Deborah Orr: When five-year-olds enter worlds from which they are usually forbidden

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The Independent Online

Film censorship becomes more anomalous by the day, to the point where it has become virtually the only place where individual consumption of culture is still policed by the powers-that-be. It's accepted that this pertains nowadays only for the first stage of a film's life, when it is on general release, and that on the subsequent formats films are shown in, classification is merely a guide and not a requirement. It doesn't stop ghastly material from being seen by inappropriate audiences; it just puts off the moment when it's all up to the individual and the bounds of his private or family moral universe.

In the reams that have been written about The Simpsons Movie, it has been suggested again and again that the film is not as complex or edgy as many of the television episodes. It's not unreasonable to assume that this is in no small part because the film had to tick boxes to get all of its fan base into a cinema in a very direct and circumscribed way that the televisions shows do not. Which is interesting.

Like a lot of other people, our family tends to accept the moratorium on "difficult material" that exists in the cause of The Simpsons. Our five-year-old is allowed to watch stuff that in other contexts might cause consternation or even scandal when directed at even teenage or adult audiences, as have all of our children at similar ages.

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart, has for 18 years accepted with similar grace the sort of racism that was directed at Shilpa Shetty in the last Celebrity Big Brother, except that in The Simpsons such abuse accepted as a nasty fact of life. In the Channel 4 show, the nation rushed to argue that such behaviour was an aberration.

Five-year-olds are allowed to enter establishments that the law forbids them from visiting in the real world, like the desperate tavern run by Moe Szyslak (pictured), frequented by Homer and by a number of characters who are as bitterly caught up in alcoholism and turpitude as Moe is himself. Moe's was even turned into a family restaurant in one episode, but was changed back when he was unable to tolerate the multi-generational atmosphere. This is all a far cry from the portrayal of pubs in British soaps as community mainstays where drunkenness occurs only occasionally.

Then there are the moments when The Simpsons prompts questions parents are not quite ready to answer. Like the episode that parodied Cape Fear, and ended with a near-naked Chief Wiggum, along with all his police force, being on the spot to save Bart from being killed by resident psychopath Sideshow Bob (itself hardly the stuff of typical family entertainment). "Lucky we were all in this brothel," went the pay-off line.

Yet the funny thing is that no group, not even the Catholic Church, has much of a problem with the content of The Simpsons. Few people veer far from the line that despite the generous dollops of subversiveness, dysfunctionality and darkness, The Simpsons exerts a positive moral influence that ultimately promotes decent family values. It's hard, in fact, to imagine what the western discourse on the family, as well as the shared language of the majority of individual families, might sound like without the show.

Maybe the most significant lesson The Simpsons teaches us is that good popular culture is about quality and context rather than content and "appropriateness", even though the latter tend to remain the only benchmarks under which the public has recourse to complaint. And maybe it's time to start discussing whether the market is providing the level of quality control that, particularly where children are concerned, a healthy culture needs.

I know that many of us are worried than there may now be no things left to be politically corrected. So I'm pleased to report that the latest news from the British campus is that there is to be no more "brain-storming". Word reaches me from a PhD student that he has been advised to consider "thought-showering" as less disrespectful to those who have suffered real brainstorms. One can't help feeling that the guys who came up with that gem know whereof they speak.

Equality among victims

In some quarters, there is despondency at the lack of progress towards equality after 10 years of Labour. Yet there is clearly some room for celebration. Every layer of society now feels equally picked on and victimised. Aristocratic boys and girls, heading each year down to Cornwall to let off steam at the end of exams, are convinced that they are being picked on because they are posh.

Meanwhile, the middle classes can only gaze with envy at such privilege. These days they see themselves as society's fall guys, unable even to get their children into private education, because of the huge squeeze on their standard of living perpetrated by a government that despises their values even as they share them. Everybody has more money now, sadly, so competition for elite purchase is tougher than it used to be.

Some of the consequences of this are disastrous. Despite the hell of being middle or upper class, there is room yet for further humiliation, as the events the better-off once cherished are enchavened by the ignorant hordes, who turn up at Goodwood having straightened their hair at home, in the style of Jodie Marsh, left.

Any hurt chavs may feel at being the butt of such snobbery can at least be soothed a little with the consolation that they'd all feel just as picked on and discriminated against whatever word they used for water closet.

These answers hardly inspire trust

The oddest thing about the findings of the latest inquiry into the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes is that top man at the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, comes across as such a passively incurious fellow.

How, when all of London was desperate to find out what exactly had gone on in Stockwell Tube station on 22 July 2005, was he virtually the only person in the city not making active efforts to get to the bottom of the matter? It hardly suggests a man who is temperamentally suited for work in the police force.

Sir Ian personally assured me that the findings of the inquiry would make sense of his weird isolation in the hours following the shooting. They do not, not in the least. It's all rather similar to the first inquiry, which found that the men in the elite armed team who held Jean Charles down and shot him many times were not responsible for their decisions. Yes, south London was in fear and panic that morning, suffused as it was with the terrifying knowledge that a failed suicide bomber was on the loose. But most of us would have been, surely, a little less scared if we had been armed and had been through special training in order to prepare us to deal with such a situation.

That inquiry's conclusion, it appeared, was that the police should be given leave to be more hysterical and more prone to panic than ordinary members of the public, rather than less so. This one begs us to believe, likewise, that senior police officers should be more indifferent to developments in ongoing police operations, rather than less indifferent, than the average person in the street. It is all pretty topsy turvy.

None of it, though, is quite as topsy turvy as Jean Charles's own fate. In Brazil, where he came from, it is accepted that cities are violent and the grotesquely inverted actions of the police force foster the situation. In Rio de Janeiro alone, 50,000 people have been murdered in the past 20 years, twice as many as have died in Israel-Palestine in the same period. It remains quite unbelievable that he should have travelled so far to die so needlessly at the hands of the police.