I remember looking up at a silver-panelled television with dials on the side from very far below. As a five year old, I had a preference for sitting cross-legged on the floor and as a result everyone on TV seemed very tall to me.
There was discussion going on about the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the great Australian athletes that had proven themselves in their respective sports.
‘Why aren’t they talking about the girls?’ I asked the room turning to the adults on chairs and couches behind me.
‘Careful, you sound like one of those feminists,’ someone responded.
I paused. ‘I am a feminist.’
I didn’t really know what feminism meant back then, and it probably took another decade for me to really engage with the term, but it felt right. I can’t say exactly how I came to the conclusion as a five year old that it was important to stick up for other girls because they faced disproportionate difficulties, but I think the answer comes down to Lisa Simpson.
It’s hard to summarise what US TV show, The Simpsons has meant to me. I’ve been watching it since before I can remember and I still continue watching it. Like everyone, I have views about its golden years, its sad decline, whether or not the series should continue. But this is not important here.
What is important is how it has been a constant source of humour and comfort, a consistent thread in my twisting life. It is almost shameful to talk about fandom in this way and I feel weird admitting to these feelings on a public forum. Attachment to TV shows and other forms of pop culture is seen as ‘geeky’ while attachment to other people and individual pursuits is supposedly more normal. But I know I’m not alone here, popular culture is presumably popular because people consume it. And it’s quite likely that people consume it because it makes their lives better, and put it into context.
The Simpsons is particularly appropriate for fandom. I guarantee that there is always a Simpsons quote or situation that adds humour, context, and even meaning to anything that happens.
When The Simpsons embedded important messages within their light-hearted banter, they were able to talk to me from my frame of reference. Lisa’s feminism always made sense because it happened in a world I understood and cared about, a world that was practically my own.
Talking to people where they are is an important thing for all feminists, or really anyone driving social change. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and an even harder one to live by. More recently, my own snobby dubiousness in regard to people like Beyonce or Emma Watson talking about feminism in what I view to be a thin and basic way was something I had to challenge. No young girl knows exactly what feminism is (and there are definition debates all the time among actual advocates). But they know all about pop music and Harry Potter. Beyonce and Emma Watson are no Gloria Steinhams but they are actually able to speak to girls within the framework of what matters to them. And that’s very cool.
At around the same time as the Atlanta Olympics, The Spice Girls became famous. Their platform shoes, high hair, and obvious corporate links may not matter if my small self with my small friends were prepared to shout ‘Girl Power’ in the playground, and take the ethos of female friendship very seriously.
Likewise, The Simpsons has been largely created and written by white, privileged men. There are exceptions, including Jennifer Crittenden who wrote one of my favourite episodes “The PTA Disbands”, but I imagine the offices being a bit of a sausage fest. It doesn’t help when one of the head writers claims that there are so few women writers because The Simpsons is driven by male characters and ‘guy humour’ (obvious bullshit, what even is that?).
I definitely get that my fave is problematic, and yet, this problematic series produced an incredibly feminist episode in 1994, “Lisa vs Malibu Stacy”. Lisa, a doll enthusiast, is super excited that Malibu Stacy (basically a Barbie parody) is being released as one of those dolls whose cord you pull and she starts talking.
In her homemade diorama of the UN General Assembly, Lisa puts her new Malibu Stacy up on the podium to give her first address. She pulls the cord and Stacy says, ‘I wish they taught shopping at school.’
Lisa is disappointed. She’s waited ages to hear Malibu Stacy speak and all she can come up with in sexist phrases like ‘Thinking gives you wrinkles’ and ‘Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl.’ Worse still, when she complains, nobody really understands what she’s talking about. The girls on the playground laugh at her and her family actively discourage her from taking action.
Lisa is committed though, she gets in touch with the company and when they dismiss her complaints, she makes her own doll with the help of Malibu Stacy’s original creator, Stacy Lovell. Lisa’s doll, named Lisa Lionheart, gives girls more empowering messages like, ‘trust in yourself and you can achieve anything.’ It isn’t a market success because Malibu Stacy was re-released with a new hat, which is apparently more exciting than a doll that provides hope for your future.
Still, despite compounding disappointments, one girl at the end of the episode is shown picking up a Lisa Lionheart doll. Lisa figures that if one girl is positively influenced by her creation, it was all worth it. ‘Particularly,’ as Stacy Lovell says, ‘if that little girl happens to pay 46,000 dollars for that doll.’
While Lisa’s frustration isn’t necessarily turned into an unequivocal success, “Lisa vs Malibu Stacy” shows that one person can make a difference (albeit a small one). While it doesn’t glamorise the hard road ahead for people looking to make social change, it emphasises the importance of trying, as well as the importance of small victories.
There are many different branches of feminism – radical, sex positive, Marxist, liberal, and so on – I never felt like I fit easily in any particular school but I often feel like a Lisa Simpson feminist. In this school, it’s important to challenge what is in front of you, to be proud of your intellect (explored in “Lisa the Simpson” when Lisa is afraid she’s genetically destined to be stupid), to try and get others on the same page, to stand up for what you believe in even if it may annoy others (for more on this, see “Lisa the Vegetarian” where she launches a spit roast ready to be cooked and eaten into the sky), to be prepared to own your mistakes and misapprehensions (this, again, happens in “Lisa the Vegetarian”), and to use the rage to fuel the pursuit of justice (like in “Mr Lisa Goes to Washington” where she uncovers a massive corruption scandal while in Washington for a speech contest).
She might have been created and expanded upon by white men, and her earnestness might make her the butt of the occasional joke. Nonetheless, Lisa Simpson spoke to me as I was, well and truly by the time I was five. This is the social power of pop culture. It’s potent stuff, imbuing me with a sense of equal worth to men, equal entitlement to space, and an equal right to speak my mind.