Life Lessons From Lisa Simpson
It's no exaggeration to say that The Simpsons has influenced every writer you've ever read on this site (or any other comedy site). So this week, Cracked is taking a closer look at the town of Springfield and all of our favorite residents ...
If The Simpsons evoke feelings of '90s nostalgia for you, we invite you to enter to win one of three advanced copies of "The Nineties: A Book" by Chuck Klosterman, courtesy of Penguin Random House. Submit your email below to enter and learn more here.
It's no secret that Lisa Simpson isn't typically considered to be at the same pop-culture icon status as some of her family members. Hence, she never recorded a novelty hip-hop single or inspired any nightmarish ceramic bongs. In considering The Simpsons as a whole, however, Lisa is arguably the most important character, imbuing so many episodes with the emotional stakes and moral introspection that made the series work on a level beyond simply the comedy. While often painted as a do-gooding nag by her family, friends, and the town of Springfield in general, Lisa espoused points of view that, in hindsight, have held up remarkably well.
The structure of a classic Lisa-centric episode often differed from the typical sitcom arc in that it allowed for her to both fail in an intended goal and still ultimately succeed since the measure of Lisa's success was almost always based on her emotional growth. Lisa was constantly learning that the world is complex and soul-crushing, and finding a way to salvage even a tiny scrap of idealism can in and of itself be a victory.
Take the episode "Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy," in which Lisa spearheads a new talking doll to compete with the deeply misogynistic talking Malibu Stacy toy. Despite its clear moral superiority, the "Lisa Lionheart" doll is thwarted by a new Malibu Stacy that is the exact same inferior, insulting product, but with a brand new crappy plastic hat. Though Lisa's message seemingly reaches one solitary girl, she chooses to believe it still made the whole ($46,000) venture worth it.
Likely inspired by the real-life "Happy to be Me" doll which similarly offered a more-progressive alternative Barbie in the early '90s, not to mention the real-life scandal in which a talking Barbie complained about the difficulty of math, there are certainly valid criticisms one could make lob at Lisa Lionheart from here in the future year of 2022. Namely that another extremely thin, white doll doesn't address all of Malibu Stacy's problems, but the fact remains that Lisa took on sexism in the toy industry, something that is still a major issue, decades ago.
Another classic episode, "Lisa's Rival," finds her determined to best her brainy new classmate Allison by cheating in an academic competition. Lisa doesn't win, and importantly, neither does Allison; both of their elaborate, literary-inspired dioramas lose out to Ralph Wiggum's pile of mint condition Star Wars action figures – because society is unjust and its systems of evaluation are flawed. (And because you always let the Wookie win.)
But perhaps the most talked-about Lisa-centric episode of recent years is the third season's "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington," which follows the same formula. Lisa has an objective to win a patriotic essay contest, fails to complete said objective as she loses the contest, but ultimately learns a much more valuable lesson because she scraped her pandering essay in favor of a scorching critique of political corruption after witnessing a Congressman accepting bribes. It's also the episode that offended the delicate sensibilities of the Bush family, so, yeah, pretty much a perfect half-hour of television.
Lisa rejecting a slam-dunk mainstream reward in favor of a path that leads to both moral fulfillment and the downfall of a crooked politician is straight-up punk rock, and, again, this storyline helps Lisa gain a broader and more nuanced view of how the world works.
Despite its implausibly rosy ending, the politics of "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington" seem pretty cut-and-dried, with media critic Paul A. Cantor calling it a "corrosive satire of national politics" that "attacks the federal government at its foundation." But that somehow didn't stop former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from Tweeting out a still image from the episode following Trump's 2020 State of the Union speech that inadvertently communicated the exact opposite point from the one he was trying to make.
The best Lisa stories are fundamentally about the difficulty of fitting in, which, even if we aren't child geniuses, is a universal theme. Sometimes this comes across very literally, like when she reinvented her identity to impress Christina Ricci and her beach-bum friends.
But mostly, Lisa struggles to find her place in society itself. Her intelligence and ethical backbone almost always separate her from the mainstream culture of Springfield – take the time Lisa publicly torpedoed her position as "Little Miss Springfield" purely because she wouldn't shill for a cigarette company.
In retrospect, it's pretty galling that Lisa wasn't considered the primary badass rebel child of The Simpsons. Sure Bart spraying graffiti and skateboarding on the sidewalk are all well and good, but Lisa hijacked a goddamn parade purely to call out big tobacco (while seemingly killing their mascot in the process).
Lisa's role as an iconoclast was further cemented in the episode literally called "Lisa the Iconoclast," all about how she takes on another of the town's problematic values and the celebration of town founder Jebediah Springfield, who she discovers was really a loathsome pirate named "Hans Sprungfeld." Springfieldians react with hostility when faced with the truth; Lisa's teacher, Miss Hoover, calls Lisa's discovery "dead-white-male bashing from a P.C. thug." In the end, Lisa opts to withhold her evidence and allows everybody to enjoy the town's fraudulent creation myth.
This final act certainly seems out of step with our current moment in time, when confronting the past, and tearing down monuments to historical oppressors, is of paramount importance – although the vehemence and cruelty with which the town clings to their facile traditions at all cost was spot on. Some people have even suggested that the show should revisit the topic and actually reckon with the looming presence of Jebediah Springfield, whose statue still resides in the town square.
Creator Matt Groening once described Lisa as the only member of the Simpson family not controlled by their "base impulses." She is an intellectual, an appreciator of science, literature, and, importantly, music. One of the earliest pieces of evidence that Lisa Simpson's influence had extended beyond Springfield and into the real world came in the mid-'90s when there was a sudden wave of young girls taking up the saxophone.
While it may not seem exactly radical now, Lisa's pivot to vegetarianism was a big deal at the time, in an episode that won an Environmental Media Award and a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States. There's also the time she shouted "Free Tibet!" during a spelling bee, which eventually led to a signed cardboard figure of Lisa being auctioned off to raise money for Tibetan children. And, of course, there's her environmentalism, which included advocating for recycling, protesting deforestation, and explaining to her dad why "global warming" is a thing even when it snows – something literal Presidents have failed to grasp.
Lisa's also widely considered one of pop culture's great feminist icons (and is the United States' first female President if random carnies are to be believed). Even if the people in her life (or the series itself) occasionally devalues her, there's absolutely no doubt that The Simpsons, and the world itself, has been embiggened by Lisa.
In the end, Mr. Bergstrom was right …
… and we're all the better for it.
You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter!
Top Image: 20th Century Studios