The Simpsons is filled to the brim with fantastic, unique characters. Many tend to stand out because of their quirks, such as Sideshow Mel with the bone in his hair or [shudder] the crazy cat lady. Either way they’re all a complex bunch that have kept people tuning in for more than two decades.
One of the more interesting characters of the bunch happens to be Principal Skinner. Yes, on the surface he is the straitlaced principal of Springfield Elementary, but underneath, he is a fantastic example of what a character should be; that is, the sum of many parts past and present.
Skinner is first and foremost an educator and as much as he exudes a certain disdain for his students (one in particular), he always attempts to help and guide them. A perfect example is in The PTA Disbands, where we see Skinner and Bart reach a mutual admiration when one is removed from the post that made him the enemy of the other. We see a softer side to Skinner that was previously hidden and we see that as a person, he really does care about Bart, even if that care is not mutually returned.
School is the center of Skinners life. He always seems to be there and despite the madhouse that it appears, he seems to get a certain solace from it. He even manages to find love in Edna Crabappel. Outside of school, he seems to struggle as an individual; still living with his mother despite being (presumably) in his 40s or even 50s.
This is the Skinner we all know on the surface, but underneath, Skinner is much, much more complex than that. His position as principal of an governmental educational institution immediately marks him out in the Simpsons universe. Show creator Matt Groening is well known for his disdain of public education methods and numerous strips of Life in Hell have alluded to his less than enjoyable ride through the lower echelons of the educational process and his opinions on the methods utilised within it.
Skinner stands for everything that Groening hates about education. He is a by-the-rules kind of guy, a stickler for discipline and more than willing to punish students who fall out of line (Bart being the obvious one). Skinner is shown in Brother from the Same Planet being more than willing to cut music and arts from the curriculum in order to meet the annual budget. This would no doubt irk someone like Groening and anyone with a similarly creative mind.
However, that is not the only side to Seymour Skinner. The fact that he is a Vietnam veteran adds an entirely different dimension to the character. More than once, it is hinted that he has had his fair share of traumatic experiences while on duty. He states numerous times that he was captured and/or shot at.
With this in mind, there are sequences where we see Skinner get betrayed by the government. He gets looked over for promotion, is constantly hounded by Superintendent Chalmers and in Dog of Death we see exactly where Skinner lies:
One eraser? Well, I’m used to my government betraying me. I was in Nam. I served for three..”
Moreso than that, Skinner represents a character who was and is ultimately betrayed by the very government he almost died for and is simultaneously reviled by the public for it. A perfect example occurs in I Love Lisa, when Skinner has a flashback to the war:
Principal Skinner: [after having a traumatic flashback of Valentine’s Day in Vietnam] Johnny. Johnny! JOHNNYYYYYYYYYYYY!
To which Bart’s response is:
Bart: Cool! I broke his brain
As much as Skinner represents Groening’s hatred for education, he also stands for his view on the government and how it mistreats its citizens. In other words, while Skinner should earn our scorn for being an educator, he absolutely has our respect when it comes to how he has been treated in the past by those that should have done better.
Seen together, we can easily see that Skinner’s past (yes, even when he was known as Armin Tamzarium) embodies him in his current role as principal as he attempts to sheppared the students onto the right path.