“Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” (season five, episode 13; originally aired 02/17/1994)
In my TV Club classic posts on the first three years of The Simpsons, I wrote extensively about the challenges of writing episodes around characters like Lisa and Abe, whose role in life and in the show is to spoil other people’s fun. Even more than Marge, who at least has that fun gambling addiction to contend with, Lisa and Abe are inveterate killjoys, sour-faced scolds who are never shy about pointing out everything that displeases them.
In one of the many wonderfully cutting lines in “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy,” Abe takes pride in being old enough to have acquired the hard-earned “wisdom to find fault in everything” God has made. Lisa, however, doesn’t need an AARP membership to find fault in everything the good Lord has made: She’s a know-it-all and harsh critic of the universe by virtue of personality and disposition.
Writing an episode based on either Abe or Lisa is difficult. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to write an episode that focuses on the existential angst of a bitter old man so deeply unpleasant his own family stopped bothering to humor him ages ago and the righteous feminist rage of a pint-sized Betty Friedan. Compared to that challenge, devoting 22 minutes to the professional conundrums of Apu is a breeze.
In keeping with the self-referential tone of The Simpsons, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” contains multiple winking references to the seeming perversity of focusing on Abe and Lisa instead of characters generally considered more conventionally “fun” and “entertaining” like Bart and Homer. When Lisa and Abe complain that as a little girl and an old man, respectively, no one listens to them, Homer replies that as a man in the coveted demographic of males aged 18-49 everyone listens to him. But when Homer attempts to engage in his trademark loveable antics by playing a giant keyboard with his entire body in an affectionate parody of Big’s signature scene, the horrifying noises he makes irritate and repel everyone who hears them. The second time he attempts to play the Simpsons theme with his body (another inside joke) he’s carried away. Bart, meanwhile, is so aggravated that no one is paying attention to him that he damn near goes insane.
Lisa may be a killjoy and a spoilsport but she’s also one of the greatest feminist icons in television history. To the show’s credit, it’s never shy about allowing Lisa’s fierce principals and underlying humorlessness to lead her into grating places. At separate moments in “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy,” Marge and Homer separately reveal uncomfortable truths about Lisa and Abe about their underlying personalities. The always-diplomatic Marge lets Lisa know that while it’s generally great to follow your convictions, lately Lisa had been “overdoing it with the whole ‘doing what you believe in’” thing by making the Simpsons march in a gay pride parade and throwing blood on the executives at Keebler.
Homer, meanwhile, takes Abe aside to tell him that while he personally loved him, “You’re a weird, sore-headed crank and nobody likes you.” “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” opens with Abe reflecting on his mortality after an appearance by Andy Griffith proves unexpectedly empty and unfulfilling, even after swiping Griffith’s heart medicine. Abe then decides he wants to give away his belongings while he’s still alive to see his loved ones enjoy them. That’s an admirable, even noble instinct, but it doesn’t buy Abe much goodwill with the family, which heads to the mall to spend the proceeds of the only property of Abe’s that isn’t completely worthless—a box full of valuable silver dollars—while he’s still rambling on and on about something or other to the great annoyance of everyone within earshot.
Here and elsewhere, Abe lives his life like he’s at a roast with no punchlines—just the dim, sour appraisal that everything and everyone sucks. Abe is forever heckling a world he doesn’t understand and quite frankly doesn’t approve of, and attempting to make himself heard above the white noise of everyday life.
Because nobody genuinely wants to engage Abe in conversation, or even acknowledge that he exists most of the time, his life often resembles a cross between an endless monologue and an anti-comedy stand-up routine. Abe talks to hear himself talk. He rambles for the sake of rambling but there are invariably jewels of pure insanity to be found in his endless bursts of often nonsensical verbiage, like his contention here that back in his day, turkeys were known as “walking birds” while football was known by its other name, “baseball.”
There is a weird poetry to a great, greatly nonsensical Abe Simpson ramble, an unexpected musicality as Abe says outrageous things that make sense to him but otherwise seem to take place in a crazy comic-book world of his own devising. This is a place where oligarchs drop silver quarters from zeppelins onto a delighted populace and no Thanksgiving dinner is complete without yams stuffed with gunpowder. “Does my withered face remind you of the grim specter of death?” Abe asks Homer in one of the meanest lines in The Simpsons history—but really everything about Abe makes everyone uncomfortable.
“Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is one of the best Abe episodes of The Simpsons—but his story, while hilarious, pointed, and unexpectedly poignant, is unmistakably secondary to that of Lisa’s. The eldest Simpson daughter is atwitter with excitement over the news that a new, talking Malibu Stacy doll is going to be unveiled, only to be horrified when her plastic hero mindlessly brays regressive sentiments like “I wish they taught shopping in school!,” “Let’s bake some cookies for the boys!,” and most tellingly and depressingly, “Don’t ask me—I’m just a girl!”
Lisa is no longer able to reconcile her fierce passion for Malibu Stacy with her revulsion over the sexist messages the doll expresses. She decides to bring the fight to the doll’s source and, through guile and forcefulness, arranges a meeting with her creator, a whiskey-voiced survivor played by Kathleen Turner with the perfect note of husky world-weariness. Lisa wants to create a doll for budding feminists everywhere, one that inspires and uplifts instead of pandering to the stereotypes and sexism. She recruits Turner’s character to join her in this quest, and the two end up creating a doll in Lisa’s own dour image—she even voices “Lisa Lionheart” herself.
There’s a wonderful riff on the slippery nature of identity politics and what was once known as political correctness when Lisa, in her new job as the voice of Lisa Lionheart, announces that she’s going to keep her name after she gets married, then immediately amends her declaration by saying that she won’t change her last name if she chooses to get married. To the exhausted engineer in the control room, it doesn’t matter one way or another, but Lisa doesn’t want to convey that women should feel obligated to get married, or that their lives somehow don’t have as much validity as married women. It’s a slippery slope and one most folks avoid altogether.
“Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” ends with Lisa and Abe both crashing hard against the limits of their ambition and outrage. Abe gets a job at a fast food restaurant to prove he’s still vital and relevant, only to realize he doesn’t really want to be vital or relevant: He wants to stand on the sidelines and complain bitterly about everyone else. Lisa, meanwhile, realizes her dream of creating the ultimate feminist doll, only to watch Malibu Stacy completely destroy her chances with a slight tweak: a little plastic hat that makes Malibu Stacy slightly different than before. It’s the flimsiest of cosmetic changes, but it’s enough to make ADD-addled shoppers completely ignore Stacy’s principled competition.
Lisa fails, inevitably, but there’s a majesty and a nobility in her efforts to make a sexist and cruel world a little kinder in the face of impossible odds. That’s what makes Lisa such a great, enduring and important pop-culture icon, despite her predilection to preach her gospel where it is neither welcome nor appreciated.
- I like to think that in The Simpsons Matlock isn’t just a popular television character but a real person with a life independent of Andy Griffith
- Some great sign gags in this episode, including the clean but elegant joke of naming a toy store Valley Of The Dolls and Kidstown USA’s sign distancing itself from the phonetically similar—but I would imagine slightly different—Kidstown Juvenile Correctional Farm.
- I like how nonchalantly Kent Brockman announces, “The President was arrested for murder” at the end of a broadcast devoted solely to Lisa Lionheart
- Up next is “Deep Space Homer.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.