Previously: Everything’s coming up Milhouse.
The world owes a great deal to minor Simpsons characters, and I have taken it upon myself to periodically-yet-irregularly celebrate them as the spirit moves me. Today we honor Principal Seymour Skinner.
Editor’s note: We will not be discussing episode 4F23, “The Principal and the Pauper,” and the first person to mention the name Armin Tamzarian to me will be hammer-banned. Thank you.
One of The Simpsons‘ greatest strengths has always been its ability to imbue even the most ridiculous and pathetic of characters with an inherent dignity, and there is no one short of Barney Gumble more ridiculous and pathetic than Principal Seymour Skinner. He’s the square to end all squares, but he lacks the buoyancy and impermeability to mockery of a Ned Flanders to make squaredom bearable. He’s not only the kind of man who buys a secondhand motorized tie rack despite only having the one tie, he’s the kind of man who changes his mind about buying it. Twice.
If ever T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” could be said to describe a single man, it would be Seymour Skinner:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
What kind of a man is afraid to eat a peach, I have always wondered in reading that poem. In more than one episode, Principal Skinner and his mother Agnes quarrel over a shared bath pillow; the police arrive at their house on a charge of domestic disturbance during “In Marge We Trust,” and Seymour tells them:
“There’s an inflatable bath pillow that Mother and I both enjoy. She claimed it was her day to use it, I maintained she was mistaken, we quarrelled. Later, as I prepared to bathe, I noticed to my horror that someone had slashed the pillow.”
“Uh-huh,” Marge tells them. “And who called the police?”
“We both did,” they say in unison. That is the kind of man who is afraid to eat a peach. Even in the Army, he was a dud – he was shot in the back during a USO show.
Principal Skinner, by the way, was named after famed behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, and I can hardly imagine a crueler afterlife for someone dedicated to operant conditioning than having to manage Springfield Elementary. Skinner is the Javert of Springfield – dedicated, relentless, hopelessly out of touch, and constantly on the losing side of law and order. In “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” he chases Bart through the entire town in an eerie, Westworld-style sequence.
“Doublemint,” he says, licking a piece of discarded gum he finds on the sidewalk. “Trying to double your fun, eh, Bart? Well, I’ll double your detention. And so we enter endgame.”
He’s alternately terrifying and harmless, depending on the context. In the earlier seasons, especially, he’s often shot from a worm’s-eye view to emphasize his authority over Bart, and is a generally menacing and keen-eyed presence. “That smells like sodium tetrasulfate bonding with chlorophyll,” he gasps in dawning realization moments after Bart pours herbicide on the school lawn in the shape of his own name. He is equal parts highly observant (he can smell trouble) and completely obtuse (during one search for a truant Bart, he searches the Springfield Natural History Museum and the local 4-H Club, to no avail. “Am I so out of touch?” he asks himself, before closing himself off, as he so often does, to the heartbreak of reality. “No. It’s the children who are wrong.”
This is a man who thinks of the “sleek, vigilant” puma as the “principal of the mountains;” this is a man who is careful not to look at himself because he knows he will be crushed by what he sees.
His frequent Vietnam flashbacks are in turn haunting and absurdist – in one scene, the school’s budget has been slashed so viciously that they are down to a single eraser. “One eraser?” he cries bitterly. “Well, I’m used to my government betraying me. I was in ‘Nam.” In “Team Homer,” though, his memories of being in a POW camp quickly and deliciously subvert the audience’s expectations: “The year was 1968. We were on recon in a steaming Mekong delta. An overheated private removed his flack jacket, revealing a T-shirt with an ironed-on sporting the MAD slogan ‘Up with Mini-skirts!.’ Well, we all had a good laugh, even though I didn’t quite understand it. But our momentary lapse of concentration allowed Charlie to get the drop on us. I spent the next three years in a POW camp, forced to subsist on a thin stew made of fish, vegetables, prawns, coconut milk, and four kinds of rice. I came close to madness trying to find it here in the States, but they just can’t get the spices right.”
The stew bit is funny enough in itself, but what makes Skinner more than just funny, but enduring is that all stakes are high stakes to him – Bart having a copy of Mad Magazine now is as upsetting to him as getting captured by the VC was then. Skinner plays every game in deadly earnest. He is always playing for keeps. The bath pillow is a matter of principle. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun at least once.)
