Why Summer of 4 ft. 2 means so much to me

Sometime around my seventh birthday, I was sitting in Casey’s, one of the only “fun” restaurants in my hometown. Before me were a half-dozen or so TVs, most of which were airing baseball or the final remnants of playoff hockey. One, for some reason, was airing an episode — a new episode — of The Simpsons.

I knew it was new, because although I was only a first-grader, I’d seen every single episode of The Simpsons up until that point. Without any sound, I instantly knew that these were scenes I’d never watched before (you never forget Milhouse Van Houten recreating different types of sprinklers). I absently ate my dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and tried to decipher what was going on.

I was somewhat used to watching Simpsons episodes where I had to rely on visuals; the nightly 5:30 airing of The Simpsons growing up for me was on a French network, and although I attended French immersion as a child, my understanding of the language back then paled in comparison to my parents’, so I had to merely follow along based on the actions onscreen and the inflections in the Simpsons’ strange Quebecois voices. But Summer of 4 ft. 2 was different. Everything about the story was telegraphed visually — there were props and setpieces that helped convey Lisa’s journey.

Even though I didn’t get to hear her voice (I’ve always considered Yeardley Smith to be one of the most emotive voice actors on The Simpsons, even if she doesn’t have nearly as big of a portfolio as Castellanetta, Shearer and Azaria) I could follow Lisa’s story. The presence of the yearbooks helped convey that it was a beginning-of-summer episode, and the signing scene not only established the key sadness that was driving Lisa throughout the episode, but also set up a rivalry between her and Bart. The new location of Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport was differentiated enough from Springfield to show that this wasn’t just a trip to the beach but an entirely new town that would allow Lisa to be the “new her.” Lisa’s new outfit and the slack posture that went along with it telegraphed her desire to commit to a new identity, while setpieces like the July 4 fireworks and the carnival helped advance the story.

What lay before me after that was a summer of reruns; it took forever for me to actually view Summer of 4 ft. 2 with audio, and I can’t tell you when I finally got to see it. When I did, it only further gutted me. Smith’s performance as Lisa so sincerely conveyed her anxiety, her isolation, her desperation and defeat, and guest star Christina Ricci helped give Erin a gentle and understanding disposition upon which I hadn’t picked up in my silent theatre version. There was also one key aspect which escaped me in my initial viewing: that Erin’s message to Lisa is that they didn’t like her for who she was on the surface, and that you can’t cover up the good person you really are.

In my darkest days as a kid — most of which would come long after Summer of 4 ft. 2 — I’d cling to those words, to the idea that if you know who you are, eventually you will find the right people and you will be okay. Summer of 4 ft. 2 shaped my childhood and my adulthood in ways I only came to realize years later.

So-called “Lisa episodes” rarely go down as the best Simpsons episodes of all-time, however the ones in the first 10 seasons at least end to be recognized as great on their own merits because of the emotional core. That said, I’m always flabbergasted when Summer of 4 ft. 2 isn’t included on lists of the top 10 Lisa episodes (Screenrant even considers The Secret War of Lisa Simpson better, which I have my own personal issues with) or among the top season finales (again, this absolutely trounces the depressing, grey-toned Secret War episode, even if it’s no Who Shot Mr. Burns). For me, Summer of 4 ft. 2 was so profoundly important and only became more important the older I got — it’s an episode about loneliness and self-love, two things I struggled with well into adulthood.

I Love Lisa

I was not an especially popular child. Even when I had friends in higher quantities, I got the sense fairly early on that my friends were more poised to tolerate me rather than fully embrace me. It wasn’t because I was especially smart — I was a clever child, but so were most of my friends — but I was prone to too much talking, too much overanalysis of things that did not matter and very quick to emotion. I had my core group of friends, but they always seemed interested in things that I wasn’t, and vice versa. By the time the fifth grade rolled around, my classmates had grown more brazen about handing out Valentines only to the select dozen or so kids they cared about, and about inviting smaller groups to parties and hangouts while excluding one or two of the former perennial invitees. Then I moved to another town, where I did not even have the privilege of history and established baggage with my classmates. As it turned out, the subtle cruelty of being the outsider on the inside was still preferable to being explicitly labelled an outsider.

