Cracked Exclusive: An Oral History of Malibu Stacy, the Barbie of ‘The Simpsons’ Universe
Lisa Simpson never viewed her favorite doll, Malibu Stacy, as anything but feminist. The very first time Malibu Stacy is mentioned on The Simpsons — in Season Three’s “Lisa the Greek” — Lisa is showing off the new studio apartment she made for the doll and mentions Malibu Stacy’s “weekly feminist newsletter.” So when a talking Malibu Stacy was introduced in Season Five’s “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” you can understand her betrayal when the doll was giggling out phrases like, “I wish they taught shopping in school,” and “Let’s bake some cookies for the boys.”
From there, Lisa leads a revolt against Malibu Stacy, which sees her team up with the doll’s long-retired creator, Stacy Lovell, to create the new doll “Lisa Lionheart,” a modern female role model. Although “Lisa Lionheart” fails to compete with the massively popular Malibu Stacy, Lisa puts up a good fight and stands up for what she believes in anyway.
“Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” was written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein and is considered a classic of the so-called Golden Era of The Simpsons. Obviously, as Malibu Stacy is a parody of Barbie, the episode was seeking to address the sometimes outdated aspects of the Queen of Mattel, particularly 1992’s “Teen Talk Barbie,” which included the phrase “Math class is tough,” angering parents as it reinforced a stereotype about girls not being good at math.
Barbie, of course, is everywhere these days, with Greta Gerwig’s spin on the iconic doll hitting theaters later this week. And though Gerwig is likely to bring more Lisa Lionheart than Malibu Stacy to the proceedings, it seemed like as good of an excuse as any to talk to Oakley and Weinstein — as well as Yeardley Smith, aka the voice of Lisa — about what they were using Malibu Stacy to say about Barbie, Lisa, childhood and growing up as a little girl of a certain era.
Bill Oakley, co-writer of “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy”: For The Simpsons story retreat heading into Season Five, Josh Weinstein and I prepared two ideas: the gambling episode “$pringfield (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling),” and “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy.” This was in 1993, and both of these episodes were based on current events. The gambling one was based on some small town that was struggling with legalizing gambling, and “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” came from two different incidents about Barbie from the same era. First there was that “Math Is Hard” Barbie, which spawned outrage. Then there was the “Barbie Liberation Organization,” which was an anonymous group of feminist activists who, in 1993, went into Toys “R” Uses all over the country and switched the voice boxes of G.I. Joes and Barbies.
Igor Vamos, professor of media arts and founder of the Barbie Liberation Organization: In response to Mattel releasing Teen Talk Barbie with the phrase “Math class is tough,” in 1993, I organized a bunch of people to switch the voice boxes of Teen Talk Barbies and talking G.I. Joes and put them back on store shelves to be sold again. The idea was for them to be these little cultural Trojan horses, delivering a cultural criticism about gender stereotypes. So the Barbies said things like, “Dead men tell no lies,” while G.I. Joe said, “I love to shop.” Both of those toys have their cultural baggage, which was really easy to see when their voice boxes were swapped.
With a group of about 30 people across the country we switched about 100 dolls — though we said it was 300 — and created a media spectacle that came to a head in the Christmas of 1993.
Oakley: Once we had the idea of exploring Malibu Stacy for an episode, the story pretty much wrote itself. Josh and I figured it out in a couple of hours; then we took it to the story retreat, and it was very popular. We wrote it a few months later.
In addition to the Barbie Liberation Organization inspiring this episode, I also knew a lot about Barbie because my wife was a Barbie collector, and I’d been to a number of Barbie conventions with her. I actually wrote “Steamed Hams” in the lobby of a hotel where a Barbie convention was going on.
Also at that time, there was one guy who had the world’s biggest Barbie collection, and he used to release these VHS tapes about the world of Barbie. So we said, “That obviously has to be Smithers.” Barbie creator Ruth Handler had an interesting relationship with Mattel as well, so we decided to include a Ruth Handler character who’d become a recluse.
