The show punishes Lisa for being the ‘smart one’; making her defend the show against accusations of racism is the greatest punishment of all
Lisa Simpson is the centre of The Simpsons. The show is funniest when it works as an absurdist parody of the sitcom – like in “Marge vs. Monorail”, or the internet favourite ‘Steamed Hams’ sketch from the “22 Short Films About Springfield” – where the show takes traditional sitcom formats, and twists and subverts them to create new forms of comedy. But it has always been sharpest when it focuses on the relationships between Lisa, her family, and the wider world. “Moaning Lisa” sees Lisa describe symptoms of depression before she meets Bleeding Gums Murphy. “Lisa’s Substitute” is a sublime depiction of a frustrated child genius finally finding a mentor. “Lisa’s Wedding” sees Homer call Lisa his greatest achievement. The Simpsons makes you laugh when it’s about the absurdity of man. But The Simpsons makes you think when it’s about Lisa Simpson.
Last week, though, the beloved sitcom let Lisa down. The show aired an episode in response to the 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu, which addressed the stereotypical portrayal of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by white actor Hank Azaria), and how that has impacted the lives of Asian-Americans. The show’s writers chose to use Lisa Simpson – the eight-year-old, free jazz playing, Buddhist, feminist, vegetarian moral core of the show – to make a half-hearted statement about the controversy, asking the viewer, “What can you do?” The surreal moment demonstrated that the series no longer knows what to do with Lisa. As Irish novelist Kevin Power notes in this gripping Medium essay from 2017, as the series has moved away from its season 3-9 “golden age”, and into its more modern incarnation, its treatment of Lisa has gone from bad to worse.
The Simpsons has suffered a “mission creep” issue in its use of Lisa – her purpose in the plot has changed, making her more often the butt of the joke for no real reason other than to punish her. Where in early episodes like season 7’s “Lisa the Vegetarian”, Homer and Lisa develop as people through Lisa’s choice to give up meat, the season 22 episode “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life” sees Lisa’s potential development curbed for no reason other than it needs to be curbed. In “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” in season 5, the Lisa Lionheart doll fails, but the episode gives Lisa and the viewer time to reflect on gender stereotypes. By contrast, in season 22’s “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life”, Lisa joins a prep school which finally acknowledges her talents, but eventually gives up her place in order to save Marge the pain of becoming the organisation’s matron. There is no great reflection for the audience, no nice final shot as mother and daughter realise there’s more to life than the acknowledgment of old money. It ends with a sad Lisa hugging a grateful Marge as they return to normalcy – a stunning two-for-one “women are punished” plotline. Where The Simpsons used to be a show laughing at the absurdity of all of Americana, this has now developed into a mean streak of misogyny and anti-intellectualism.
“We have all, at some point, been Lisa Simpson.”
All this makes Lisa’s “What can you do? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” defence of Apu saddening, because while everyone suffers on The Simpsons, Lisa is one of the few characters who knows there’s more to life than absurd nihilism. Lisa is one of the few Simpsons characters who isn’t apathetic to their lot in life – in season nine’s “Lisa the Simpson”, when she finds out about the supposed “Simpsons gene” that’s supposed to doom her to a life of mediocrity, she gets distraught at the idea she won’t get to change the world. Because Lisa Simpson has always been the one character who could change the world.
We have all, at some point, been Lisa Simpson. She is every person worried about showing their sincere enjoyment in things for fear of being bullied and ostracised. Lisa has particular importance to immigrant children: she’s the ‘smart one’ in the family, burdened with responsibility beyond their years and told they one day have to ‘fix’ everything. Good Bart episodes are about a delinquent who, deep down, has loads of potential. Good Marge episodes acknowledge her inherent goodness and all of the unspoken work she does. Good Homer episodes are about a man who, while mostly terrible, is far more well-adjusted and caring than he has any right to be. The constant push-pull of good Lisa episodes centre themselves on the question of, “How does someone so capable stay happy, fulfilled, and free of frustration in a world that doesn’t make sense?”
Thanks to The Simpsons’ floating timeline, we never get to see Lisa grow up. Her diet and technology may change, but she will always be a little eight-year-old girl wearing pearls. One show that did let their precocious child genius grow, however, was Malcolm in the Middle, which offered a glimpse into Lisa’s potential future in its series finale, through her parallel character, Malcolm. In the final moments of the show, Malcolm’s mother Lois reveals her intentions for him to become President of the United States, as “you'll be the only person in that position who will ever give a crap about people like us”. Like Malcolm, we have been told that in one future Lisa will eventually become President of the United States (in the oddly prescient “Bart To The Future”, where in 2030 Lisa takes over the Oval Office from one Donald Trump). Much like Malcolm in the Middle, peak Simpsons knows that Lisa will take the hurt and pain she endured, and go on to do great things to make sure that no one will have to suffer like that again.
Lisa is smart, but it is her goodness that makes her unique. Like Lois says to Malcolm, her pain will break her heart – but rather than have heartbreak turn Lisa bitter like so many other people, Lisa is meant to get more empathetic. It is the ‘suffering hardship in childhood to make things better for those that come after’ archetype, rather than ‘suffer hardship and become a villain’. So when Lisa in 2018 sees the hurt and pain that the stereotype of Apu has caused and simply shrugs, this shames her, the show, and all of us. The showrunners perhaps thought that giving their response through the show's smartest character would lend it kudos – instead, it only cheapened the character. Lisa Simpson – more so than anyone else – is meant to understand the pain the offensive portrayal of Apu has caused in the real world. Lisa is meant to be the best of us. How did we let her get so sad?