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The Simpsons has gotten a lot of credit over the past several years for doing something that few other shows have been able to do by predicting major pop culture trends or world events. Unfortunately, one episode from the distant past of the long-running animated comedy is now getting a lot of traction on social media for predicting the coronavirus, and writer Bill Oakley is really not happy about the lengths to which some fans are taking it.
Bill Oakley co-wrote the episode of The Simpsons in question, "Marge in Chains," which aired way (waaaay) back on May 6, 1993. It was Episode 24 of only Season 4 of the cartoon mega-hit, and detailed a flu from Japan, called the Osaka Flu, making everyone in Springfield sick. Well, scenes from the episode are now being used online to spread racist propaganda about the outbreak of the coronavirus, and Oakley thinks that it's "gross" how something he wrote has been used. Here's what he told The Hollywood Reporter:
I don't like it being used for nefarious purposes. The idea that anyone misappropriates it to make coronavirus seem like an Asian plot is terrible. In terms of trying to place blame on Asia — I think that is gross.
People can be terrible online anyway, and when you add a time of crises, misinformation, fear and all of the other things that are going along with the situation surrounding the spread of the coronavirus and the measures we're having to take to try and stop it, that only adds to the negativity we can see online. The Simpsons happens to have an episode that makes is even easier for folks with bad intentions to get their point across, so they're replacing the word "coronavirus" with "Osaka Flu" in many of the memes.
For "Marge in Chains," Bill Oakley and co-writer Josh Weinstein were simply given the task of making sure that Marge Simpson would end up arrested and in jail, with showrunner Al Jean not caring how she got there. The two came up with a story that saw an ill factory worker in Japan cough into boxes that were being used to ship a popular juicer to the good people of Springfield. When the juicers begin to arrive, six to eight weeks later, everyone gets sick. Marge is arrested for accidentally shoplifting while trying to get supplies for her family, who have all gotten sick.
According to Oakley, he hadn't thought about the episode in years, which makes perfect since, considering how long ago he worked on it. But, when he began seeing the memes, he was reminded of it, and said that it was certainly never meant to fuel any kind of hate or panic.
It was just supposed to be a quick joke about how the flu got here. It was meant to be absurd that someone could cough into a box and the virus would survive for six to eight weeks in the box. It is cartoonish. We intentionally made it cartoonish because we wanted it to be silly and not scary, and not carry any of these bad associations along with it, which is why the virus itself was acting like a cartoon character and behaving in extremely unrealistic ways.
The Simpsons has always been good at leaning on the silly aspects of any subject it broaches, and the make-believe flu created for the episode was no different. The idea that a virus could live for so long without an actual host of some sort was the first step for Oakley and his writing partner in trying to establish how ridiculous the situation they'd created was.
And, it got even more cartoony throughout the episode. At one point, a virus cloud stops at a red light while another virus cloud floats past with a green light. Unfortunately, none of these things have been enough to stop the people who felt "Marge in Chains" was the perfect vehicle to unleash their flawed thoughts on the coronavirus.
I'd like to say that the people using The Simpsons to blame Asia for the coronavirus will see Bill Oakley's words and feel bad enough to stop what they're doing, but it's pretty much a guarantee that they won't. Everyone should just remember that there are official sources from which to get information about the pandemic, and the best use of The Simpsons episodes right now should only be for what they were intended to do: make us laugh and relive some stress.