Written by Lady T as part of our theme week on Child and Teenage Girl Protagonists.
The Simpsons, now in its record-breaking 25th season, is one of the most influential comedies of our time with its excellent pop culture parodies, whip-smart writing, and brilliant satire on American culture. But the show is influential in other ways. Lisa Simpson, permanent eight-year-old and the emotional heart of The Simpsons, is an excellent role model for young girls. Here are a few lessons she’s taught me over the years.
“Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything.” This is the stated message of “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” the famous episode where Lisa takes a stand against the sexism spouting from the mouth of the new talking Malibu Stacy doll. Frustrated with the doll’s collection of sexist catchphrases that include “Let’s bake some cookies for the boys,” “Thinking too much gives you wrinkles,” and “My name’s Stacy, but you can call me *wolf whistle*,” Lisa collaborates with the creator of Malibu Stacy to create their own talking doll, Lisa Lionheart. When Malibu Stacy outsells Lisa Lionheart, our creator feels temporarily dejected, until she hears her own voice speaking behind her: “Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything.” She turns to see a girl her age hold a Lisa Lionheart doll in her hand and smile.
Lisa realizes that, despite the seemingly impossible task of standing up to big businesses, she’s made a big difference in the life of one person, and all of her efforts were worth it after all. And, not for nothing, she co-created a toy at the age of eight.
“It’s okay to be sad.” “Moaning Lisa,” one of the earliest episodes of The Simpsons, is surprisingly dark for an animated sitcom. Lisa spends most of the episode in a depressive state. She feels sad and no one knows how to deal with it. Her teachers mock her sadness or brush it off. Her brother, being ten and pretty selfish, doesn’t want to deal with it. Her well-meaning but confused parents tell her to cheer up or repress her sadness so that she can fit in.
Lisa doesn’t start to feel better until she meets a jazz musician named Bleeding Gums Murphy. Finally, she has an outlet for her sadness and someone she can relate to. But it isn’t until Marge, in a burst of passion, tells Lisa that she can be sad as she wants to be, and doesn’t ever have to smile for the sake of another person, that Lisa finally feels happier and has a genuine smile on her face.
The lesson here? It’s okay to be sad sometimes, and girls shouldn’t have to paste fake smiles on their faces. The simple message that people are entitled to their emotions is a powerful one that I’m glad I saw at such a young age.
“Stand up for what you believe in, but respect others’ beliefs as well.” Lisa, like many a young activist, is passionate about many different causes. She’s a feminist, an environmentalist, and a vegetarian, and nothing invokes her ire more than social injustice or lies. Most of the time, she is right to fight for her causes, and is often the only person to stand up for what’s right.
Every once in a while, though, Lisa becomes a bit shortsighted and forgets that everyone around her doesn’t see the world the same way she does. She ruins her father’s barbecue because she doesn’t approve of his eating meat, but she gets a wake-up call when Apu, a vegan, advises her to “live and let live.” Lisa learns an important lesson about tolerance while still remaining true to her beliefs.
“There’s no shame in being second.” Because she doesn’t have many friends, Lisa absorbs herself in her music and her academia. She becomes immediately threatened when a new girl shows up in her second-grade class and is a better student and better jazz musician. Lisa becomes jealous to the point where she collaborates with Bart to ruin Alison’s diorama in the school’s Diorama-Rama, admitting to her actions only when the guilt tortures her–and then they both lose to Ralph Wiggum.
At the end of the episode, Lisa finally learns that being “second” to Alison is nothing to be ashamed about. Having overcome her jealousy of Alison, she extends a hand of friendship instead–because why be jealous when you’ve finally found a person your age who shares your passions and interests?
“Follow your passions, even when you experience setbacks.” One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons is season three’s “Separate Vocations,” an experiment in role-reversal. After hearing their results from a national standardized test about career aptitude, Bart becomes interested in police work and becomes the school’s tyrannical hall monitor. Lisa, meanwhile, discouraged by her test results and stubby fingers, quits the jazz band, stops playing saxophone, and acts out in class. She even pulls off one of the biggest pranks in school history and steals all of the teacher’s edition textbooks from the school classrooms.
When it seems like she’s going to get caught, Bart, in a rare display of brotherly loyalty, tells Principal Skinner that he’s the culprit. Later, he tells Lisa why he took the fall for her: “I didn’t want you to wreck your life. You got the brains and the talent to go as far as you want. And when you do, I’ll be right there to borrow money.” He takes his punishment–600 days of detention–and Lisa plays her saxophone outside to keep him company, enjoying music again.
With the help of her brother, Lisa realizes that the results of a standardized test don’t matter in the great scheme of things. She has ambition, talent, intelligence, and passion, and she’s going to go far in life as long as she keeps trying.
“Have fun and be silly.” If all Lisa Simpson did was moralize about the world and fight for causes she believes in, she’d be a pretty admirable but rather boring character, but fortunately, the show rarely forgets that she’s still a kid and wants to act like one. She watches Krusty the Klown and Itchy and Scratchy with Bart and laughs just as hard at the cartoon violence. She fantasizes about boys named Cory and reads Non-Threatening Boys Magazine. She has sleepovers and reads The Baby-sitter Twins, and even though she’s concerned about the media portrayal of women and girls, she indulges in a princess fantasy from time to time and twirls around in fairy skirts. She’s not the most fun-loving character on The Simpsons, but at her core, she’s still an eight-year-old girl, and a fully realized human character, despite being a cartoon.
Lady T is a feminist blogger, sketch comedy writer/performer, and author of Fanged, a young adult novel available for purchase today.