Next year, The Simpsons turns 30 years old – I won’t get into the literally decades-old point about how we just want it to be euthanised already, there is absolutely no new ground that can be gained from that tiresome and ultimately pointless discussion. I’m more interested in the legacies of the family’s two most prominent members, Marge and Lisa. And it’s kinda heartbreaking, really.
Within the last couple of years, there’s been two fantastic explorations of these particular characters which opened my eyes as to how little they got in comparison to their male counterparts over the years. The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, made a 15 tweet poem about Marge’s lack of a life outside of her family. Which yes, does sound rather melodramatic and ignoring of how much she loves her family and all that. A pretty depressing concept. But he had a point – while most of Springfield are allowed to form at least superficial connections that form a white noise background of interconnection, she is never offered such a lifeboat. She has no single confidant outside of, to some extent, Lisa. Homer doesn’t count because if you need a life-changing epiphany every week to remember how to respect your wife, your presence doesn’t matter for shit.
She’s not allowed to have a talent that isn’t trashed by the end of the episode, despite Marge being well and away the most varied and skillful of the group. She’s not allowed to have a life outside of her children, and each attempt at doing so is dutifully punished by the time the credits roll. Even her relationship with her sisters is fraught at the best of times because they know what life she has fallen into. While this doesn’t diminish the seemingly infinite love she has for her family, it does give pause as to what kind of life the writers have deemed for her, and by extent, us, over the years. However, this kind of loneliness pales in comparison to the sheer cruelty heaped onto Lisa over the last three decades.
Nearly six months ago, there was a blog post titled ‘I Watched All 629 Episodes of The Simpsons in a Month. Here’s What I Learned.’ I recommend searching it up, because it has far more room for discussion than I do. The mental prowess needed stomach such an activity aside, what the writer gleamed from the show is that not only does the show’s universe hate Lisa, but so do the writers. We all kinda wanted to be Lisa Simpson, I think. The voice of empathy and reason combined, and still girly and adorable. The one to remind us of how we can always be better and care for those not cared for. But this was not the intended lesson the writers wanted us to take home.
The real lesson is something much nastier – anti-intellectualism is something to praise, an ideal which is as synonymous with America as it is with New Zealand. In that respect, we are not that dissimilar from the country we get such joy out of mocking. But on top of that, it details the virulent anti-progressivism that has lingered under the surface for many years, particularly since the decline of quality allowed the show to become mired in its own inadequacies. What this blog post methodically laid out was a crushing look at how the girl is just not allowed a break: that her perpetual loneliness is her fault, that her basic emotional and intellectual needs are not worthy of respect and, by extension, the same goes for those that identify with Lisa. It details how Lisa, a champion of truly liberal values and self-respect/self-empowerment for those forgotten by society, needs to be snapped in half. Her intellect is nothing but a punchline for her own social misery. Her empathy is treated as a character flaw in the same way Homer’s callousness and Bart’s selfishness are needed to be broken down and repaired on a weekly basis. And that’s the thing – the latter two characters get given a resolution to their arc that ultimately allows them to become better people. Lisa? She becomes a better person by betraying and giving up on what she believes in, or subduing her intellect, or being forced to become a subversion of everything she cares about. There is no respect or joy in being Lisa Simpson, and that is the lesson we are really meant to take into our lives.
We’re about 15 years too late from shifting the way these two characters have been cemented in the cultural consciousness, as the show has gone on for too long and the women, like everyone else on the show, have been watered down to only the vaguest resemblance of who was there before. And, once again, Lisa has gotten the worst of it. She became the writer’s mouthpiece for their response to the Apu controversy of the last year – one to silence the reasonable criticism of Apu’s impact in the real world, something completely antithetical to every stated moral and social belief of hers. Not only was it a slap in the face to the concerns about Apu’s enduring legacy, but it was the culmination of how even today, Lisa just doesn’t get any respect.
For what it’s worth, I still want to be like Lisa Simpson.