Josh Weinstein, co-writer of “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy”: One thing that is significant about this episode is that Lisa loved Malibu Stacy, and she was really upset to find out that something she loved could be saying these awful things. On The Simpsons, we wanted to write the kids realistically. For Lisa, while she’s really smart, she still loves Malibu Stacy. She’s still a real kid.
Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson: I love it when Lisa fights for something. The writers use that aspect of her character well and quite judiciously. That being said, I think Lisa is most successful when you remember that she’s eight. Her ability to recognize that Malibu Stacy is this sexist standard for girls is great, but I think it only works when you juxtapose that with her laughing her butt off at Itchy & Scratchy.
Weinstein: This was the perfect story for Lisa. It’s a bit about “don’t meet your heroes” as Mailbu Stacy’s creator, played perfectly by Kathleen Turner, was kind of a sad drunk. It was also about that first time when you’re young and being disillusioned about something — that’s a big deal that’s often not covered in cartoons. Even though the show started with Homer and Bart as the main characters, I think most of the writers identify most with Lisa, the nerdy outsider, which is why so many of her episodes are so good.
Oakley: When this episode aired, the TV Guide ad for it was the most mind-blowing, tone-deaf interpretation of an episode there could possibly be. It said, “Springfield gets a sexy new doll” and had Bart peeking up Malibu Stacy’s skirt. This was the FOX promo department, and it flew in the face of everything the episode was about. We couldn’t believe it when we saw it.
Tanya Lee Stone, professor of communications and creative media, author of The Good, the Bad and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us: There’s an interesting pro/con controversy about Barbie that is well-identified in “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy.” On one hand, there’s this narrative about Mattel as this evil corporation trying to make girls feel badly about themselves, but in reality, that was the farthest thing from Ruth Handler’s intention. Ruth Handler was all about making a fashion doll that is easy to change the clothes of so little girls can pretend to be whatever they wanted.
When I did my book, I did a survey of about 500 people and found that it was pretty split down the middle — half of women said Barbie made them feel like they weren’t thin enough or pretty enough, whereas the other half said Barbie empowered them. Even though Mattel has made missteps along the way, they were also the first to push the needle forward in a lot of ways by having diverse Barbie dolls and things like Astronaut Barbie in 1965. They take a lot of heat, but any time there is so much progress that needs to be made, whoever is moving it forward is going to make mistakes and take some flack for it.
Smith: It’s something interesting that we do in American culture — we build someone or something up, put them on this pedestal, then we go behind our back, grab a bat and whack them in the knees and see how much they can take. In some ways, there’s a price to pay for achieving the American dream. We welcome it, but we never stop testing you.
Oakley: For the ending of “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” obviously Lisa’s doll was never going to be popular, but at least they tried. It’s a bittersweet lesson, as many Simpsons episodes are — learning to cope with the real world and taking your wins where you can get them.
Lisa episodes are hard to write. Comedy comes from a character’s flaws, and Lisa’s flaw is that she’s single-mindedly focused on whatever her goal is, which is often not aligned with the rest of Springfield. She’s a much smarter person and much more concerned about social justice, whereas the rest of Springfierld is a bunch of blockheads. She’s operating way above everyone else, which is the point of this episode. Her intentions with developing Lisa Lionheart are very noble, but nobody in Springfield could care at all.
This is an episode that women often tell me that they love. I remember when I was writing it, I thought, “I hope that, when I have a daughter someday, she enjoys this episode and she takes something from it.” Now, I have two daughters and they both did.
Smith: It’s so heartbreaking at the end, and they do it every time with Lisa — they give her something, only to take it away. And in classic Lisa Simpsons form, she’s devastated, but manages to take it in stride and find the silver lining, which is that one girl does love her Lisa Lionheart doll.
People often ask me, “What’s something you learned from Lisa Simpson?” and my answer is, “I constantly strive to embody her resilience.”