Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Stereotypes Simpsons Style

This week's episode of "The Simpsons" dealt with the stereotypes of learning math. A new principal is appointed and she instantly divides the school along gender lines.

The girls' side of the school is "unicorny" and arty (Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keefe hang on the walls). The grounds are clean and imply Cinderella's castle. The furniture is comfortable and modernistic while the math lessons are about feelings.

"Is 7 an odd number or is it just different?" asks the principal. When Lisa asks if they are going to be actually solving any problems, Madam Principal pooh poohs the idea and has the girls join in a conga line and sing the "self-esteem" song.

Disgusted, Lisa escapes to the boys' side to be challenged by math, only to be kept out because she is a girl.

The boys are depicted as violent, rude, slovenly yet smart enough to take the extra challenging math class. Their school grounds are reminiscent of riots with a burned out school bus smoking outside the window. During recess they play "punch for punch" and beat up on the smaller kids.

With Marge's help, Lisa disguses herself as a boy. Bart teaches his sister to behave like a boy, including making herself cool by beating up on the weakest boy on the playground.

At the end of the year, the award for best math student is given to Lisa who unmasks herself in triumph cheering, "I won because I'm the best and I'm a girl!" Bart derides her by saying, "She's the best because I taught her to be a boy."

The disturbing undercurrents of this episode give pause. Stereotypes come from somewhere, but they are twisted and distorted out of proportion and applied to an entire class of people. They are gender, race and age specific and they are mean and wrong.

Not all women find math hard (present authorship excepted, of course). What of Marie Curie, Countess Ada Lovelace, Eileen Collins or Mae Jemison?

Yes, physiologically there are reasons that more boys than girls succeed in math and sciences. [Note: I have since been brought to my senses by statements to the contrary made in the comments and a tiny bit of research, which I should be doing before I make sweeping generalized statements. TN] But, that doesn't mean that girls should be left out in the cold when it comes to those subjects. They should be exposed to it and encouraged to explore it. Just as boys should be exposed and encouraged to subjects that girls typically excel in.

There is a reason I work in SpecOps, saving literature's plots from ne'er do wells. My brain just does not grok math or science, believe me I have tried. My pet dodo Pickwick has more chance of doing long division of polynomials correctly than I. I wasn't insulted when Barbie said, "Math is hard," because it is, for me. But not all women fit into that category, nor should they be forced to.

Shame on Matt Groening for going over the top and missing the point he was trying to make. And shame on Lisa Simpson for foregoing her usual activist instincts and pandering to the stereotype that says only boys (or girls in disguise as boys) can do math.


Blogger Karen M said...

Yeah, shame on Lisa Simpson for doing whatever Groening writes.

It would have been soooo much better if she had simply broken the writer's paper wall, and declared that she was going to do math AND be a girl, and Groening could just suck it up. Bart, too. And everybody else.

If only writers like Groening who are so deliciously subversive could spend a year experiencing a girl's or a woman's life. Hmmm... maybe that would require more than just one year.

Maybe you could re-write it, Thursday, in between your other responsibilities?

12:14 PM  
Blogger Thursday Next said...

Hmmm ... such a delicious idea! Of course, I will have to check with Mrs. Haversham on scheduling details. As "they" say, "Watch this space."

4:11 PM  
Blogger Tiresias said...

I really doubt if physiology has any relationship to a girl's ability to do math and science. It's cultural. On a personal level, I was terrible in math and science, as was my wife. Our daughter breezed through calculus and organic chemistery, and it was because of some execellent teachers in middle and high school.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Thursday Next said...

That's what I get for not doing my research and relying on old (bad) information.

This article from psychology matters proves your point. "78 percent of gender differences are small or close to zero."

Thanks for the comment which made me rethink my position. On that front at least.

11:12 PM  
Blogger Lyssa Strada said...

I have to agree wtih Tiresias here, based on my personal observation of smart girls suddenly becoming less sure of themselves in math and science... just as soon as boys enter the picture. No one overtly says that you have to choose between being smart and having boys like you, but the inference is there for them to make.

8:55 AM  
Blogger samcandide said...

I interpreted it as an act of subversion on Lisa's part, and very brave.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Thursday Next said...

samcandide: it could be interpreted as an act of subversion for Lisa to disguise herself as a boy in order to get her education in Math.

I think it would have been much "nicer"/better if she hadn't felt the need to hide herself in order to get her needs met.

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think The Simpsons made the points you wish better than you think it did. I think YOU missed them. At least SOMEBODY is talking about this stuff! Hello?! Prime time TV?? It's funny, not sad.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Lyssa Strada said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Lyssa Strada said...

In general, I would have to agree that the Simpsons is one of the most subversive programs on TV. However... even Groening has his limits. Understandably.

Certainly, it's always been a subversive act for girls or women to cross-dress in order to achieve an otherwise denied goal.

However, if we up the ante... wouldn't it be even more subversive if one didn't have to pretend to be male, in order to do the best thing?

The gender bias is so pervasive, that when political parties are labeled as the Daddy and Mommy parties, with the Daddy having power, and the Mommy being viewed as weaker... no one complains about it. Well, I'm complaining about it, and I want us to write differently, without accepting those biased terms without questioning them.

Isn't there something wrong with the notion that being called girly or womanish is the worst insult that can befall a man? Or with Bart's claiming credit for Lisa's success, not because he helped her in any substantive way, but just because he taught her to act like a boy? As if only boys can enjoy the power of self-determination?

9:05 AM  
Blogger Thursday Next said...

Maybe I did miss them. Maybe the points I wanted to get made were made but I didn't see it that way. I am one woman with one point of view, there are certainly other points of view out there.

The Simpsons do address a great deal of things, as Lyssa said, it is one of the most subversive shows on television.

My main complaints are the ones Lyssa has reiterated and that very few, if any, other television shows even attempt to address this stuff.

Shouldn't we be applauding the shows that do (which I do The Simpsons) yet ask for more?

This episode fell short, in my opinon.

10:22 AM  

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