Bart Simpson, the goggle-eyed cartoon kid with a corrugated hairdo, is catching flak from educators who say his smart-alecky attitude on "The Simpsons" gives children the wrong message.
Bart, with his overbite and backtalk ("Don't have a cow, man!"), is fast becoming an icon of American pop culture, helped along by a multimillion-dollar merchandising blitz from Fox Broadcasting Co.The scene-stealer on the runaway hit TV show also stars in Butterfinger candy bar commercials and there are plans for a starring role in a Nintendo video game. Mattel Inc. promises Bart dolls and action figures among more than 200 Simpsons products entering stores.
Bart's influence has reached Stanford University and UCLA, where he won votes in student elections. He was disqualified in both races on the technicality that he was not enrolled, prompting student protests.
In a telegram from Fox to Stanford students, Bart told voters to be patient: "I must tell you I have set my sights on higher goals. Bart Simpson for U.S. president in '92, man!"
Bart is fast becoming the fictional youth American children identify with most. Not bad for a 10-year-old kid with only eight fingers, eh? But his attitude bothers some critical school officials.
Last month, Principal Bill Krumnow of Lutz Elementary School in Ballville Township, Ohio, banned Bart's "Underachiever: And Proud of It, Man," T-shirt.
"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contradiction of what we stand for," Krumnow said. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids." The show, he said, "teaches the wrong thing to students."
The shirt also was banned at Cambridge Elementary School in Orange, Calif., and last week in Kentucky, Principal Lonnie Watts of Taylor Mill Elementary School declared the Bart shirt a dress-code violation. "We feel like the Bart Simpson show does a lot of things that do not help student self-esteem, such as saying it's OK to be stupid," Watts said.
"Simpsons" creator Matt Groenig and Fox officials prefer to let Bart defend himself with statements like: "I have no comment. My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear."
The show's co-executive producer Sam Simon said: "I don't think it's the job of elementary school principals to pick the role models for their kids."
The uproar caused J.C. Penney, which created Simpsons boutiques in its stores, to remove the offending "underachiever" shirt and another that reads: "I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?"
Even drug czar William J. Bennett took a swipe at Bart. On a May 16 tour of a Pittsburgh drug-treatment center, Bennett saw a poster of Bart and told recovering addicts they shouldn't follow Bart's lead as an underachiever.
"You guys aren't watching `The Simpsons,' are you? That's not going to help you any," said Bennett, director of the national drug policy office.
That wasn't lost on Fox. "We have great respect for Mr. Bennett's task and responsibility," said Fox spokesman Brad Turell. "But I am not aware of any one TV program that will help teen-agers kick the drug habit."
Simon said the heat was the inevitable result of the show's success.
"In a matter of a few months it went from being a cult favorite to a critical hit to popular acclaim," Simon said. "I knew that the next step - because it always is the next step - is somebody stepping in and saying it's dangerous."
Some authorities disagree with Bart's critics.
"I think the Simpson family is one of the few thoughtful cartoons on commercial broadcasting," said Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, a lobby and watchdog group. "How can you teach the Constitution if you ban T-shirts?"
And Fox executives stress they're serious about Bart's image.
"We're sensitive to it, but you can't do your show for three (school) principals," said "Simpsons" co-producer James L. Brooks, a creator of "Taxi," "Mary Tyler Moore" and writer-director of "Terms of Endearment."
Brooks said he frequently discusses the show with parents, educators and child psychologists.
"I know from my own childhood that I was messed up most by the portrayal of perfect families," Brooks said. "When you couldn't live up to them then you started to think something was wrong with yours."