It’s quite easy to forget that long before The Simpsons became the meme-inspiring, oft-maligned cultural touchstone it is today, it was something of a revolutionary tour-de-force. Never before had a cartoon serial been so universally popular, and the influence the show has had on everyday family life still sometimes remains unacknowledged. With the show first focusing on Bart’s mischief and attitude, before pivoting after a few seasons to make Homer’s stupidity a primary focus, it’s quite possible to overlook the invaluable presence of Lisa Simpson.
As a boy growing up in the nineties, role models on TV were scarce, female role models even more so. To have a female character of a similar age to me, that was also so intelligent and morally virtuous, was something of a beacon. It was remarkable to have a role model that was, like me, a nerd.
Let’s observe the cultural zeitgeist for context: in the same year that The Simpsons debuted, another iconic character first appeared. Steve Urkel, at first a bit character on Family Matters before becoming the main protagonist of the show, was the predominant stereotype of the nerd – thick-rimmed glasses, exceedingly-high pants with suspenders, and a lack of physical and social graces, punctuated with a shrill voice. Moreover, Urkel would frequently be a target of ridicule, a character more laughed at than with, much like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper is today.
Lisa is in many ways the antithesis of Urkel; eloquent and competent, yet complex, a deeper character in her two dimensions than most TV characters are in all three. Yet her character was developed out of evolution rather than intention. Nancy Cartwright wrote in her 2000 memoir My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy:
I rode along with Lisa as those early seasons unfolded, identifying with her but also having my eyes opened to issues and ideas I may never have come across on my own.
Would I be the person I am today if not for Lisa’s example of challenging oneself against the system and all odds?
Or understanding the simple feminist notion that being pretty and feminine is absolutely compatible with intelligence and moral forthrightness?
Surely almost all kids can identify with the deep-burning desire to be cool and approved by others, not just the ostracised nerds. But few get to win that approval on their own merits, like Lisa did in Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport.
And too many of us can identify with the search for inner peace in a society that refuses to accept your values.
Most importantly, it speaks of the importance of representation in the media. While I would never want to undermine the importance of representations of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other social minority by drawing a strict parallel between their reflection in the media and that of 'nerds', Lisa demonstrates the massive impact that a positive minority role model can have on a person – and the distinctly negative impact that a stereotypical one can have.
Hari Kodabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu hits upon this precise problem, reflecting on the impact of the Simpsons character has had on members of the South Asian-American community. Sadly, The Simpsons writers produced a tepid response to the criticism, in what ironically, many saw as a vast departure from Lisa Simpson’s progressive character.
Every child has a right to see positive role models in the media. Sesame Street has lead the way, introducing a hearing-impaired character, an Hispanic character, a character in a wheelchair and another on the autistic spectrum over the course of many years. Australian favourite Play School has recently added three new members to their already diverse cast. And for the more mature viewers, I’m buoyed by the representation of asexual Todd Chavez in Bojack Horseman.
The road of progress in representation is long, and marked with potholes, but as Lisa Simpson would have us know through her doll Lisa Lionheart, the message is clear for all: if you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything.
Images from Fox, used with permission.