But like Lisa, I also felt for years like an outsider in my own family. Unlike Lisa, it wasn’t because I boasted intellect above my family — my father is an engineer with a love of creative nonfiction and my sister would go on to become a physics wiz and radiation therapist — but I wasn’t smart about the “right” things. I watched TV differently than they did, and most of the time was working on some sort of comparative essay in my head. Pop culture excited me and gave me ideas, but anytime I started to express them, I would be scolded for my need to analyze everything. Even when I went on to major in cultural studies and got to finally spend my days discussing imperialism in video games, militarism and nationalism in superhero movies or racism in the sitcoms of the 90’s, I felt othered for my degree, as though it were more akin to a club than a major. I still remember the sting I felt in my abdomen when I asked my mother why she never tried to debate my brother and sister’s teachings from their respective majors but constantly debated mine despite no knowledge in the subject area. She told me, “Because your education is based on people’s opinions about something, theirs are based on facts.”

I spent the first two decades of my life feeling as though I had nowhere to go, and periodically feeling as though I’d been cursed with a personality that was not subtle or cool enough to handle being so geeky and unathletic. My nerdiness could not be packaged into a palatable indie rock persona; I couldn’t even pretend to be too cool to care because I cared so much about everything. The worst part was, no one seemed to realize that I knew how uncool I was. No matter what kind of belaboured self-awareness I displayed, they all talked down to me as though I still needed to be told how unwanted I was.

Lisa was the only character on TV who made me feel seen. She wasn’t a Hollywood geek; she was a cartoon, so there was no way of really knowing if she was pretty or not. She had no friends, unlike other TV losers who still had a small tight-knit group of two other cute dorks (when Jaynie was around, she seemed to dislike Lisa more than anything, with which I could also identify very well). She could be obnoxious and overbearing at times, but her obnoxiousness was always met with disproportionate retribution, as though characters around her were waiting for an excuse to turn on her. Lisa rarely had an ally and thus had to revel in her singularity, grow on her own and achieve things without depending on anyone else. But she was also smart, powerful and creative. She made people — not just her family, but people like Nelson and even Mr. Burns — want to be better. Essentially, I knew that if Lisa could be okay, I could be okay.

The Springfield Connection

My parents didn’t mind that the three of us were into The Simpsons because in their mind, the Simpsons represented our family. We had few filters when it came to profanity and indecency. We had less than most of my aunts and uncles. Our quirks were difficult to hide, and my parents had no interest in putting on airs about my and my siblings’ achievements. We were a smart and nice family, yes, but we were unpretentious. Hence, my parents saw no issues with us watching The Simpsons.

As much as I always felt a cosmic connection with Lisa, there were few episodes in which her situation spoke to me prior to Summer of 4 ft. 2, always for one reason or another. For one thing, “Lisa episodes” were few and far between in early seasons. The tiny town in which I grew up never had things like child beauty pageants, so unlike Lisa, I didn’t have any way of feeling less ugly than I did growing up. I didn’t become a vegetarian until my early 20s, I never had a kind substitute teacher (or even one of my permanent teachers) recognize greatness in me and I never felt courageous enough to approach the school bully, let alone pursue romance with him.

The Simpsons were a realistic family (early on), but Springfield was not a realistic place. As the story expanded to focus on the people in the town, Springfield had to bend and flex and fluctuate depending on what the story called for. I could somewhat identify with the tight-knit lack of anonymity in Springfield — in my little town with a population of 8,000, there was always someone in your peripheral view who at least knew who you were — but it was difficult to reconcile that with a town layout that contained a monorail, a casino and even a multi-screen theatre.

