In junior high and high school I decided on the kind of person I wanted to be: a funny person. It was agonizing at times; I’d lay awake all night thinking of how to make so-and-so laugh so that he’d think highly of me. This stage was short-lived (thankfully) because it contradicted with a role model I didn’t even know I had. Lisa Simpson may have been younger than me, but she had a lot of things figured out.
Much of my youth was spent watching The Simpsons, and to this day if I hear the first three words of a classic Homer-ism I can finish it off, no problem. It is not uncommon for me to see my brother after a few weeks away and converse in only Simpsons dialogue. I was seven years old during the 1995 “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” campaign, too young to be a fan quite yet, but I remember getting a plastic Big Gulp cup at 7-11 that featured brief character breakdowns and a catch-up on the biggest mystery to hit Springfield: who took down the town’s oldest, meanest, most-likely-to-release-the-hounds mogul? It was a good campaign, good enough to get a young girl hooked. Was it an eagerness to see the mystery solved that drew me to start watching? Maybe, but it was probably that when Bart said “Don’t have a cow,” I laughed.
As the show grew in popularity among my friends, it was the dumb stuff that made us all laugh. Frank Grimes going mad at the mere thought of Homer’s enviable life, or the “Bort” keychain shortage in the Itchy and Scratchy Land gift shop. The antics of Homer and Bart, anchored by the logic and sensibility of Marge and Lisa still has me laughing quietly to myself on subway commutes today. While the humor of the Simpson men were and are the basis of some of the longest running jokes on The Simpsons, the creators were way ahead of everyone else on TV in one very important regard. The Simpsons have Lisa.
Lisa Simpson is many things. She’s the subject of a rather famous birthday chorus by Bart and Michael Jackson. She’s the maker of ice-cold gazpacho as a party’s alternative to meat. She is reasonable, sweet, eco-conscious and unashamed of being the brightest person in the room. Lisa has quietly informed generations of TV watchers that you can be smart, safe, brave– and funny. As a middle child nestled between a big brother and a baby sister, at times I felt a lot like Lisa, for better or for worse. Lisa was not the most celebrated part of my favorite show, she wasn’t the speaker of the silly lines that would have my family laughing for days. But as an adult female in a time where women’s equality is a consistent topic of discussion, I am so thankful now for the subconscious messages I was getting from The Simpsons via the family’s high-pitched voice of reason.
Lisa Simpson let me know that it’s not an either/or situation when it comes to humor and knowledge. She never lets her brother’s needs take priority over her own, she befriends teachers and jazz musicians, she dates Springfield’s most notorious bully when she thinks she may have feelings for him. She enrolls herself in military school for the delightful rigidity of its curriculum. She rules at hockey against her brother (“You mean those leagues where parents push their kids into vicious competition to compensate for their own failed dreams of glory?”) and never, ever gives into Milhouse’s unwanted fawning. She, at eight years old, knows the difference between right and wrong and admits when she muddles them. Lisa makes us laugh through moments of sincere honesty, through the juxtaposition of her young self being more informed than the majority of Springfield. She does become president at age 38 after all, but for now, she’s building shoe-box apartments for Malibu Stacy that include a kitchen in which Stacy can print her homemade newsletters. She gently reminds her soul-less brother of the words of Pablo Neruda. She points out that, usually, real checks don’t include exclamation points. Lisa is someone who girls can safely emulate, and that’s a hard thing to find in the PG-13 cartoon world.
I am glad that, as I watched rerun after rerun from the ages of seven to 17, Lisa Simpson was putting the right sort of ideas and examples into my young, impressionable brain. My natural desire to be funny didn’t mean I’d have to downplay my IQ or curb my enthusiasm for the arts or pretend to not love reading college-level lit. These qualities are not ones that should be sacrificed to be liked. If an audience isn’t won over by an honest admission or a blatant correction, it’s not a sign to stop. Lisa’s been doing it for 25 years. On a show that survives on cultural references and silly chains of events, Lisa’s always the first to stand up for women, to speak up when something feels corrupt, to make us laugh while offering simple, obvious advice. When Marge reminds Homer in Season Nine of when Maggie shot Mr. Burns, Homer remembers things differently. “I thought Smithers did it” he questions. Lisa adds plainly, “That would have made more sense.”