‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and Lisa Simpson: In Praise of Feminine Earnestness
I haven’t had a chance to see A Wrinkle in Time yet, thanks to UK release dates, but already I am exhausted by the callousness of many of the conversations surrounding it. Too many critics and bloggers seem determined to turn the film into some sort of punching bag of scorn, something to point at and mock as just another ‘SJW’ piece of pseudo-marketing designed to ‘force diversity’ and the like. If you can’t hear the whistles around that nonsense, your dog certainly will. One industry writer, who I suppose shall remain nameless here but can easily be found on Twitter, sent some revealing tweets about how he did not view the film as a series of ‘-ists’ and ‘-isms’, as if to review a movie within a cultural context was tantamount to political propaganda. Later, he shared a story of a friend who saw A Wrinkle in Time and said, ‘it was so smug, it’s the kind of movie Lisa Simpson would make.’ Despite having never seen the film himself, he declared this to be ‘one of the sickest burns’ he’d heard about it. At this point, you can’t help but wonder if the friend was Ted Cruz.
Lisa Simpson’s been getting a bad rap lately. The ever-unbearable Senator from Texas declared at CPAC last month that the Democrats were the party of Lisa Simpson, while the Republicans represented the rest of the Simpson clan. Watching Cruz try to engage with pop culture is like watching Mike Huckabee try out his agonizing stand-up material on Twitter. There are obvious problems with Cruz’s faulty claim: The Simpsons is a show that literally depicts the GOP as having their HQ in a haunted castle, Matt Groening and company are gung-ho Democrats and, if any of the family are likely to vote Republican, it’s probably Grandpa (Marge could be a swing voter but remember, she was the one who most ardently campaigned against Mr. Burns being Governor). There’s an episode where Homer beats the crap out of George HW Bush! If Cruz has watched any episodes of The Simpsons in his life, they probably weren’t lining up with his view of the world.
Yet it is notable, in-between his endless vomiting of words and bigotry, that Lisa Simpson has become this pejorative in public discourse. The moral centre of one of the greatest shows ever made is suddenly a punching bag stand-in for people who care too much. She’s the ‘SJW’ to point at and laugh, Nelson Muntz style. She’s smart, a social outcast, often excluded from the circle of her own family, and often a total know-it-all, and that makes her ‘smug’. Like A Wrinkle in Time, Lisa is just too earnest to function. For some, she’s the symbol of nothing but smarm.
It does not escape my attention that Lisa is being used to attack a woman-written film, directed by and starring women, one that remains a Hollywood landmark for women of colour. There’s no coincidence in an 8-year-old girl who likes books, jazz, ponies and ethics becoming this maligned figure, mostly at the hands of men. Ambitious women are scary figures to men, more so when they refuse to yield their love of the feminine in the process. Earnestness is a source of immense irritation to those who pride themselves on endless cynicism, so it’s not that shocking to me that A Wrinkle in Time has become such a target, or it’s been paired with Lisa as justification for such attitudes.
As a certified ’90s kid who watched more episodes of The Simpsons than anyone I knew growing up, Lisa was an idol to me before I knew what that word meant. I never saw myself in many fictional characters, but with Lisa, I came pretty darn close. We both liked books, we were both considered smart for our ages and lambasted by our peers because of it, we never had many friends and the isolation got to us both. Lisa gave a shit about the world when it was inconvenient or uncool to do so. South Park apathy was on the rise, and the notion that you could never change anything so why bother became a dominant ethos. Even for a cartoon comedy, Lisa’s one-girl battle against Washington D.C. seemed too hopeful.
Lisa often seemed too earnest even for the show. There are episodes where she is positioned as a foil to Homer and Bart’s fun, even when she’s wholeheartedly in the right on whatever is happening. Her emotional narrative is frequently shunned or reduced to a joke, even when it’s unnecessarily mean. She never had a catchphrase like her dad and brother, and she didn’t work as well as the supportive maternal figure like Marge - another character the show struggled to use well, to the point where her isolation became its own joke - and she wasn’t quietly manic like Maggie. She was an eight-year-old girl who liked Charlie Parker as much as she likes Malibu Stacy, and sometimes the writers didn’t seem to know how to reconcile that. Earnestness is one thing but coupled with the crushing realism that high intellect brings, it can seem like a contradictory state of being. It’s much easier to be a bad boy or good girl.
We don’t make films like A Wrinkle in Time anymore, by which I mean we don’t see those kinds of budgets given to strange projects intended for mainstream audiences that aren’t franchises or sequels or remakes. It’s a movie that, as many critics on both sides of the aisle note, wholeheartedly rejects pessimism and champions earnestness. On top of that, it’s a $100m movie made by a black woman with an unabashedly feminine aesthetic. In the age of grim and gritty, it’s almost blinding to see a film like this embrace flowers and sparkles and bejewelled eyebrows. Stuff like this simply doesn’t happen in an industry of market research, international box office appeal, and increasingly tight profit margins. The moment something gets a little too ‘girly’, you can hear the cave dwellers scramble to their feet to ask ‘but what about the men?’ Sometimes, it doesn’t even need to be that feminine: The mere presence of women is enough to set them off. Smart women are seen so differently from smart - or even passably literate - men. ‘Extreme’ grit and macho allure are for everyone, but fragrant frills and a varied colour palette is too limiting, the stuff of girls and only girls.
In one version of the future that The Simpsons presents to the world, Lisa becomes President, taking over a crushing deficit she inherits from Donald Trump. Of course, this episode must have passed Ted Cruz by. It’s a future one can easily imagine for Lisa, if she were a real girl. She cares enough to want to make a difference, and she’s dishearteningly used to carrying the emotional and mental baggage of everyone around her. The Simpsons may not have realized it at the time, but it’s a show about Lisa and how embracing what makes her who she is may be the greatest gift of all. There are few moments in television history as poignant and encouraging as a little note that says, ‘You are Lisa Simpson’.
Lisa would probably love A Wrinkle in Time. That’s truly one of the best compliments one can pay it.
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