“Lisa The Beauty Queen” (season 4, episode 4; originally aired 10/15/1992)
“Lisa The Beauty Queen” follows three classic episodes of The Simpsons: “Kamp Krusty,” “A Streetcar Named Marge,” and “Homer The Heretic.” Those aren’t just three of the best Simpsons episodes of all time—those are three of the best television episodes of all time. So “Lisa The Beauty Queen” had an awful lot to live up to. Expectations for the show at that point were through the roof; the bar had been set almost prohibitively high.
Moreover, “Lisa The Beauty Queen” had to wrestle with the Lisa factor. Lisa has starred in some of the sweetest, most moving, and best-loved half-hours of the series, but she’s also an inveterate scold and killjoy, qualities that are not exactly synonymous with hilarity. “Lisa The Beauty Queen” is plenty funny but the humor doesn’t resonate nearly as strongly as the episode’s overwhelming sweetness. The Simpsons have seldom been as kind, compassionate and empathetic toward one another as they are in “Lisa The Beauty Queen.” That’s especially true of the male Simpsons.
Homer is generally a fairly shitty father (and husband, and citizen, and friend, and neighbor, and just about everything else) but in “Lisa The Beauty Queen” he’s seemingly bucking for Father of the Year honors. Homer behaves with utterly uncharacteristic selflessness, kindness and consideration here, putting the needs of his daughter above his own selfish desires.
Homer isn’t the only Simpson behaving in an incongruously thoughtful and generous fashion here. As the writers acknowledge in the commentary, the Bart of “Lisa The Beauty Queen” bears only a passing resemblance to the anti-authoritarian hellion who famously admonishes a nation to eat his shorts. The Bart of “Lisa The Beauty Queen” is less an incorrigible rapscallion than a gender bending, weirdly androgynous beauty contest coach with a dazzling array of female beauty tips at his disposal, from the importance of padding to the proper way to walk in high heels (something he’s an expert on why?). Bart is less a menace to society than a future coach or contender on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Yet within the context of the episode, bizarro-world Bart works, as does super-dad Homer.
“Lisa The Beauty Queen” opens with one of The Simpsons’ signature setpieces, this time at a school fair Seymour Skinner has dubbed “The happiest place on earth,” much to the chagrin of Disney’s attack-dog lawyers, who an uncharacteristically bad-ass Skinner scares away as only a former Green Beret can. Everyone is plying their wares, from bullies running a spookhouse to Groundskeeper Willie’s Haggis booth.
At a caricature booth, meanwhile, an unintentionally sadistic caricature artist asks Lisa if she likes roller-skating (it doesn’t matter whether she likes it or not; he’s going to draw her on roller-skates no matter what) and forgets the first rule of caricaturing: always flatter the people paying you. Instead, the caricature artist hands Lisa a horrifying, self-esteem-shattering portrait of herself as a hideous troll (on roller-skates of course) chasing after an understandably terrified boy.
The caricature scene only needs 20 seconds to completely eviscerate the entire field of caricature, from the hilariously dated examples of the caricaturist’s wares on display at his booth (a toothy Farrah Fawcett, an “Ayyyy”-spouting Fonzy, and, most bewilderingly and hilariously, a surfing Darth Vader) to the caricaturist’s need to put all of his subjects in a pose he finds easy to draw whether it has any connection to their lives and interests or not. It’s hilarious but it also hones in on the random cruelty of life that makes being a child, especially a child as smart and sensitive and strong-willed as Lisa, such a trial of the damned, such a gauntlet of pain and humiliation. The sequence works equally well from a comic and a dramatic perspective.
Lisa is devastated. In a seemingly misguided effort to raise Lisa’s self-esteem and convince her she’s beautiful on the outside as well as the inside, Homer sells the blimp-ride ticket he won at the school raffle to Barney and uses the money to enter Lisa into the Little Miss Springfield pre-teen beauty contest.
Bart thinks it’s a bad idea, as illustrated in this hilarious clip where he sub-verbally expresses his appreciation for the hotness of the other contenders in terms Tex Avery would undoubtedly appreciate. Like a lot of Bart’s behavior in the episode, it’s also more than a little creepy: he is, after all, lusting after pre-teens.
As the commentators concede, beauty contests are probably the worst place to raise the self-esteem of a sensitive, gawky, strange-looking intellectual iconoclast. They are fundamentally Darwinian endeavors where all that matters are outward appearances and pandering to judges and audiences.
Lisa is nevertheless touched by her father’s gesture, boneheaded or otherwise, and with the help of Bart and a makeover, she quickly becomes a contender and a rival to powerhouse Amber. Lisa’s new adversary is a pint-sized force of nature so skilled, “in the same week she was pork princess and Little Miss Kosher”
Lisa’s turn onstage illustrates that she has internalized the cornball values of the beauty pageant circuit all too well. “Some people say that to love your country is uncool, old-fashioned, real Melvin,” Lisa tells host Krusty the Klown before launching into a schmaltzy take on “America The Beautiful” that quickly segues into an overly caffeinated rendition of “Proud Mary,” complete with Flashdance-style choreography.
It’s impressive—but not impressive enough to win. Thankfully, Lisa wins runner-up and when the winner proves unable to fulfill her duties as Little Miss Springfield—at least some of which involve presiding over deportations—Lisa steps up and assumes the role.
“Lisa The Beauty Queen” then takes some dramatic turns. In its third act, the episode becomes an anti-tobacco jeremiad when Lisa comes to realize that the Little Miss Springfield pageant is little more than an elaborate ruse to trick children into smoking cigarettes. Lisa decides to use her massive power as Little Miss Springfield for good instead of evil and is quickly robbed of her crown on a technicality as a result.
It doesn’t matter, however, as Lisa’s self-esteem has been restored and her bond with Homer strengthened. The Simpsons could get away with an awful lot of pitch-black humor and nastiness because invaluable episodes like “Lisa The Beauty Queen” powerfully and poignantly convey just how much the characters love each other, even if they sometimes treat each other with bracing cruelty and thoughtlessness. The episode underlines this point amusingly at the very end when Lisa gives her father props for doing something extraordinarily sweet in an attempt to lift her out of her self-loathing and pre-adolescent angst. Banking on a rare wave of goodwill from a daughter he’s generally in the business of disappointing, Homer asks Lisa pointedly, “Will you remember this the next time I wreck your life?” to which Lisa sweetly retorts, “It’s a deal.”
Aw. These crazy kids really do love each other after all.
- This episode features a guest turn by the real Bob Hope. Quite a coup.
- “Wow! President of Laramie cigarettes Jack Larson!” Who wouldn’t be impressed to be in such a man’s presence?
- “What a feeling! I’m as happy as a smoker taking that first puff in the morning!” Oh, but the makers of Laramie cigarettes are not subtle in their appeals.
- That shot of Bart in the cheesecake Betty Grable pose is disturbing on an almost visceral level.
- Bart might just be better at being a girly girl than his sister is.
- I love the mournful manner Homer sings “Hey there, blimpy boy” after parting ways with his ticket.
- Up next: “Treehouse Of Horrors III.” If memory serves, it’s a good one.