The oddly comforting theme song of The Simpsons has been playing in the background of my life for the past few weeks. When my mom finally caved and got Disney+ over the summer, I was elated for a few reasons — one being that I could watch Hamilton when it was released in July. The other big reason was that I would have the entirety of The Simpsons at my disposal.
Growing up, my mom had weird rules regarding what TV shows I was allowed to watch. For example, I couldn’t watch Pokemon but I was allowed to watch The Jerry Springer Show or Maury if I was home sick. I wasn’t allowed to watch Power Rangers but I could watch Beavis and Butthead Do America. Needless to say, The Simpsons was on the “okay to watch” list because my mom grew up watching it.
The Simpsons first premiered in December 1989, a little over 31 years ago. In the pilot episode, the Simpson family is getting ready for Christmas when Bart gets a tattoo and all of the Christmas present money goes to getting it removed. As the episode goes on, the family dynamic is quickly understood — Homer is the goofy, somewhat tone-deaf dad. Marge is the loving, yet somewhat reasonable mom. Maggie is the adorable baby. Bart is the rebellious, daredevil son.
So where does Lisa fit into the equation? Most family-oriented shows of the 1980s didn’t have quite the dynamic the Simpsons has — the Jetsons is without a middle child, and Full House is…something else.
Lisa herself is an enigma. She is a spunky, smart, brash young girl who knows what she wants, and will not stop until she gets it. For the most part, television hadn’t seen a female character like that until Lisa Simpson made her debut. As a wide-eyed child, hell even now as an adult, Lisa Simpson is everything I want to be and more. She’s an eight-year-old swinging around a saxophone as big as she is, she’s running for class president — she’s the animated role model girls like me have looked up to for decades. There was a boom of young girls playing the saxophone because of Lisa, and according to my aunt, my cousin was one of those girls. Just this past summer, Vans released a Simpsons collection, featuring a pair of purple hightops sporting ‘Lisa for president’ on the side. My little sister picked out that pair for school because Lisa was on them, and “Lisa is the coolest!”
The first moment I knew Lisa Simpson was the real deal was in the episode “Mona Leaves-a,” which aired as the nineteenth episode of the nineteenth season back in 2008. While Lisa is not the core focus of the episode, she has her moments — including what could quite possibly be my favorite Lisa-ism ever, inside the Simpsons’ universe Build-A-Bear, Stuff-N-Hug. Lisa makes a stuffed dolphin, and while picking out the outfit for her new dolphin pal, the worker at the store tries to push more “female oriented” ideas onto her; Lisa says she wants a professor outfit, the employee suggests a kindergarten teacher. Lisa says doctor, she suggests nurse. Lisa then tells the employee that her dolphin is a boy, and only then does the employee hand Lisa a doctor outfit. The worker turns away and Lisa grins before whispering to her dolphin “we fooled her, didn’t we Betsy.” Lisa wasn’t going to allow Betsy to settle into a lesser role than what she wanted. If Betsy wanted to be a doctor, then Betsy was going to be a fucking doctor.
After her grandmother Mona Simpson dies, she leaves everyone something to remember her by. For Lisa, Mona leaves behind her “rebellious spirit;” fitting for someone who, in the plot of The Simpsons Movie, goes around town asking for support to help clean up Lake Springfield. Starting in season seven, she takes on a vegetarian diet, and openly supports PETA. Throughout the series Lisa has proven to be the moral compass of her family, which, at times, can’t be easy for a little girl — but Lisa does it in stride.
An episode I rewatched recently, that made me realize there’s a little bit of Lisa in all of us, is the season two episode “Lisa’s Substitute,” which coincidentally is also the nineteenth episode of that season.
In the episode, Lisa’s teacher Miss Hoover is out with Lyme Disease, so Mr. Bergstrom, a substitute teacher, takes over the second grade class. Lisa is immediately amazed by him, and throughout the episode, he praises her for her intelligence, and even has a heart-to-heart with Homer at the Museum of Natural History about Lisa and her future. As a student who read above grade level and was deemed smart by the public education system myself, this stuck with me. Mr. Bergstrom didn’t judge Lisa for her niche interests in dinosaurs and mummies, which, in turn, made me feel better about my weird obsession with period pieces (specifically, American Girl Doll period pieces).
When Miss Hoover returns to the classroom at the end of the episode, Lisa is heartbroken. During her subsequent meltdown, Miss Hoover asks the class what Mr. Bergstrom taught them, and Lisa says that he taught them “that life is worth living.” As he leaves Springfield via train after a tearful goodbye with Lisa, he hands her a note. The note reads “You are Lisa Simpson.”
And Lisa Simpson she is indeed.