The Tragicomic Genius of Marge Simpson
Illustration: Ben Thomson
the simpsons

The Tragicomic Genius of Marge Simpson

Without Marge, 'The Simpsons' is nothing. On the show's 30th anniversary, it's worth looking back at her best moments.
24 April 2017, 2:39am

Lisa can philosophise. Bart's adept at spinning lies. Homer's a delightful fella. Marge, with hair by Frank Lloyd Wright. So goes Apu's description of the Simpson matriarch in his musical number about missing his convenience store. Marge Simpson, the raspy-voiced moral compass of television's most famous family, is often remembered and defined by her towering blue beehive and nothing more. Competing against the largess of Homer, the brashness of Bart, and the wry truisms of Lisa, Marge goes underappreciated as one of The Simpsons' greatest comic creations.

Simpsons writer and showrunner Bill Oakley once noted that Marge episodes were often given to junior writers as a test, hers being the hardest to make funny. But Oakley and his co-writer Josh Weinstein discovered her character offered depth that the other more cartoonish members of the cast could not. Julie Kavener, the voice of Marge , famously has a contract clause that excuses her from performing the voice in public—to maintain the mystery of Marge, she claims.

Marge is a radical character. On a surface level, she is an animated archetype—the sitcom mother constantly apologising and tidying up after her loutish husband and mischievous children. When Bart and Lisa have to partake in "go to work with your parents day" in _Bart on the Road _ Bart chooses Marge over Homer, telling Lisa "I've always been an advocate of women in the workplace. I can't help it if mom's workplace contains our TV." But when Marge goes to fill out Bart's permission form, she reads aloud: "Please note: homemaker is not allowed as it is not real work, that's why you don't get paid."

Marge expresses all the frustration of the sitcom wives and mothers that came before her, from Lucy and Wilma Flinstone, to Carol Brady, to Roseanne; but she manages to deconstruct these tired tropes better than any other, merely by existing within the hyper-satirical world of The Simpsons. The world of Springfield is consistent only in its absurdism, yet somehow, the characters feel _human. _That's what makes the show so special. And Marge might be the most real character of all.

Her identity—as wife, mother, woman—is defined by sacrifice. In season nine's The City of New York vs Homer Simpson Marge and Lisa look at a window display of designer shoes longingly. Marge delivers a classic line, revelatory in its plain-spokenness: "If only I didn't already have a pair of shoes." Marge can't imagine splurging on herself, unlike Homer who will spend money on magic beans or the world's largest sandwich.

When Marge does put herself first, she's immediately punished. When she takes up bowling, Homer believes she is having an affair. When she begins working at the power plant, she is immediately the target of sexual harassment. When she opens a pretzel van, she ends up in a gang war between the mafia and the yakuza. And whenever Marge is absent, the family falls into disarray. The season three episode Homer Alone examines how integral Marge is to the family dynamic—writer David M. Stern believed the show would reach "a deeper vein of comedy" if Marge had a nervous breakdown. Most major Marge plots revolve around the chaos created when she's absent. Of course, she always returns to restore the peace; because that's _The Simpsons, _and her tragic dependency on the dependency of others is the joke that keeps on giving.

Marge's glimpses of freedom are always come when she sees that the family under-appreciates her. In A Streetcar Named Marge we see her embrace the "descent into madness" of Blanche DuBois, superimposing Homer onto Ned Flander's Stanley, attacking him with a broken bottle. In Marge on the Lam, one of the show's most radical feminist moments, Marge and Ruth Powers take off on a Thelma and Louise style road trip.

Marge shines as a transgressive force when she embraces her talents. In season two's Brush With Greatness we learn that Marge is an immensely gifted painter. In The Springfield Connection she proves that competence can't defeat misogyny: when she asks to join the police force she's met by thirty seconds of uninterrupted laughter from Chief Wiggum and co. These moments let Marge shine. She's more than just a foil to the bigger, more abrasive figures in the family: Marge is an untapped well of talent, empathy, and courage.

The rest of Springfield sees Marge as a nag because she's the only voice of reason in a town where reason doesn't exist. At the town hall, when asked if anyone has a problem, a murmur of "probably Marge" ripples through the hall. In Marge vs The Monorail it is only Marge who sees through the sing-song bullshit of Lyle Stanley. Though her friends often see her as a fun-hating bore, they fall apart when she is absent, as in Marge in Chains, where upon realising her importance the town offers Marge an apology in the form of a Jimmy Carter statue with her hair.

One of the most devastating Marge moments comes in season seven's Marge Be Not Proud. Her one wish for Christmas is a family portrait not ruined by Bart's chicanery. Of course, it is, and Marge retreats into silence, unsure if she still loves her son. Few female characters in the history of television have displayed the numbness of a matriarch who sees themselves—or perhaps their child—as a failure. Like so many women of her time, Marge takes the failings of others on as her penance.

The Simpsons offered one of the most honest depictions of the burden placed on women by the nuclear family. The quintessential Marge episode, of course, is Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield, where Marge is offered a glimpse of her ideal life by a discount bin Chanel suit. "You don't have to rationalise everything," she says before buying it, then adds, "I will buy it! It'll be good for the economy." As Marge frantically alters her designer outfit to keep up with the society crowd, we feel her desperation as she begs her family, for one night, to be presentable—"Bart! No grifting!"

Marge's pride spilled into the real world in 1990, when First Lady Barbara Bush said that The Simpsons was "dumbest thing she had ever seen" and that she wanted the American family to be "more like The Waltons, and less like The Simpsons." Bush received a letter from "Marge" that opened with "I recently read your criticism of my family, I was deeply hurt." Bush was compelled to reply, "How kind of you to write. I'm glad you spoke your mind; I foolishly didn't know you had one."

It's the semblance of sadness, truth, and goof that makes Marge so hilarious. Few moments sum up a character as hysterically as Marge butting in on Lisa and her new cool friends "with rice crispie squares and tang" and doing a quick about face to save Lisa's street-cred. Her gags are slight but immense: the ominous orchestral riff that accompanies every sip of wine she has in You Only Move Twice says all you need to know about Marge and her dramatic stakes. She paints, she cleans, she cooks, she screws, she sings, she makes homemade Pepsi, she uses gun silencers in the kitchen. She contains multitudes.

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