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Liberated Lisa
Toledoblade, March 1, 2001 By Christopher Borrelli

“Am I the only one who just wants to play hopscotch and bake cookies and watch ?The McLaughlin Group??” – Lisa Simpson

Lisa is 8 years old. She has been on television for 12 years and in the third grade even longer. She?s wise beyond her age. She has addressed Congress. Using a margarine tub, she once created a civilization of Lutherans from scratch. At different points in her life, she has been the member of a militant environmentalist group (“Dirt First”), and the first girl to enroll in an all-boys? military school. She has busted her father for stealing cable, joined pee-wee hockey, fought for animal rights, gone vegetarian, and revived the career of an obscure dead saxophonist.

Here?s how she sees the rest of her life working out:

“Well, I?m going to be a famous jazz musician. I?ve got it all figured out. I?ll be unappreciated in my own country, but my gutsy blues stylings will electrify the French. I?ll avoid the horrors of drug abuse, but I do plan to have several torrid love affairs. And I may or may not die young. I haven?t decided yet.”

Has there ever been a female TV character as complex, intelligent, and, ahem, as emotionally well-drawn as Lisa Simpson?

Meet her once and she comes off priggish and one-note – a know-it-all. Get to know her and Lisa is as well-rounded as anyone you may ever meet in the real world.

She?s had her heart broken hundreds of times and has broken hearts herself. She is a modern girl; she?s heard of Madonna and Britney Spears. The ghost of Lucy Ricardo once spoke to her from beyond the grave. But it?s unclear if she knows who the Powerpuff Girls are or if she has ever heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or if she has friends who wear T-shirts that read “I Make Boys Cry.” She?s not hip.

She quotes poet Pablo Neruda. Famous writers are her best friends – “Grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal, and even he?s kissed more boys than I ever will.”

She?s self-righteous, but not entirely self-possessed.

March is Women?s History Month. It would be a crime to let another year go by without honoring one of the finest role models – male or female, animated or otherwise – that pop culture has produced in the last quarter century.

That?s right, Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons. Twelve seasons and running.

You don?t buy it? You think this is ironic?

Lisa is not the core of the family or the focus of the show; she is the moral conscience of the show?s creators. “Animated and liberated, Lisa

Simpson wages a one-girl revolution against cartoonland patriarchy,” Ms. Magazine once wrote.

“Cartoonland” misses the big picture. Her reach is wider. If you went by episode titles, she has been “Lisa the Treehugger,” “Lisa the Iconoclast,” and “Lisa the Greek.” But Lisa is also the mouthpiece of the show?s writers, many of whom are men, Ivy League graduates who use her as intellectual ballast – a conduit for slipping in high-minded references and common sense that go beyond class, gender, and race. (In fact, The Simpsons is one of the few TV shows watched in large numbers by whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics.)

Considering her roots, Lisa could be the first cartoon intellectual.

Seven years ago, faced with a Malibu Stacy doll that only reinforced sexist stereotypes – “I don?t know, I?m just a girl,” the doll purred when its string was pulled – Lisa designed her own doll: “She?ll have the wisdom of Gertrude Stein and the wit of Cathy Guisewite, the tenacity of Nina Totenberg, and the common sense of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And to top it off, the down-to-earth good looks of Eleanor Roosevelt!”

The doll flopped. Disappointed but undeterred, Lisa decided if only one little girl got her message, the world would be that much better off. It?s a pretty safe bet.

According to Fox Television, which debuted The Simpsons in 1989, 6 million of the show?s 15.4 million weekly viewers are women – 30 percent of all viewers are teenagers or younger. Multiply that by 260-plus episodes in circulation.

Factor in the endless reruns that air daily, often twice a day. Figure that the show, which Time magazine recently named the best television program of the 20th century, will run for decades to come. Mull over The Simpsons? pervasive cultural presence – both nationally and world-wide.

Now, considering the size of her pulpit and what she stands for – equal treatment for women, tolerance, intelligence, self-reliance, and self-respect – has there been a more visible or accessible feminist in the past 20 years than Lisa Simpson?

What impact has she had?

Sitting around a large table at Maumee Valley Country Day School in Toledo, nine young women and their teacher, Jenny Barthold, are talking about the Spice Girls, Madonna, feminism, issues of power and control, and what it means to wear your underwear on the outside. This is a women?s studies class; today?s topic is female media icons. To get to Lisa, they go by way of the Spice Girls.

The girls wear unzipped hooded sweat shirts and ribbed sweaters. Curls spring from the bottoms of their woven winter hats. The table is bare except for a few folders and a couple of large backpacks. White winter sunlight fills the room.

“What values do the Spice Girls espouse?” Barthold asks.

There?s a long silence. Haltingly, somebody says, “Confidence.”

If you?re having a good time, shake it to the left, somebody else snickers.

Madonna did it better, they all agree, whatever it was.

“Could you articulate what Madonna did?” Barthold asks.

She did really sexual things, another girl says. “Like at the MTV Music Awards, she had sex with the floor. No one else had ever done that.”

She was the first one to initiate, like, chaos and stuff, someone adds.

“Madonna strikes me as someone whose attitude was, ?I don?t care what you think,?” Barthold says. “She wasn?t being handled by the usual. She was independent.”

Barthold lets that hang in the air for a moment. “OK, who wants to talk Lisa Simpson?” she asks. “What about Lisa?”

Real or not, she?s smarter than all of them, they say.

In Carol Shields? new Jane Austen biography, the author describes the typical Austen heroine as possessing “an implicit moral system and impulse toward improvement that seems to require no exposition or justification, no wrestling with ethical dilemmas, no laborious arrivals at the gates of perception. A steadiness of nerve prevails.”

That?s Lisa on a good day.

On a normal day, she is all black lines and curves, ink and pencil. Her eyes are huge and white with black dots; the rest of her is small and yellow. To the casual viewer, it looks as though she owns one outfit: white pearls and an orange triangle dress that resembles either a frayed lampshade or a hand-me-down from Wilma Flintstone. She plays saxophone. She loves ponies. She?s the consummate middle child. Her first word was “Bart.” In millions of ways, she?s just a little girl.

The Maumee Valley students like this about her, that she thinks different and that she always knows better (or thinks she does) but that no one pays any attention to her.

“Lisa is such a contrast,” one offers. “When you watch Homer and Bart for a while you start to see their logic and understand where they are coming from. Then all of a sudden, there?s this actual voice of logic and reason.”

“You?re laughing at the contrast?” Barthold asks.

“Not really. Sometimes she?s just like Bart.”

She watches a lot of TV. She once made her mother a birthday card out of dry macaroni. On the other hand, she was recruited by Mensa, a national organization for people with high IQs, after she fired off a letter to the Springfield Shopper to protest a “How Low Will You Go?” radio station contest. It read: “We are a town of lowbrows, nobrows, and ignorami. We have eight malls, but no symphony. Thirty-two bars but no alternative theater. Thirteen stores that begin with ?Le Sex.?”

One time she fell in love with the town bully. Another time, faced with disparate distribution of allowance, she picketed her kitchen: Equal pay for equal work.

One time, she swallowed too much amusement park water and tripped for hours and declared, “I am the Lizard Queen!” Another time, she was crowned “Little Miss Springfield” – then used her platform to blast Big Tobacco.

The students like this, too, about Lisa, that she has recognizable flaws and causes, and that her life can be so varied.

“She is really like a feminist,” one girl says, slouched into her chair. “On the other hand, she is like a normal kid.”

Barthold brightens. If they like Lisa, she asks, would they still call her feminist?

One student says, “I don?t think we have such a good idea of a feminist icon anymore. What used to be considered a feminist, the stereotype, that?s such a negative thing that no one wants to be anymore. Maybe Lisa fits the new brand of feminism. But, actually, I?m not really sure what that is.”

The girl sitting beside her jumps in.

“Well, it?s kind of like a guy says, ?Oh, you throw like a girl.? [Women] are supposed to react to that now and say, ?What does that mean?? It doesn?t mean you?re a feminist because you call a guy on something like that.”

“Nobody wants to be called a feminist?” Barthold asks. “Well, is Lisa one?”

“I don?t know,” the girl across from her says. “It?s complicated. Sometimes on reruns they show where Marge is younger and she is whipping off her bras or burning them or whatever. To Marge, being a feminist was like a cool thing to do.”

“And she just turns out to be a housewife,” someone says.

“Yeah, right,” someone else says. “Marge knows better not to try and be a feminist.”

“But you know Marge is aware of feminist issues,” another girl adds. “She just puts it aside and doesn?t deal with them. She says to Lisa something like, ?If you just push things down inside of you and put a smile on it, everything will be OK.?”

Instinctively, they see the irony.

They were born into a world of Riot Grrrls, Courtney Love, Lilith Fair, and Ally McBeal. More or less, they take the principles of feminism for granted – “I don?t think of Lisa as feminist,” one says. “I see her as young and intelligent with ideas that overlap feminism.” When The Simpsons debuted, they were 6 and 7-year-olds. They?ve never known a world without Lisa Simpson.

“When I was young I thought of Lisa as a prig,” one says. “Then later I got it.”

“She dares to do stuff,” another says. “She, like, goes to Alaska to save baby animals and whatever. When you?re younger, you thought that would be cool. Now it?s like, you can be like Lisa. It?s like, wait, I can do what I want.”