Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bart Simpson as an overlooked prodigy

The Simpsons defined a lot of my identity as a kid because it was the only show my family watched. There were brief periods I’d dabble in a Disney show, and we all liked The Critic, but The Simpsons was the only consistent television media—at least up through middle school. They’d taped every episode since I was two. To a large extent, I looked at the world through a Simpsons lens instead of looking at The Simpsons through a world lens. That was because I was too young to know much outside it. It introduced me to bands and plays and films and books that were referenced throughout the episodes. My siblings were the same way. In elementary school, my sister used to draw our family as Simpsons characters.

While the show was hilarious, it had a lot of poignant elements. Wasted potential was a recurring theme.

Lisa is presented as a genius daughter living in an intellectually stifling environment. She lives in a setting where education is scorned by her dad, brother, and peers. She’s an incredibly gifted achiever, but suffers anxiety and depression. Even people who want to encourage her, such as Marge, can’t relate to her on the same wavelength. Her teacher doesn’t appreciate her gifts. We know Lisa will be abundantly successful in the future, but she first has to power through loneliness and an uninspiring social landscape.

As the show progresses, we see that Bart is also highly intelligent. His teachers assume otherwise because he is an underachiever. One of the saddest and most eye-opening episodes was “Lisa’s Sax.” It shows the memory of Bart starting kindergarten in 1990, excited and hopeful. He begins to show signs of academic struggle, which seem to be due to a learning disability. (Evidence throughout the show points to ADHD and dyslexia. He can comprehend the ideas he reads, but has trouble visually processing the words. When he tries to read them aloud and organize them, they get all jumbled up. He also is hyperactive and distractable.) The teachers pick up on his difficulties, but they don’t try to guide him. They act as though it’s his fault. As a small child, his spirits are dashed and he starts to resent everything academic—especially the school administration. He develops a hardline anti-authority stance. Bart realizes he can gain popularity by being a wiseass, so he latches onto that. He yearns for the approval of the cool (bad) kids and tries hard to fit in. The rebelliousness is a powerful defense. He can act as though his academic struggles are a choice. He can pretend he had rejected school, rather than vice versa. Bart was a smart kid with several learning disabilities who slipped through the cracks. He was also overlooked because Lisa was clearly a prodigy. Her intelligence was just more academically inclined.

Bart’s brilliance shows up in his mischief. He orchestrates complex, well thought out pranks. He’s impressively motivated and organized—he just uses those gifts in ways that are not productive. Bart is not a mean person. He wants to be popular, but isn’t a bully. His empathy for social outcasts is expressed in his friendship with Milhouse, and his attempt to take Martin under his wing to show him how to be cool. Bart’s pranks take on a “fuck the establishment” stance and he targets those in power. There are times when he develops sympathy for authority figures when he realizes they’re human. Any time he does something that genuinely hurts somebody, like getting Mr. Skinner fired or writing mock love letters to Mrs. Krabapple under a false identity, he feels terrible and tries to set things right.

I actually believe that Bart and Lisa are equally brilliant; they’re just in divergent directions. Some disagree because of “Bart the Genius,” the episode in which he’s sent to a gifted school and fails the accelerated program. Fans argue that if he was truly intelligent, he would have succeeded there. I see it differently. Bart had the potential to grasp that curriculum, but he lacked the external resources. He had never been exposed to the type of concepts and vocabulary or even the social culture that the genius kids were already immersed in. They lived in an insular world. He could have understood it if he’d had prior exposure. It’s like going into a foreign country where everyone speaks a language you don’t know. You could understand the ideas they’re expressing if the words were familiar. The ideas aren’t a barrier; the means of expressing them is. One could counter that Bart had been exposed to that type of intellectualism through Lisa, and so he was just naturally incapable. But I think he willfully ignored things Lisa could have taught him, because he associated academia with strife.

Homer is another factor limiting Bart’s ambition and instilling distrust of authority. This is, essentially, because Homer is abusive to Bart. He constantly berates him and makes him feel like a failure. He chases Bart around the house and even chokes him as punishment. Bart rebels against Homer, but also tries to impress him. He’s an abused child who longs for the approval of the parent who hurts him. Homer wants Bart to succeed at school, yet is dismissive of anything broad-minded. Bart responds by resisting Homer’s pressure to succeed, while also mimicking Homer’s scorn for intellectualism in order to relate to him. Bart adopts Homer’s resentment of authority. He additionally distrusts authority because Homer himself cannot be relied upon.

Whenever Bart and Lisa team up together, they are a remarkable force. They are counterparts, filling in each other’s weaknesses and enhancing one another’s strengths. Lisa does the analytical work, while Bart helps to organize and rile people up. He’s the charismatic agitator. Episodes that show their futures usually depict two possible paths. In both, Lisa is invariably successful. But Bart could go in one of two ways. In some scenarios, adult Bart is emotionally stunted and desperately dependent on Lisa. In others, he’s overcome his obstacles and is working alongside her, on her level. They are equally self-actualized and happy. Even though they’re fictional characters, I want so much to see him self-actualized. I want him to have the future where he’s a chief justice of the Supreme Court and looks back on his past with amusement. Lisa has her struggles, but we know she will succeed no matter what. She thrives as soon as she’s in a more stimulating environment, and even thrives without it—although with a lot of emotional turmoil. From what I’ve seen, Lisa is just as anti-establishment as Bart. The difference is that she resolves to beat the system by replacing it.

Bart and Lisa bicker a lot, but in the end, they are each other’s greatest allies. Both of them are characters who are, to a large extent, alone. Lisa doesn’t have friends. Bart has Milhouse, but Milhouse is more of a follower than a friend on equal wavelength. Lisa and Bart are really each other’s best friends—and, possibly, their only true friends at their point in life. They understand each other’s standpoints. They understand each other's pain. And, in the end, they each help the other achieve what seemed impossible on their own. They’ll never grow up on the show. But if the Simpsons universe ever seemed as real to you as it did to me, you’ve probably imagined their future lives and saw them become the best versions of themselves. They’re parallel, both when they suffer and succeed.


I have more to say on this subject, especially relating to Homer and Marge. More will be written soon.