There are two schools of thought when it comes to Lisa Simpson – some see her episodes and character as an intellectually enhanced, and socially shunned, creative thinker. Others, however, view her as a rabble-rousing, rambunctious soapbox tilter. While those traits have become more prominent in zombie-era Simpsons, during the show’s zenith Lisa was the refreshing representation of unfulfilment.
Like Esther Greenwood before her, and cyclical with Rory Gilmore, Lisa is stunted by social maladjustment, an intelligent and emotionally imbalanced genius fuelled by feminist theory but blocked by suburban banality. Her episodes may not be the funniest (Homer) or the most mischievous (Bart), but they are crushingly realistic, bittersweet reflections where the humour may be subtle, but the emotions emanated sure aren’t.
Lisa serves as the most relatable character, often feeling alienated and aloof in a world of air-headed abundance. To those who feel the frustrations of modern living, the crushing depressions and the will to sate a cultural hunger, Lisa is an amazing outlet, a character that is eloquent but understated, striving for intellectual sustenance in a setting that struggles to understand her precociousness.
Even the fiercest of Lisa naysayers should take a step back and remember shows from the series’ golden era – most of the Lisa-centric episodes from said period are incredibly consistent, crafting wistful wit with bludgeoning bathos. A healthy proportion of them could be contenders for the show’s ultimate top 50, with one of them, ‘Lisa’s Substitute’, a strong shoe-in for the top three. Crucially, these episodes would also be the show’s most challenging, channeling Lisa’s loquaciousness into episodes that hit new emotional high-points – the first Lisa-focused episode, ‘Moaning Lisa’, focused on her slipping into a somnambulant state of depression, a period of self-reflection that resonates with anyone who has felt the unforgiving fog of adolescent disconnection.
Lisa episodes are naturally low-key, but they’re drenched in the dull realism that we cannot plumb from Homer’s zanier, but no less compelling, antics. They are episodes that seek credence, search for connections and long for gratification. They may not claim incredible achievements, but they focus on little victories that may not elevate Lisa out of her emotional malaise, but give her enough of a happy ending to keep her content.
Feelings of loneliness and confusion can be permeated from episodes like ‘Summer of 4 ft 2’ and ‘Lisa the Simpson’, which both wrestle with reinvention only to find comfort in one’s own skin. Other episodes, such as ‘Lisa’s Pony’ and ‘Lisa’s Wedding’, taught us the importance of acceptance, of becoming content with the family we have and the cards we have been dealt.
More than that, though, Lisa is a passionate purveyor of equality, determined to gratify gender neutrality and demonstrate the dynamics of the female mind. In ‘Lisa vs. Malibu Stacey’, she fervently rallies against the empty-headed platitudes spouted by populist toys, urging her fellow youths to dream bigger and think grander. Likewise, ‘Lisa the Beauty Queen’ and ‘Mr Lisa Goes to Washington’ are structured, well-addressed attacks on the corrupt corners of commercials and politics, respectively.
In later episodes, Lisa’s character digressed, becoming less of a moral compass and more of a vehement vent on any ethical issue. Before this, though, Lisa’s loneliness, independence and inquisitiveness struck a chord with anyone feeling the strains of social injustice, the uneasy jolt of depression and the hunger for intellectual fulfilment. Without Lisa, The Simpsons would lack the bittersweet edge that elevated it.
Words by Sam Lambeth