An Analysis of Futurama Using Poststructuralist Theory

Updated on February 10, 2019
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This essay intends to engage in an analysis with Futurama, using various poststructuralist theories. Futurama is an animated science-fiction series set in the year 3000. Key to structuralist theory are notions of discourse and the body. Discourse has been defined as “all forms of spoken interaction, formal and informal, and written texts of all kinds” (Potter and Wetherall, 1987: 7), but other theorists believe that the definition can be broadened to include other cultural products (Grant, Keenoy and Oswick, 1998: 2). Of Foucault’s approach to discourse, Sarup writes:

“Foucault’s philosophy is embedded in the historical analyses that have been described. It is rooted in story-telling. Foucault neither claims nor seeks scientific status for his analyses. I refer to the fact that his histories – which seek to forge connections, establish relationships and transgress the established – were fictions.” (Sarup, 1993: 84)

We can define ourselves by the various discourses we inhabit.

The episode ‘Xmas Story’ can be analysed in both its ‘Futurama’ discourse and a ‘Christmas’ discourse. Foucault’s discourse theory, when applied to history, act as an antidote to Adorno’s belief that nothing is original, as rather than tracing ‘progress’, it pointed out the dissimilarities that structuralism couldn’t explain. When placed in comparison with the ‘Christmas’ festival of the early 21st century, various similarities and differences become apparent.

In Futurama, Christmas has become an event with no real meaning. Now called Xmas (pronounced ‘ex mass’), there is a new truth about the festive season. On Xmas Eve, a robotic Santa takes to the skies on a rampage of violence. Operating on a ‘presents for the good, death for the bad’ policy, its standards are too high. The discourse does not acknowledge that children at previous points in the discourse anticipated Santa as a giver of presents, which was their truth.

Xmas in Futurama has no Jesus Christ. When this idea is considered in light of its largely Christian American audience, this can be seen as a transgressive move. This would be impossible without first applying poststructuralist thought to the concept of Christmas. In some discourses Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, and this is the main principle behind its celebration, while in others it is a western tradition, adopted and distorted. This is important as post-structuralist theory points towards the gaps in culture. Japan has a low Christian population, yet still celebrates Christmas. The idea of Santa Claus is particularly popular, but they have no previous cultural heritage to base their inclusion of such an event in their culture, while the western world has the idea of Saint Nicolas.


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Baldwin et al state: “Any text… can be analysed in terms of the other texts it has absorbed and transformed” (1999: 40). In relation to this, episodes of Futurama can be searched to find elements of other texts.

‘Fry and the Slurm Factory’ borrows heavily from Roald Dahl’s story ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ in various ways. Dahl’s golden tickets to the chocolate factory are replaced with golden bottle tops, placed in Slurm soft drink cans for added surrealism. Slurm is a highly addictive soft drink. Willy Wonka is replaced by Glurmo, who wears similar clothing to Hollywood’s representation of Wonka, carrying a cane as a symbol of authority. Umpa Lumpas are replaced with Grunka Lunkas, retaining their green hair and orange complexion, singing songs in a friendly yet menacing manner. The boat ride is similar, but the river of chocolate is replaced, inevitably, with a river of Slurm. Repeated warnings to avoid asking questions are made to the travellers in both texts, but a dark secret makes them inquisitive. However, Slurm’s dark secret is that it is produced in the rear end of a large alien worm.

Also in ‘Fry and the Slurm Factory’ references are made to the film Soylent Green. While still searching for Slurm’s secret ingredient, Fry ponders “What is Slurm is made of people?!” ( _ref.). Leela remark to Fry is “They already do that. It’s called Soylent Cola”. In Soylent Green, the dark secret of the foodstuff Soylent green is that it is made of people.

