The Simpsons Folder

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The Simpsons Folder


Blue Hair Days
Guardian Newspapers Limited © 2000

As the Simpsons get set to celebrate their 10th birthday, Leslie Felperin explains why the family’s women are the real stars of the show. I own a Simpsons matryoshka. I bought it in Russia in 1994 when Simpsons merchandising frenzy was at its height and you could find South Sea Islanders on far-flung archipelagos with “Eat My Shorts” emblazoned on their T-shirts. Traditionally, these famous Russian dolls contain smaller replicas of themselves, which contain further smaller replicas and so on. My Simpsons one, though, breaks with convention: each doll-within-a-doll depicts a different member of that famous yellow cartoon family.

The likenesses are a little wonky, but what’s really interesting is the implicit hierarchy imposed upon the characters by the local artist who drew them. Having never seen the show, he had assumed it must be aimed solely at kids. That’s why he put the youngest child, baby Maggie, on the outermost shell, enclosing a brutishly stubbled Homer, then Marge carrying what appears to be an enormous blancmange festooned with blue pencils, followed by Bart, grinning, with his skateboard and, lastly, a tiny Lisa puffing on her saxophone.

For me, there is something pleasantly skewed and suggestive about that girl-boy-girl-boy-girl order and in particular the positioning of Lisa, my favourite character, at the heart of the family. Inadvertently, it underlines what I’ve always thought about the show: that although Bart and Homer are the more obvious stars, the female characters are the bread that holds this family sandwich together, the ones that provide it with its fibre, its structure and the intellectual crust that makes the Simpsons so much more than just a Flintstones for modern times.

The key Simpson women are, of course, Marge and Lisa. Close emotionally and in family resemblance, they are in all other respects as different as Itchy and Scratchy, the cartoon mouse and cat in the show within the show. Marge the happy homemaker and Lisa the cerebral feminist represent opposite poles of modern femininity, somehow reconciled through mutual respect and affection. Gravelly of voice and gargantuan of hair, Marge is a formidable matriarch whose placid nature conceals inky depths of passion, conviction and modestly concealed talent. Some of her past triumphs include a parents’ campaign to clean up the violence in The Itchy and Scratchy Show and holding down jobs as a pretzel entrepreneur, a real estate agent and a ballroom dancer.

In one episode, she dabbled in acting when cast as the fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. At first she couldn’t find sufficient inner fire for the role, in which she has to assault the lead male character, Stanley Kowalski. “I just don’t see why Blanche should shove a broken bottle in Stanley’s face,” she complains to the director. “Couldn’t she just take his abuse with gentle good humour?”

In the end, it required the insensitivity of Homer for Marge to unlock the Method in Blanche’s madness. Yet what always saves the Simpson marriage in cartoon real life is that Marge is more like Stella, the compliant wife in Streetcar, than her sister Blanche. Everyone in the world knows that Marge is too good for Homer – everyone except her. She is devoted to her doltish husband, with whom she obviously enjoys a rapturously happy sex life. A number of episodes conclude with Marge and Homer preparing for their nightly “snuggle”, excited by such kinky props as Homer’s snake-whacking stick and his Mr Plow jacket.

Marge’s deepest secrets have provoked great speculation. A journalist friend who interviewed Simpsons creator Matt Groening learned that one of the most frequently asked questions in letters to the show is whether Marge has blue pubic hair. The answer remains tantalisingly open. In one episode, we see Marge buying blue dye at Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart, but I like to think she is only trying to hide the grey hairs her family induce. Judging by her mother and sisters, the embittered spinsters Patty and Selma, Marge must be a natural blue.

If Marge is the eternally giving and gracious mother we sometimes wish our own mothers were, Lisa is the girl we wish we could have the guts and smarts to be: confident but never cocky, dogmatically principled and a sassy little saxophone player. A bit of a geek, Lisa, with her atrophied vocabulary and an intellectual sophistication well beyond the reach of most grown-ups, is the one who adds intellectual ballast to the show. It’s a well-known fact that almost all the writers, most of whom are men, are Ivy League graduates and Lisa is their conduit for showing off their learning, quoting Pablo Neruda, Gertrude Stein or Jean-Paul Sartre.

With her crush on teenage pin-up Corey and her subscription to Non-Threatening Boys magazine, Lisa is still an eight-year-old, besotted with ponies and peonies. Nonetheless, a reverse sexism – which says women are always smarter than men – is one of the Simpsons underlying principles.

The apogee of this argument is an episode in which Lisa discovers both Bart and Homer showed signs of sentience, even intelligence, in their early years, before a kind of genetic rot set in and they reverted to the dribbling, lovable fools they are. Convinced she is doomed to the same fate, Lisa despairs until her parents attempt to allay her fears by holding a family reunion. There it is revealed that the stupid gene is carried only by the Y chromosome: the Simpson men are genetically disposed to laziness, stupidity and failure, while the women are successful, competent professionals.

On paper, that plotline sounds unbearably PC, but the show’s nimble balance of sweetness and cynicism prevents it from feeling didactic. Nuclear but with extensions, founded on a solidly traditional marriage, the Simpson family are heroically conventional in genuine suburban style. Groening says he modelled them on his own baby boom era family, even naming the characters after his parents and siblings. If the Simpsons were in line with modern American demographics, Marge and Homer would be divorced and remarried, rather than the ironic exemplars of happy married life that they are.

Crucially, at the heart of the show, there is that central family, as locked into each other as my Russian matryoshka. The show’s most touching relationship is that between Homer and Lisa. Numerous episodes hinge on Homer’s efforts to get closer to his brilliant, brainy daughter, ranging from suffering an excruciating visit to a museum to working two jobs so that she can have a pony.

It is, perhaps, a testament to the discriminating good taste of British Simpsons fans that they chose “Lisa’s Wedding” as their favourite episode when Sky ran a recent competition. It’s the one where Lisa learns from a fortune-teller about her future: she will almost marry a foppish English aristocrat named Hugh, then reject him when he turns his nose up at Homer’s “vulgar”offer of a pair of pig-shaped cufflinks to wear on the wedding day. Lisa comes away with a renewed pride in her boorish old man. There is no more poignant moment in television history than the final shot of Lisa listening, with eager affection, as Homer explains how he almost ate a whole suckling pig.