“Ah, there’s nothing more exciting than science,” Principal Skinner tells Bart in “Bart’s Comet.” “You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention…Yes, science has it all.” There’s something sad and lovely about a man like this, who can’t win but doesn’t know the game was never made for him to play. He’s eternally committed to turning Bart into a good student, and thinks that sitting still and writing down numbers will convince Bart that science can be fun. He’s in charge of the whole school, but in control of nothing. Superintendent Chalmers dismisses him, his mother ridicules him, and his own students confound him time and time again.
“Seymour, I’m getting tired,” Agnes tells him in line to see Marge as the Listen Lady (about what else? the bath pillow again). “Tell them we’re going next.”
“Well, I’m not principal of the line, Mother,” he tells her, exasperated.
She narrows her eyes. “And you never will be.”
Whenever he attempts to grab some small amount of peace and dignity, some square acre of his soul that he can call his own, it is snatched from him. “We’ve got Skinner’s underpants!” Jimbo and his cronies call out after attacking him at the local laundromat. “And there’s nothing you can do about it!”
“Yes, there is,” Skinner calls out after them. “I can buy another pair.”
That’s part of what makes his eventual romance with Edna Krabappel so sweet and well-deserved (and why I refuse to countenance any of their character arcs after season nine). She’s as caustic and world-weary as he is literal-minded and naïve. As strict and unforgiving as he can be, he refuses to be cruel, although the world is often cruel to him, and his unintentional generosities brings out the kindness in her. They first spark while hiding out from Seymour’s mother in a playhouse during Martin Prince’s birthday party (it says something about their respective lives that, well into both of their forties, they are spending time on the weekend attending the birthday celebration of one of their students, not because they particularly like him, but because they have nothing better to do).
“More tea, Edna?” Seymour asks her gallantly.
“What kind of little boy has a tea set?” Edna asks him.
Seymour chuckles. “I think we both know the answer to that,” he says. “A lucky boy.” It’s a little startling to see anyone so kind to an effeminate, chubby little boy (the world has not traditionally been kind to such boys). Seymour is a soldier who never goes for the obvious kill, a soldier who will always throw himself on the grenade. When his romance with Mrs. Krabappel goes public after a student accuses them of having sex in the janitor’s closet, he saves her reputation and both of their jobs by informing the entire town that he has never had sex.
“Tell them how we brought a little happiness into each other’s lives,” Edna tells him. “Ask them why they’re forcing two dedicated people to choose between their careers and their hearts.”
He does. But he also goes a step further. “I did not have relations in that closet, and the fact is…” he pauses, embarrassed. He holds Edna’s hand. “The fact is, I haven’t ever had relations. I am a virgin.”
There’s a little laughter, a little rustling of the crowd. Everyone leaves, a bit chastened. But Seymour isn’t ashamed, and Seymour isn’t changed. There’s not even a suggestion, as there so often is immediately after a male character is revealed to be a virgin, that he has sex by the close of the episode. It’s just who he is.
There is no guile in his soul; during a botched luncheon with Superintendent Chalmers, he tries to pass off the fire in his kitchen as the Aurora Borealis. Chalmers is incredulous.
“The Aurora Borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?”
Seymour doubles down. “Yes.”
Chalmers matches him. Why not get on the ride? “May I see it?” he asks humbly.
“No,” Seymour says. This is the best and most elaborate lie he will ever concoct. The man, I am telling you, is the squarest of squares. He cannot even get in trouble right. When everyone thought he’d been killed by the mafia in “Bart the Murderer,” he had in fact been trapped under a pile of his old recycling.
“I was trapped,” he tells an increasingly less-awestruck courtroom. “I stayed alive by eating my mother’s preserves and maintained my sanity by dribbling a nearby basketball.”
“Let this be a lesson to recycle frequently,” he concludes, a lesson that only he could draw from the situation.
After being fired from Springfield Elementary in “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song,” he proudly tells Apu and Bart about his plan to finally start the novel he’s always wanted to write, about a “futuristic amusement park, where dinosaurs are brought to life through advanced cloning techniques. I call it Billy and the Cloneasaurus.”
Apu erupts in frustration. “Oh, you have got to be kidding sir. First you think of an idea that has already been done. Then you give it a title that nobody could possibly like. Didn’t you think this through?” The scene cuts to later on in his tirade: “It was on the bestseller list for eighteen months! Every magazine cover had…” (another fadeout) “…One of the most popular movies of all time, sir! What were you thinking?”
Is Seymour really so out of touch?
No, it’s the others who are wrong.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.