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In the episode ‘A Bicyclops Built For Two’, Leela meets another Cyclops called Alkazar who later turns out to be some kind of shape changing alien. The plot plays with structure within popular culture. The voice actor for the Leela character, Katey Segal, played the female lead character in the American situation comedy Married With Children. The text takes this knowledge, anticipating audience response, and puts Leela and Alkazar in a situation resembling and episode of Married With Children, with Leela as Peggy and Alkazar as Al Bundy. The two exchange insults, and the soundtrack adds canned laughter to the scene.

The character Leela is open to further examination. Leela can be seen as a transgressive female. She is stronger than most of the males in the office, and tends to take the role of leader. Her clothes, boots, combat trousers and a vest, seem to reflect ‘tough’ stereotypes. She is transgressive because she embraces masculine trappings. Physically fit women are still seen as unusual.

“The idea of men with muscles is easily accepted. It requires no new concept or category to do so. …The muscular female physique is something else; it doesn’t fit with most people’s idea of the norm. Muscular women are a contradiction to, even an attack on, our sense of reality.” (Dobbins, 1994)

She cannot be defined in terms of binary oppositions, as she is strong yet feminine and uses both reason and emotion. Leela spends a lot of time concerned about her appearance, and constantly feels overshadowed by the younger, more attractive female co-worker Amy.

Semiotically the body is tattooed, a floating sign processed through the double imperatives of the cultured politics of advanced capitalism: the exteriorization of all the body organs as the key telemetry of a system that depends on the outering of the body’s functions (computers as the externalisation of memory; in vitro fertilization as the ablation of the womb; Sony Walkmans as ablated ears; computer-generated imagery as visual perspective of the hypermodern kind; body scanners as the intensive care unit of the exteriorization of the central nervous system); and the interiorization of ersatz subjectivity as a prepackaged ideological receptor for the pulsations of the desiring-machine of the fashion scene.” (Kroker and Kroker, 1988)

In light of this quote, Leela can be seen to be externalising some of her functions through the computer-type device on her arm. It can perform various forms of scan, which is an externalisation of the senses.

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Futurama can be looked at in relation to the debate over the separation of ‘mind’ and ‘body’. In ‘A Head in the Polls’, the robot Bender sells his body for cash, seeing it as unimportant in relation to money. Richard Nixon, who for the purposes of the series is a head in a jar, acquires the body in order to run for president of the world, realising. When Bender steals it back, Nixon buys a much bigger robot body, which caused a landslide victory. The larger body is symbolic of power.

This also brings in the notions of cyborgism and the end of the body. Bender is a robot programmed with a mostly human personality. Some theorists question where the line is drawn, or whether there can be a line drawn, between what is human, cyborg or robot. Leela’s computer, attached to her arm, could cause her to be seen as a cyborg, and Bender’s human tendencies could be seen as a cyborg in reverse: the mechanical embracing the human.

Futurama use various forms of discourse to produce meaning. The way in which these discourses are selected, their context and the way they interact are key to understanding any text.

“It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth.” (Foucault, 1980)

References

Bibliography

Baldwin, E. et al, (1999) Introducing Cultural Studies, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall Europe.

Dahl, R. (1967) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, London: Allen & Unwin

Dobbins, B. (1994) The Women: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders, foreword by A. Schwartzenegger, New York: Artisan.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, Brighton: Harvester.

Grant, D., Keenoy, T. and Oswick, C. (1998) Discourse and Organisation, London: Sage.

Kroker, A. and Kroker, M. (1988) Body Invaders: Sexuality and the Postmodern Condition, Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Potter, J. and Wetherall, M. (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology, London: Sage.

Sarup, M. (1993) An Introductory guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.


Filmography

Futurama:

‘Fry and the Slurm Factory’

‘Xmas Story’

‘A Bicyclops Built for Two’

(2002) from the DVDs Futurama: Series One and Futurama: Series Two, Created by Groening, M., developed by Groening, M. and Cohen, D. X., 20th Century Fox.


Soylent Green (1973) dir. Richard Fleischer, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

© 2019 Luke Chant

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