Geek, Memory: Lisa Simpson

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At Christmas when I was a kid, while my big brother was unwrapping toys, I received my annualpile of books, which I would read happily to the tinny Pokemon soundtrack jangling from his new Gameboy. Shy and bookish, I began to forge affiliates – idols – out of fictional characters. Typically, they were vegetarians, often enviably intelligent, and always, unequivocally, geeks. There was Gretchen Grundler from Recess, Violet from Jaqueline Wilson’s Midnight, and, later, Mia Thermopolis from The Princess Diaries. However, the geekiest, and by far the most treasured, was a spiky-haired saxophonist from Springfield; before I could tie my own shoelaces, I had adoringly blue-tacked Lisa Simpson onto my bedroom wall.

Lisa easily outranked her rivals in the race to become my childhood idol. Unlike Princess Mia, Lisa is not – for the most part – primarily concerned with the winning of a man and that foot-popping first kiss. Instead, she is motivated by justice and ethics. She is assertive and principled: politically liberal, an environmentalist, a Buddhist. Moreover, in spite of her great passion and intellect, Lisa does not exercise an antisocial level of pedantry, like Gretchen Grundler, nor tediously spout mathematical data and scientific facts with nasal enthusiasm. In fact, she is really the only one of my childhood idols who successfully reappropriates “geek”.

Geek culture has become somewhat fashionable now, great swathes of youths stamping the word across their chest on inexplicably popular t-shirts and prodding the lenses out of 3D glasses for that geekier-than-thou look. However, even if geek has become weirdly kind of cool, the traditional representation of geek culture is exclusively male (think the “pale kids” in Recess or The Simpsons’s Comic Book Guy and Professor Frink). Even within geek communities, feminised geekiness is still often treated as surprising, (predictably) as unattractive, or often rejected outright (just search ‘fake geek girls’ on Google). So, back in the early 00s, when so-called “geek chic” was not a trend which could compete with baker hats and double denim, the “geek girl” was deemed especially uncool.

Like me, Lisa was victim to this anti-geek movement raging at the turn of the century. In the episode ‘Summer of 4ft. 2’, no-one at school will sign Lisa’s yearbook: “I don’t get it. Straight As, perfect attendance, bathroom timer. I should be the most popular girl in school!” As a child, I sighed in unison with my heroine when she told Marge, “These are my only friends,” pointing to her books. So, in an unfortunate experiment, Lisa tries to be different, more like her brother. She wears uncharacteristically hip clothes, expresses cool indifference towards academia, and cries, “don’t have a cow, man!” Bart, jealous of Lisa’s new friends, then shatters her façade by showing them her yearbook, exposing Lisa’s true identity as “an over-achieving bookworm”.

However, just when Lisa has lost all hope – “Maybe I just wasn’t meant to have friends” – her new group surprise her by creating a mosaic of shells on Homer’s car which spell, ‘Lisa Rules’. Despite having pretended to be someone else, concealing her “nerdish leanings”, her friends tell her, “You can’t fake the kind of good person that you are”. They even vow appreciation for her sometimes irrepressible intellect: “You taught us cool things about nature and why we shouldn’t drink sea water”. And suddenly her yearbook is filled with notes of affection from kids who like her, not just in spite of, but because of her geekiness.

After this episode, like Lisa, I learnt self-acceptance. My idolisation of her became a kind of silent rebellion. By ditching Disney and worshipping my own jagged, jaundiced princess, I chose integrity over inclusion, books over belonging, geek over chic. I took no heed of Homer’s chants, “you don’t win friends with salad.” I finally embraced my geek girl identity. However, to idolise Lisa is evidently to opt for a sub-division of dweeb which isn’t so uncool after all. Lisa did make friends. In fact, she completely owned her geekiness; she rocked “geek chic” before it was cool (and, really, what’s cooler than that?) and so I strived to emulate her, in my own shy and bookish kind of way.

The producers of The Simpsons recognise Lisa’s potential status as an idol to young girls by repeatedly positioning her as a role model within the show. For instance, in ‘Lisa vs Malibu Stacey’, Lisa is distressed by the inane, regressive comments made by her talking Malibu Stacey doll: “Let’s bake cookies for the boys” and, “Don’t ask me. I’m just a girl!” Though Lisa herself can detect the doll’s sexism, she is gravely concerned at what the doll “is telling a generation of girls”. So, she creates her own enlightened doll: Lisa Lionheart. This doll, in contrast to her predecessor, declares, “Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything.” The doll isn’t commercially successful, but when Lisa sees someone buying Lisa Lionheart, she notes, “You know, if we can get through to just that one little girl, it will all be worth it”.

My small ears burned. Maybe sometimes still shy and bookish, maybe still a geek, but I learnt from Lisa that you can, in fact, win friends with salad. You can win friends with books and intellectual debate and activism, even if, at least for a little while, these friends are only fictional.

“Trust in yourself, and you can achieve anything.”

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