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We Are Lisa Simpson: 30 Years with the Smartest and Saddest Kid in Grade Two

Apr 20 2017 4:05 PM
We Are Lisa Simpson: 30 Years with the Smartest and Saddest Kid in Grade Two

Art by Laura Horstmann

Lisa Simpson and every ambitious, out-of-place, or caring woman hold a special relationship. Broadly spoke to a Simpsons writer to reflect on how Lisa and almost every girl you know have shaped each other over the last three decades.

Thirty years ago, the smartest woman you know was born: Lisa Simpson. The eternal eight-year-old was quickly sketched by Simpsons creator and cartoonist Matt Groening while he sat in a lobby waiting to meet producer James L. Brooks. In those precious minutes, he laid the groundwork for the character who would become the conscience, sadness, and hope of America. Lisa is the child-Sibyl of our time and place. She is every ambitious, out-of-place, or caring girl in the world—and we are Lisa Simpson.

Lisa and her family made their debut in a short for The Tracey Ullman Show on April 19, 1987, and landed their own series on Fox two years later. Originally written generically and characterized as a "female Bart" who mirrored her older brother's troublemaking antics, Lisa was voiced and brought to life by Yeardley Smith, and eventually grew into a more complex character. Executive producer, showrunner, and writer Al Jean tells Broadly that once the Simpsons went to series, Brooks suggested Lisa be the "out of place intellectual in the family," who ultimately became the brilliant, passionate person known and beloved across the world today.

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Jean, who has two daughters—and noted that most Simpsons staffers with children have daughters as well—says he's "had a little Lisa Simpson in [his] house for the last 25 years," and that they always remind him "an eight-year-old can be awfully sharp." As evidenced by women who have told me they named their pets "Lisa Simpson," who have written extensive blog posts about her, and had her tattooed on their bodies, we see ourselves in Lisa who, in turn, reflects us. Lisa Simpson and every woman like her hold a special relationship: We've molded, mirrored, and moved each other over three decades.

Lisa is always searching for something she doesn't see in the world.

In a town where "independent thought alarms" are sounded when a student doesn't want to dissect an animal, Lisa is a vegetarian, environmentalist, Buddhist, feminist, musician, supporter of LGBT rights and freedom for Tibet, and an opponent of apartheid. With a remarkable intellect, liberal political leaning, and hunger for knowledge, Lisa is set very far apart from the rest of the Simpsons, other children her age, and indeed, all of Springfield.

"Lisa is always searching for something she doesn't see in the world," Jean explains. While we watch her navigate displacement and longing in the Simpsons universe, Lisa embodies this quality, one that is intrinsically tied with the experience of girlhood.

In my interviews with young women who see themselves in Lisa, I learn many relate most strongly to the fact that her voice is often ignored when she feels it's needed most. Viewers, however, can look through the funhouse mirror of the Simpsons universe and still see Lisa clearly; we hear her when she thinks no one in Springfield is listening.

"It's very easy to believe something when everyone around you is unanimously telling you it's true," singer-songwriter Mitski tells Broadly. "Lisa's role in the Simpsons is a reminder that sometimes it's the world around you that's absurd."

Art by Laura Horstmann

When a Simpsons episode focuses on Lisa, it is driving this kind of moral or philosophical point. "There's always a great resonance to [her episodes]," Jean remarks. The first episode to center her was "Moaning Lisa" in 1990. In it, Lisa struggles with an enduring, verbalized sadness: she wakes sad, is sad getting ready for school ("A simple cupcake will bring me no pleasure"), sad eating lunch ("Every day at noon, a bell rings and they herd us in here for feeding time and we sit around like cattle chewing our cut waiting for the inevitable"), sad in music class ("I'm wailing out for the homeless family living out of its car, the Iowa farmer whose land has been taken away by unfeeling bureaucrats, the West Virginia coal miner") and even too sad to play dodgeball. When Homer tries to cheer Lisa up, he tugs at the threads of a sweater of female reality that he can't reweave or even fully understand. Lisa indulges her father, but she eclipses his entire emotional capacity with just glimpses of what's running through her soul. "What's the point? Would it make any difference at all if I never existed? How can we sleep at night when there's so much suffering in the world?" she asks.

That night, Lisa follows blues music out her window to discover the saxophonist "Bleeding Gums" Murphy. In Murphy, we think Lisa has found a peer or mentor; when they improv together, she belts, "I'm the saddest kid in gra-ade number two." Instead of taking her into his heart like the audience demands, Murphy delivers a crushing blow: "You know, you play pretty well for someone with no real problems."

I think her sadness comes from the feeling that she doesn't' really see where she fits in and doesn't see when that time will come when she does fit in.

Though Lisa brushes the remark off, the disappointment in that scene is palpable—a unique one you'd recognize from not being taken seriously as a child (and as a girl). "I think her sadness comes from the feeling that she doesn't really see where she fits in and doesn't see when that time will come when she does fit in," Jean says. "She's there for people who may have aspirations that they don't feel are realized in their current situation, that have hope that someday they will."

Lisa deeply considers each one of her decisions and their impact on her future—and it's easy for us see ourselves as she sees herself, trapped in buzzing television time where she can only plot a theoretical trajectory of her possible lives. That she can already sense the burden of these lives in the second grade endears her to us. "There was something really incredibly special about growing up with this role model for all of the ways that life would disappoint and challenge you," Brooklyn-based artist Emily Oliveira tells Broadly. "I feel grateful that I learned at a young age that being a Lisa can be very, very lonely, but that the only way to be happy is to approach the world with profound love and sensitivity."

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Lisa challenges us to feel more truly, to care and give generously, and to expect more—even if none of it can go as planned. "Watching her made me want to be smarter, to learn about the blues and the Tell-Tale Heart," Victoria Setian, a video game producer at Avalanche Studios and formerly of Warner Brothers, tells Broadly. "But the number one thing I reflect on when I think about Lisa is the fortune teller episode where she became the President of the United States. It really opened my eyes to what the future could hold for young girls like me."

If The Simpsons' political prophecies are all as true as the Trump presidency, Jean says the show's greatest legacy will be President Lisa Simpson. I tell him that the current administration has already inspired an influx of women to run for office, and that most of us grew up with Lisa, who taught us the complexities of ambition, disappointment, and resilience.

"Perhaps the most emotional episode we ever did was 'Lisa's Substitute,'" Jean tells me when I ask his favorite and most quintessential Lisa moment. In it, Lisa meets a passionate, unorthodox substitute teacher who she starts falling in love with—until he has to leave Springfield for his next gig. "A typically funny footnote is that when they aired it, the promotion was all about Bart running for class president. Even on her own network on her own episode, she can't get a break."

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