Originally created 03/19/01

Lisa Simpson: Queen of the 20th century



Lisa is 8 years old. She has been on television for 12 years and in the third grade even longer. She's wise beyond her age. She has addressed Congress. Using a margarine tub, she once created a civilization of Lutherans from scratch.

At different points in her life, she has been a member of a militant environmentalist group ("Dirt First") and the first girl to enroll in an all-boys' military school. She has busted her father for stealing cable, joined pee-wee hockey, fought for animal rights, gone vegetarian, and revived the career of an obscure dead saxophonist.

Here's how she sees the rest of her life working out: "Well, I'm going to be a famous jazz musician. I've got it all figured out. I'll be unappreciated in my own country, but my gutsy blues stylings will electrify the French. I'll avoid the horrors of drug abuse, but I do plan to have several torrid love affairs. And I may or may not die young. I haven't decided yet."

Has there ever been a female TV character as complex, intelligent, and, ahem, as emotionally well-drawn as Lisa Simpson? Meet her once and she comes off priggish and one-note - a know-it-all. Get to know her, and Lisa is as well-rounded as anyone you may ever meet in the real world.

She's had her heart broken hundreds of times and has broken hearts herself. She is a modern girl; she's heard of Madonna and Britney Spears. The ghost of Lucy Ricardo once spoke to her from beyond the grave.

She's not hip. She quotes poet Pablo Neruda. Famous writers are her best friends "Grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal, and even he's kissed more boys than I ever will."

She's self-righteous, but not entirely self-possessed.

"Animated and liberated, Lisa Simpson wages a one-girl revolution against cartoonland patriarchy," Ms. Magazine once wrote. "Cartoonland" misses the big picture. Her reach is wider. If you went by episode titles, she has been "Lisa the Treehugger," "Lisa the Iconoclast," and "Lisa the Greek."

But Lisa is also the mouthpiece of the show's writers, many of whom are men, Ivy League graduates who use her as intellectual ballast - a conduit for slipping in high-minded references and common sense that go beyond class, gender, and race. (In fact, "The Simpsons" is one of the few TV shows watched in large numbers by whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics.)

Considering her roots, Lisa could be the first cartoon intellectual. Seven years ago, faced with a Malibu Stacy doll that only reinforced sexist stereotypes - "I don't know, I'm just a girl," the doll purred when its string was pulled - Lisa designed her own doll: "She'll have the wisdom of Gertrude Stein and the wit of Cathy Guisewite, the tenacity of Nina Totenberg, and the common sense of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And to top it off, the down-to-earth good looks of Eleanor Roosevelt!"

The doll flopped. Disappointed but undeterred, Lisa decided if only one little girl got her message, the world would be that much better off.

It's a pretty safe bet. According to Fox Television, which debuted "The Simpsons" in 1989, 6 million of the show's 15.4 million weekly viewers are women Thirty percent of all viewers are teenagers or younger. Multiply that by 260-plus episodes in circulation. Factor in the endless reruns that air daily, often twice a day. Figure that the show, which Time magazine recently named the best television program of the 20th century, will run for decades to come. Mull over "The Simpsons': pervasive cultural presence - both nationally and worldwide.

Now, considering the size of her pulpit and what she stands for - equal treatment for women, tolerance, intelligence, self-reliance, and self-respect - has there been a more visible or accessible feminist in the past 20 years than Lisa Simpson?