Cartoons used to be just for kids, but in wake of Matt Groening’s landmark creation of “The Simpsons”, cartoons took an interesting twist: some cartoons came to be made solely for the adult audience. Since the popular recognition of the Simpsons cartoons as broadcast series have gone thought the gambit of issues from raunchy political incorrectness to slice-of-life portrayals of “the common people” and their families.
Yet what is of most intriguing issue to me, is when these series tackle the questions of gender, the place and oppressions of women, or just begun to look at the issues or questions of rights which circulate around the feminist complex.
In this post I will discuss some of my favorite cartoons episodes that (may) be feminist.
“Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” from “The Simpsons” (aired 1994) – Let’s start with a real classic, shall we? This is one of the very, very few episodes from “The Simpsons” which deals with gender, as well as one of the few which actually raises feminist issues. It starts with Lisa, the 8 year old daughter in the Simpson family, buying the newest talking Malibu Stacy doll (a fictional satirical doll based on “Barbie”). Excited, the young girl “gathers” all her other dolls to hear the astonishing first words of the talking Malibu Stacy… only to hear the doll say, “I wish they taught shopping in school”, followed by the doll claiming one should not ask her anything, she’s “just a girl”.
Lisa, disgusted at the sexist and demeaning message of her new doll, devotes herself to stop the production of such dolls. She visits the company to express her feelings, explicitly states to her friends that the things Malibu Stacy says are sexist, and tracks down the inventor of the original doll, Stacy Lowell (Voiced by the great Kathleen Turner). Together with Stacy, Lisa starts to make her own talking doll, hoping to make a more feminist toy for girls. The episode was a direct critic of Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie, a toy that appeared in the 90’s, which was criticized for enforcing shameful stereotypes of women. However, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” can also be seen as an attack on dolls that are marketed to little girls on a whole. As Lisa points out in the episode, girls learn through such toys to be shallow and center their lives around looking pretty and landing a man. Lisa bravely fights for change, demanding a better role model for girls, advocating for women’s right and hoping to teach young girls to be more than empty vessels.
“Breast Cancer Show Ever” from “South Park” (aired 2008) – This episode is entirely about female empowerment, pure and simple. The plot centers 9-year old Wendy, who attempts to raise awareness of Breast Cancer by doing a presentation on the subject in class. She is rudely mocked and interrupted by her classmate Eric Cartman’s* sexist and taunting remarks. Wendy enraged by the callousness of Cartman to the plight of this disease (and its victims) challenges him to fight. This episode is a remarkable depiction of a strong girl standing up against, and calling out, sexism. Cartman is portrayed in this episode as a typical sexist bully: he acts tough and is a loud-mouth, but in actuality is a coward. Wendy is also shown to be quite alone in her battle against Cartman, with little sympathy from her parents (mostly due to Cartmans manipulation). But near the end, there is one adult woman who encourages Wendy to fight the “cancer”, giving a rarely shown positive portrayal of women supporting each other. Even in the fictional world of South Park, Sisterhood is powerful!
“The Story of Catcher Freeman” from “The Boondocks” (aired 2008) – I’ll be honest, this show wasn’t always positive in its portrayal of women. But this episode is one of the most critical attacks against male centrism and patriarchy that has been seen in recent years in Adult animations. The episode is a recounting of a tale from the family-tree about a “slave who struggles and fights” for Freedom. The story of Catcher Freeman takes place during 19 century, when slavery was in full play below the Mason-Dixon line and the protagonist of the tale is attempting to slip the bonds of slavery (or not?). While the tales spun by the ancestors to the “hero” describe Catcher as a strong, avenger of the wronged who is determined to the task of freeing all of his brothers-in- bondage (and who is recounted, at times, as being a animalistic hunter with super powers) the truth turns out to be that Thelma, the famous love interest of Catcher, was the real hero.
Thelma all by herself found the strength to fight back against the white slave owners after trying to escape. She kills two men who attempted to rape her, and in a final leap of courage and honor, returns to the plantation (she originally escaped from) to organize a rebellion among her brethrens to oppose the oppressors and she, ultimately, leads them in battle to freedom. Thelma is strong, smart and a highly skilled fighter. Yet even if she is the true hero, the male centric world, where men are the ones who dominate the dialogue of history, choose to portray Catcher as the hero, which is far from the truth and it unfairly excludes the women from history as well as the present day and the contemporary context.
I have written a longer post on the depiction of women in “The Boondocks”, which you can read here.
“Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset” from “South Park” (aired 2008) – This episode was produced when Paris Hilton was constantly in headlines and was a new idol to some young women. In this episode, Paris Hilton arrives in South Park, causing all the girls to become crazed with the idea of mindless shopping and pointless partying. Wendy is at first appalled at the girl’s behavior, believing they’re purposely killing their brains, but due to peer pressure goes to the notoriously masochistic gay man, as well as her teachers lover, Mr. Slave for advice. “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset” has a bit of a nasty title, but the episode is an interesting critic of how society favors mean-spirited and shallow women, ignoring the intellectuals, as Wendy in the episode articulates. The writers of the episode show a concern that young women are given terrible role models who do nothing but party and rely on men to “buy them things”, while actually ambitious women are viewed as strange. Parker and Stone made clear in the episode that accomplishment, struggling with thought and self-awareness are to be considered the important, something which is ultimately devalued in our commodity and idol driven culture.
“A Leela Of Her Own” from “Futurama” (aired 2002) – Honestly, it’s hard to tell whether this episode is feminist or not. So I’ll just explain why I think it’s feminist.
The episode centers Leela, who after being spotted by a sports agent gets signed on to play Blurnsball, a fictional future sport similar to baseball. Leela is excited about being the first woman to play Blurnsball on a professional team, ignoring how she obviously got the job mostly for her utter lack of talent in the sport. She is used to make people laugh, since she always hits a person in the head with her bat instead of hitting the ball. As Leela grows in popularity, she comes to believe that she’s pioneer for women in sports, but Jackie Andersson, a female star in a college Blernsball team, approaches Leela to tell her she’s actually making it harder for female athletes, since Leela’s incompetence causes more sexism in the sports community. Leela is crushed by Jackie’s words and goes about, with a sudden insight into her position in the sport, trying to approve her skills. “A Leela of Her Own” deals with the fact that there are still a lot of communities where women are seen as inferior to men and it is considered a triumph if a woman, any woman, rises to the top of a field where men hold dominance.
However, it is not always that simple: what if that woman actually makes it even harder for women to join the overly male centric clubs?
Even if it is unfair that people group all women into one category – like people do with Leela and other female blurnsball players – it’s important to discuss whether some women actually reinforce certain stereotypes of women, such as them being dumb or weak, in fields where they are already highly discriminated against. (By the way- the episodes title is a reference to Penny Marshall’s awesome movie “A League of Their Own”, which centered the first professional Baseball League in the US. Worth checking out!)
Here where my personal favorite episodes with feminist themes. Hope you enjoyed my post!
*Eric Cartman often is the embodiment of the “incorrect”, mean-spirited, capitalistic (in the pure-greed sense), immoral, prejudiced, and un-self reflective person in the South Park meta-narrative (through all of the whole series)