The Simpsons has been giving us tough, real (if bright yellow) women for two and a half decades. Long may it continue, says Sooz Kempner.
The Simpsons just turned 25 and it’s hard to imagine any TV series, animated or otherwise, that has as much universal appeal. Its viewers comprise all ages, genders and come from more than 70 countries worldwide. The characters have become instantly-quotable icons – and it features some of the strongest female characters ever seen on the small screen.
Homer may be the breadwinner but the Simpsons family wouldn’t function without Marge. She’s a fascinating character: at first glance just a wholesome housewife, selflessly dedicating herself to her husband and three children. But we’re frequently shown glimpses of Marge’s rebellious nature. In season two’s The Way We Was, we see Marge at high school as the ringleader at a feminist rally.
She goes from this to being married with kids and an all-American homemaker but Marge is no downtrodden woman; rather, she seems to relish this role. In Summer of 4ft2 the family go to a log cabin. Lisa sarcastically says, “It must be exciting to make a different set of beds”, to which Marge replies, “I know you’re joking – but it is!” She is often seen to pale in comparison in housewifery skills to Simpsons neighbour Ned Flanders’ Stepford Wife-esque, Maude, a woman who would definitely see feminism as a dirty word.
A few times during the close-to-600 episodes of the show, Marge has pursued different careers. She becomes a police officer in The Springfield Connection and despite loving her new job she comes up against hefty opposition from Homer. Why? Because he feels like he’s no longer man of the house. Of course this is The Simpsons so her new career can only last an episode and she ends up quitting the force. This isn’t because she’s obeying her husband though – Homer comes to support her new position. She quits due to the corruption in the town’s police squad.
In Please Homer, Don’t Hammer ‘Em she discovers she’s an adept carpenter but faces skepticism when she tries to start a business as people don’t believe a woman could be as skilled as a man. To help her business she gets Homer to front it but quickly gets fed up with him arrogantly taking the credit and leaves him to fail on his own. The Simpsons is second to none at tackling gender stereotypes and never more so than in this episode.
Marge has retained enough of her feminist sensibilities to raise Lisa. Springfield’s eight-year-old activist is frequently the voice of reason in the community and has, sometimes single-handedly, taken on massive issues. In Lisa vs Malibu Stacy she finally gets the chance to hear her favourite doll speak as the talking Malibu Stacy is released to stores. She is dismayed though when the doll’s phrases consist of vacuous tripe (“don’t ask me! I’m just a girl!” etc) and seeks out the original inventor of Malibu Stacy to create a new doll that is a positive role model for girls. This episode satirised the recently-released talking Barbie whose phrases included, “math class is tough!”. So many children watch The Simpsons and it’s possible that more than a few little girls have been inspired by Lisa over the years.
The Simpsons has never been afraid of tackling feminist issues and although Homer can be ignorant he’s always open to change when (usually Marge or Lisa) call him on his idiocy. In Mother Simpson Homer is reunited with his mother who he thought had died when he was very young. It turns out Mona Simpson’s been on the run for nearly three decades after escaping arrest for environmental activism in the 60s. Only The Simpsons could succesfully celebrate and simultaneously lampoon the feminist movement.
Other regular Simpsons ladies include Marge’s sisters, identical twins Patty and Selma. They both live a life of celibacy (Patty has chosen this whereas Selma has had celibacy thrust upon her). It’s easy to dismiss these sisters as a pair of bitter old cynics but they have real strength in each other and their unbreakable bond.
Finally it’s worth mentioning Bart’s schoolteacher, unlucky-in-love Edna Krabappel. Picked up and dropped frequently by the men of Springfield, she finds unlikely happiness in Ned ‘N Edna’s Blend with widower Ned Flanders. When Marcia Wallace, who voiced Edna from the beginning, died in 2013 the character was retired and Bart’s chalkboard gag at the beginning read, “We’ll really miss you Mrs K.” They may be luminous yellow, but the women of The Simpsons are as real as they come.
Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.