for the grub."

Even President George Bush once said, in 1992, “We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons.”

As for Barbie, she has long been vilified by American liberals and feminists, who see her as harmful to the body image and self-esteem of young girls.

But what is it about the Simpsons, and Barbie, that unsettles the Iranian government, while Superman and Spiderman do not?

According to Mr. Farjoo, Superman and Spiderman help the “oppressed.” The Simpsons? Not so much.

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