Archives on TV: The Simpsons, "Lisa the Iconoclast"
Updated: Aug 20
Author's Note: For Cara in celebration of a decade of friendship. What even the hell?!
If there was one show that was appointment television for my generation, it was The Simpsons. For what seems like a very brief window of time, but contains such a large chunk of my formative years, The Simpsons was the height of animation, humor, and storytelling that ultimately shaped how my impressionable young mind looked at the world. I don't watch the newer episodes now because the show isn't really for me anymore. There's another generation taking it in and hopefully being shaped by its humor and insight while also examining it's value and critiquing it in the way that all art should be.
I loved the show in my time, but that doesn't negate the real world consequences surrounding how The Simpsons has shaped pop culture, good and bad. Engaging critically with the things you love ultimately means acknowledging the more problematic aspects of it. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, please go watch Hari Kondabolu's amazing The Problem with Apu.
That being said, there is a lot to love about "Lisa the Iconoclast," the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons' seventh season. Airing February 18, 1996, the city of Springfield is gearing up for their bicentennial celebration and Lisa, while doing research on the town's founder, Jebediah Springfield, discovers that he was actually a pirate named Hans Sprungfeld who hated the city bearing his name and once tried to assassinate George Washington. With this knowledge, Lisa attempts to educate Springfield's citizenry only to find that the myth of Jebediah is a more powerful force for good than revealing the horrible secrets of his past. There are also a lot of jokes. This is the golden age of The Simpsons, so nary a sight gag or a piece of wordplay is wasted. Plus, this episode introduced the neologisms embiggens and cromulent. Look 'em up, they're in the dictionary! Seriously!
But we're here to talk about archives, or some approximation thereof. The Springfield Historical Society is the institution de jure in this episode and it appears to only contain one employee, Hollis Hurlbut (voiced by Donald Sutherland), who is an historian but could also be called a curator and an archivist. With so many hats to wear, it's understandable, but not necessarily recommended, that he'd leave an 8-year-old girl alone with a variety of historical artifacts that she would then attempt to pick up and/or use. I mean, the plot has to start somewhere.
There's an interesting ethical and moral dilemma running through the story as well. Hollis Hulburt knows Lisa's accusations towards Jebediah Springfield are true when the body is exhumed containing Sprungfeld's prosthetic silver tongue. But he still makes the decision to hide the tongue so Springfield's founder remains a noble figure in the eyes of the townsfolk. It's as much for his own benefit since he's devoted his life and career to celebrating a now false narrative and wrestling with that aspect of his identity is just too much to bear. When he finally comes around, it's because he realizes that he's letting his personal interests outweigh the truth...and probably because Lisa confronted him. I mean, the plot has to resolve somehow.
In hindsight, it's a useful episode to point out the ever-changing nature of the historical narrative - not just in the discoveries but also how new information challenges our preconceived notions of events and people. The reactions of the populace are equally chaotic when confronted with a beloved historical figure's seeming "fall from grace" when in fact they were always awful and just happened to be on the right side of whoever was writing the history books that day. Lisa's essay, "Jebediah Springfield: Super Fraud," earns her a failing grade as well as criticism from her teacher, Ms. Hoover, who says:
This is nothing but dead, white male-bashing from a PC thug. It's women like you that keep the rest of us from landing a husband.
A reminder that this was written, animated, and distributed in 1995-1996. It's currently 2019, if you weren't aware. Look how far we've come.
It's Lisa's decision to keep Springfield's secret, however, that I find the most...disturbing. She decides not to pursue her campaign against the pirate because of how much the town loves the myth of Jebediah Springfield. She claims it has value as well, but what value does it really have if people are only operating on half of the information? There are plenty of historical figures who made great strides for humanity and were still complete assholes deserving of criticism. A lot of historical references made in this episode center on the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers. Pick one of them and there's plenty to admire and deride. Lisa isn't doing anyone any favors by holding back just for sake of the people of Springfield's feelings.
This episode also contains my favorite Revolutionary War joke: