The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Fourteen, “Lisa vs Malibu Stacy”

Episodes like this are what I mean when I say that the show’s treatment of Apu is an embarrassing blindspot, because this showed how progressive the show could be. My anecdotal experience is that female fans of The Simpsons are extremely attached to Lisa, to the point where many considered her in-show reaction to the Apu controversy to be a massive betrayal of her character. It’s not hard to see why; rewatching this, I couldn’t decide if the show predicted who these women would become or created them. Lisa has always been someone who took a grand, almost mythic view of the world, and here that infuses her righteous anger at her hero being used to spout sexist stereotypes. Lisa sees herself as the latest in a long line of women, and aspires to be to the next group of girls what Eleanor Roosevelt is to her, so having a Type of Woman taken away is abhorrent to her. If nothing else, this captures a lot of feminists I’ve known, who are outraged not just at what happens to them personally, but to the idea of women, who want Womanhood to mean a whole lot more than it does (and certainly don’t want it defined by its relationship to men).

What astounds me is that this kind of thing came out of the boy’s club of the Simpsons writers’ room in 1994. Lisa has jokes at her expense, and there are jokes that use her beliefs as setup, but her cause is righteous and taken totally seriously by the show. It’s a real credit to the depth and empathy of that writers’ room that a character like Lisa exists at all, let alone at the level of sophistication she does. In a way, Lisa has achieved her goal at being a mythic idea of what a woman can be, having entered the pantheon she describes so reverently. And what makes this episode so great is that, having created a specific, wonderful idea of what a girl can be, it puts her in a story that’s almost too familiar.

Lisa is horrified that other girls are passively accepting the sexist dolls, and sets out to make her own, only to find that big business is powerful enough (and the masses compliant enough) that her efforts have almost no impact. This fits the cynical attitude of The Simpsons, but I think it captures a very particular time and place; one of my favourite things about being alive right now, in 2018, is getting to have witnessed social justice groups slowly amass power and influence and genuinely changing the world. The Simpsons so often says that the world is driven by fashion and money, and the most effective parts of the New Tens social justice movement have played right into that: they made it uncool to give your money to bigots, and really cool to support the underprivileged. When Lisa decides all this work was worth it if it reached one girl, I believe she was right, and that the real women like her were planting the seeds for what we see in the world now.

Playing in countermelody to this is the story of Grampa. It’s not often the show reaches for thematic unity in its A- and B-plots, but that happens here, as Grampa realises nobody takes him seriously and he decides to ‘become’ a young person. It’s not as deep as Lisa’s story, but I enjoy the way it’s rooted in Grampa discovering the limits of what an old person can be, and how the show draws attention to this (and then uses it as the basis of a joke). As always, one of the dimmer characters is inspired by something they saw on TV – a commercial, even! Like it or not, TV is where many of us draw our conception of the world; while the show is, as always, fairly cynical about this, showing how dimmer people can take totally the wrong idea from a stray TV image, I find this undercut by the real-world effect of Lisa and her plot in this episode. Sure, idiots take the wrong idea in the moment, but the real stuff, the important stuff, will last a lot longer.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family are crushed by the Monty Python foot.

This episode was written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein and directed by Jeffrey Lynch. Out of curiosity, I looked it up, and there were only two credited female writers before season five. Kathleen Turner as Stacy was another good sport, and David Mirken believes she delivered one of the best Simpsons performances ever.

The episode kind of dodges the inherent conflict between Lisa’s progressiveness and Marge’s conservatism, though there are two lines I really like: Marge’s observation that she was a Malibu Stacy girl and she turned out fine (two responses, one Lisa can’t say: “Uh, no you didn’t, Marge,” and one she could have: Lisa’s goal isn’t to say you can’t be a housewife who chases boys, only that you shouldn’t have to be that if you don’t want to), and “Ordinarily I’d tell you to stand up for your principles, but you’ve been doing that an awful lot lately.”

Dan Castellanetta’s delivery of “I ain’t fer it, I’m agen it!” is more iconic, but “The President is a Demmycrat!” is another prime example of him leaning in on the hillbilly for Abe.

Lisa’s plot was inspired by both a desire to riff on existing elements of the show (Malibu Stacy having been a favourite toy of Lisa’s for a long time) and as a reference to the Talking Barbie controversy of 1992, in which one kind of doll would say “Math class is tough!”. Smithers being a doll collector is a reference to a man Oakley met when researching the episode. The episode opens with Abe attending a grand openeing of a hospital with an appearance by Matlock. The crowd cheer for him by singing a variation on “We Love You Conrad” from Bye Bye Birdie. Homer recreates a scene from Big. Lisa’s heroes are Gertrude Stein, Cathy Guisewite, Nina Totenberg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Stacy’s list of ex-husbands is Ken, Johnny West, GI Joe, Dr Colossus, and Steve Austin. One joke is a reference to a prank by the Barbie Liberation Front, which switched the talking boxes of Barbies and GI Joes.

Iconic Moments: “MAAAAAATLOOOOOOOOOOOCK!” | “I’m a white male, aged 18-49. Everyone listens to me!” | “HELLO, Smithers. You’re QUITE good at TURNING me ON.”
Biggest Laugh: 4AiXzf8