Another great meal, Peg. Y’know, honey, you’re incredible. You ignore the children, you neglect the house, and still you find time to let the dinner get cold before you serve it. How do you do it?
Well, Al, I guess I care enough about me not to care about you. -Al and Peg Bundy
Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try. -Homer Simpson
Bad parenting isn’t supposed to be a laughing matter, and yet it is. After all, Homer Simpson gets quoted much more than either Ward Cleaver or Cliff Huxtable. Homer not only embodies the complete antithesis of the ideal of American fatherhood so well, but says things about family life that many people wish they could say. So it is with Peg Bundy, the ultimate anti-housewife. It begs the question (well, in my mind, anyway): which one would be the worst parent?
Granted this question might be skewed from the very beginning. Homer has Marge, who is no June Cleaver (well, depending on the episode) but who does more than fill in for Homer’s ethical and nurturing lapses as a parent. Al Bundy, on the other hand, really is Peg’s perfect counterpart. The only difference is that Al is a breadwinner, albeit a reluctant and miserable one who, like Homer Simpson, mysteriously has not been fired. So rather than looking at the Simpsons and the Bundys as couples, let’s take Peg and Homer and see how they function as parental units.
Let’s dispense with the darkest category first, shall we? Even the show has come out and referred to Homer strangling Bart as bona fide physical abuse (“And that horrible act of child abuse became one of our most beloved running gags”). With Peg, there’s no indication of physical abuse, but as “Married…With Children” progresses Peg does go from being a housewife who feeds her kids nothing but frozen dinners to one who keeps her family in sub-Third World conditions while spending Al’s money on clothes, nicknacks, and even food for herself. In other words, Peg Bundy runs the Bundy household like North Korea.
So while Homer’s treatment of Bart does fit our usual understanding of physical abuse, malnourishment also counts as physical abuse, and the “prize” has to go to the woman who leaves her kids to try to make meals out of a single M&M found on the floor.
This category is hard to judge thanks to the “Rule of Funny,” which in this case dictates that if it’s funny for Homer or Peg to act like sociopaths then so be it. Also it’s hard to judge this one while being fair to the shows. “Married…With Children” (with extremely rare exceptions) was written with “Seinfeld”‘s “no hugging and no learning” rule. “The Simpsons,” despite its reputation for cynicism, usually wears its heart on its sleeve.
While Bart is the exclusive recipient of Homer’s physical abuse, all the Simpson children routinely have Homer’s bipolar/schizoid/whatever disorder showered upon them, whether it’s Homer threatening to murder Bart if he loses in a peewee sport or yelling at Lisa for daring to lambast Brown University. Still, Homer does seem to be as lavishly affectionate as he is short-tempered. The best examples tend to come out of Homer’s relationship with Lisa, which really is one of the most tender recurring themes in the entire show. Despite Lisa being so different from him that she might as well exist in another dimension, Homer still makes genuine efforts to bond with her (which is why the episodes that focus on Homer and Lisa’s relationship tend to be the ones people remember as tearjerkers, and indeed if you don’t have at least one of those episodes that at least makes you tear up a little – mine is “Lisa’s Pony” – then you truly have a heart of stone.)
Peg is capable of love. She is very loving and supportive toward her mother.
She also was very maternal toward Seven, at least until she got bored with him. So it is that Peg clearly loves her children; it’s just that their novelty wore off years ago. And she has uber-Aspergers’ when it comes to voicing her opinions about them. …And she judges her children’s value based on the material rewards they can bring her. We see Peg’s parenting priorities most clearly in an episode where Kelly has an affair with a city alderman. Although initially outraged that their daughter would date someone twice her age, Peg and Al become supportive when Kelly’s boyfriend start doing favors for them. To make sure the relationship keeps running smoothly, Peg actually stops Kelly before she leaves on any dates to make sure she looks more slutty. When Bud gets jealous at all the praise and attention Kelly is getting just because she’s sleeping with a politician, Peg blurts out, “”We always thought you would be the successful one. Boy were we wrong!” and adds when smoothing things over, “Don’t be jealous. You’re both our children. It’s just that Kelly is our favorite one now, that’s all.” It almost gets creepy when you realize that Bud is a hard-working A student who is watching the self-destructive behavior of his lazy sister get rewarded by his parents just because at the moment it happens to feed their greed.
How much nourishment can Homer actually provide be when he can’t even open a can of pudding and when he can cause cereal to catch fire just by pouring milk over it? Peg can cook, in her own way. Making hamburgers with a toaster is still making hamburgers, after all. Also she does give her children dental checkups (even if it just involves her and Al doing it themselves at home) and vitamins (although it is actually Pez). With Homer, the show has established pretty well that without Marge and to a lesser extent without Lisa his home life pretty much devolves into a “Mad Max” experience. Peg does put a little effort into taking care of her children, even if her idea of care is what “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is to “Star Wars.”
Creating an Unstable Home Environment
Both “The Simpsons” and “Married…With Children” have had episodes where the families were in danger of being split apart by divorce. However, those types of episodes were much more of a recurrence in “The Simpsons.” Not only that, but the Simpsons’ marriage is a bit more…inexplicable, even to the characters themselves. Even when the whole issue of why Homer and Marge are married is confronted head-on, Homer excitedly notes that the only thing he can offer Marge no one else can is “complete and total dependence!” Now Marge does defend her marriage to her delightfully cruel sisters claims that there are hidden depths to Homer and long-time viewers have reasons to believe her, but still their marriage does have its oil-and-water qualities.
Al and Peg, on the other hand, are made for each other, if only because they’re both cynical and mean as Hell. As they put it themselves: “We don’t believe in love.” “That’s why our marriage works!” We even find out that, when Peg does get a job, it actually disrupts their dynamic, because Peg sees her actual “job” as soothing Al’s ego as the sole breadwinner while Al enjoys complaining about his wife’s laziness (and, he reluctantly admits, he kind of likes having her around).
Capacity for Self-Improvement
While I’m no parent and, God willing, I never will be, I’ve learned from enough sitcoms and commercials that there is no manual for parenting and that it’s a job you learn as you go. If only because they’re both in sitcoms, neither Peg or Homer ever really learn. Indeed, really, they get worse as the shows go on. Still, Homer does learn, if only for a little while. He gives up drinking for the sake of his marriage, learns the importance of spending time with his daughter (albeit multiple times), and comes very close to realizing how Tennessee Williams-esque his marriage is. Throughout eleven seasons, Peg learns…um…that having a job is just as bad as she feared, maybe?
And the Award of Worst Parent goes to…
So, the bottom line is you’d probably rather have Homer as a parent than Peg. Now, what would it mean if you had Peg and Homer as your parents? Maybe next time.