Many years ago, a poll became infamous. When asked to name the most famous Scottish person they knew, an unknown number of queried Americans responded with Groundskeeper Willie. The perpetually grouchy redheaded goon of Springfield Elementary School outranked people and characters not voiced by Americans. Depending on who you asked, this result was either proof of widespread cultural ignorance or evidence of the enduring appeal of one of the standout supporting figures in The Simpsons. In a shock filled to the gunnels with beloved characters, each with their own array of oft-quoted lines, Willie remains a beloved creation to many fans of the show. Between his endless rage, his drunken tractor driving and the crushing sadness of his own life, there was something that made him undeniably lovable to viewers.
Well, at least to Americans.
As a legitimate Scottish person, there are certain questions I get asked a lot from people of other nationalities. They always want to know if I like haggis, if I own a kilt, what I think of Outlander, and if the weather is as bad as everyone says it is. I expect, as do many of my friends and family, to also be asked about Groundskeeper Willie. The Simpsons is so popular and influential that it retains worldwide appeal. It makes sense that fans would want to know what we think of Willie. Outside of certain actors and Connery-era Bond, he’s probably the most publicly visible Scot in the pop culture ecosystem. People who ask about him tend to be fans of the character. My own evolving feelings on the matter reflect heavily on how Scotland is appropriated for such purposes.
Generally speaking, most Scots I know are rather fond of Willie. Sure, he’s the biggest Scottish stereotype since Brigadoon, but he tends to elicit less cringe than some American dictated depictions of our people. When I was a kid, I didn’t even know he was supposed to be Scottish until he mentioned he was the ugliest man in Glasgow while wearing a kilt (he’s also claimed to be from Orkney, Aberdeen, Loch Ness, Edinburgh, and the illustrious North Kilttown). His accent was in no way definable to me as a Scottish one. I have a Scottish accent and I don’t sound like that, and neither did any of my Glaswegian friends. Why did he talk like that? Was that what people thought I talked like?
For a while, I couldn’t deal with any of the jokes the show made about Willie that pertained to Scotland. They just made us sound like such a depressing nation, at once irreversibly archaic and clown-like in its silliness. Willie was supposed to be laughed at, not with. He was drunk because he was Scottish. He was angry because he was Scottish. He was worthy of derision because he wasn’t from around these parts. Scottish humour is heavily reliant on self-deprecation. Yeah, we’re a rainy pile of hills full of booze and fury, but dammit, we’re allowed to make fun of that ourselves! Americans marching in on our territory was different.
As I got older, Willie seemed funnier. He had shades to his character that went beyond the national stereotypes. His anger hid a deep self-loathing and homesickness that elicited pathos during moments of buffoonery. A later season episode had him made over Pygmalion style, which showed how much Scottishness is diminished due to being seen as inherently uncivilized. In the episode where Springfield held a vote on deporting supposed undocumented immigrants, you saw a brief moment of true understanding for Willie’s loneliness. He was the butt of the joke because he wasn’t one of them.
A lot of this is more potent and problematic in the character of Apu, an equally stereotyped depiction of an Indian shopkeeper, one voiced by a white man that adhered to every racist trope in the book. People using Groundskeeper Willie to mock you is one thing, but it’s far less insidious and rooted in bigotry than what East Asian-Americans went through thanks to Apu (Hari Kondabolu recently made a documentary about this, The Problem With Apu).
That Willie has become an international representative of Scots, in his own twisted way, speaks to the enduring appeal of those stereotypes. However, it also highlights how whiteness allows such things to be defined more fondly than they would be for people of colour. Willie’s anger and drunkenness are to be laughed at, sure, but it’s always with a warm affection. Scotland’s visibility and reputation has been greatly helped by investment in tourism and expansive marketing campaigns, as well as shows like Outlander: We’re rowdy and drunk, yet we’re also noble and romantic and modern and going places in the world. Our pop culture depictions are still pretty limited but they’ve a few more shades to them than the early days of Willie’s reign. I’m not sure that would be the case if we were a country with a majority non-white population: Whiteness gives us, and Willie, the benefit of the doubt. Apu never got that.
Willie says a lot about Scots to Americans, but what does he say to Scots about ourselves. When Willie intervened in the Scottish Independence Referendum, we took it a little more seriously than it probably warranted (he was a Yes vote, obviously). It showed how much we’d evolved on the character. He was loved enough to the point where the fake opinions of a cartoon were reported on the evening news.
He’s ridiculous but lovingly so. He’s the first to take the piss out of his own country, but he’ll go to bat for it the moment anyone tries to mock it. His anger has great use, and it makes him brave beyond any indication of such things being a bad idea (‘Grease me up, woman!’). Willie’s a relic of a different time, but even we get nostalgic for those days. Now and then, I still cringe at Willie moments on The Simpsons. The accent is just too daft to ignore at times. Still, nowadays I tend to laugh with him, especially as he’s become more of a character than a trope in a kilt. Sometimes, you just need a rowdy redhead in your corner.
Besides, in terms of animated Scottish stereotypes, we’ll take Willie over Shrek any day!