Even the family’s own financial situation became increasingly fluid depending on the story; at least in 1996 the writers still bothered finding ways for the Simpsons to get themselves into situations that they normally wouldn’t have access to. In the case of Summer of 4 ft. 2, the Simpsons have to be written into the Flanders’ beach house. Flimsy as the excuse may be, at least it exists. My family never had a beach house (although we would have called it a cottage or a “camp” where we were from), so on the rare occasion that we’d travel to a cabin, it would be a single weekend in the summer where we’d visit my Grandparents’ trailer-turned-cottage at Portage Bay. Half the time, we wouldn’t even be able to stay overnight at the cottage, due to it being over-crowded with my other cousins, so we’d head into my Grandparents’ isolated mining town for the night to stay at their cavernous old home. Even my Grandparents’ cottage couldn’t really compare to Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport; it wasn’t part of an idyllic East Coast town but rather was situated in a semi-isolated campground community. There was no sweet little main street or Li’l Value Mart; if you wanted a new swimsuit or a hip new tie-dye shirt, you had to drive a half-hour into town and pick one up at Zellers. There were no hip locals who knew the ups-and-downs of the place; the long-term lots at Portage Bay were occupied by campground lifers all over the age of 60, and the rental cottages on the other side of the lake were reserved for travellers just looking for privacy. Not once did I even accidentally meet someone my age when visiting my Grandparents, whether it was at the campground or in their tiny town.

Unlike Lisa (who, although eight, is usually given a level of independence I didn’t achieve until I was 16) I wasn’t allowed to stray far from my parents or siblings to the point where I could just start hanging out with a new group of friends. And that new group was never waiting for me. They didn’t exist.

The Secret War of Lisa Simpson

There are mixed interpretations of the message in Summer of 4 ft. 2. On its surface, the episode appears to be about how Lisa’s friends like her because of who she is. But some have pointed out that they seem judgmental of her more academic ways early on in the episode — they’re suspicious of her love of the library, they gawk at her use of multi-syllable words and they interrogate her use of the word “crustacean.” And, Lisa probably would not have caught the attention of Erin and the gang at all had it not been for her hipster outfit.

Did Summer of 4 ft. 2 undermine its own message? What was the real reason Lisa gained acceptance? Did Lisa learn the lesson, or did her friends? They might not have approached the old, nerdy Lisa on their own, but realizing after that she was a nerd who was also kind and compassionate might have changed their minds.

But one thing I took away from Lisa’s summer was that even though she was “pretending” to be someone else, Lisa wasn’t miserable. In fact, the kinder her friends were to her, the more comfortable she became, which was also why her “nerdish leanings” occasionally escaped. There’s something to be said about how genuine friendship can help you relax, and how you’re your best self when you’re true to yourself.

For me, alienation was always a host unto itself. Even into my college years, I’d sense that I wasn’t fitting in, and as I became more desperate to not “other” myself, I’d lose control of my interactions. I’d word-vomit, get too worked up, make jokes that were more rude than funny and not realize when I was losing people. These were usually read as the pitiful ramblings of a woeful loser, but I always longed for people to see it for what it really was: a cry for help.

It wasn’t until I was 24 that I first had the sensation of leaving a social event and my stomach not being in knots. In the past, if I did go to parties, I’d have to spend several days not interacting with anyone, even my roommates, because I was too caught up in re-playing the things I’d said over and over in my head, reading too much into the one-liners that were uttered around me, trying to evaluate my “performance.” But that year, my first full year working, I’d finally found “my people.” I’d started climbing, and it was through that activity that I’d met my friend Alex (who, like me, grew up with The Simpsons as a near-constant source of entertainment). Alex and I have never been friends-forever-secret-handshake-big-hug-type friends, but he was someone I could merely joke, rant and banter with in a way that never got me too wound up. It was the gentle acceptance, the non-judgmental responses to my jokes, the hearty laughs at my jokes regardless of how poorly delivered they were. Years later, we still have that kind of friendship, one of non-judgment and understanding. It’s not particularly deep, but I can say one thing for sure: I feel “cool” when I’m with him.

The right people bring out the right traits in you. The right groups don’t zero in on your neuroses and belittle your excitement. The right people don’t push you to overcompensate, because you’re never on the defensive. Lisa was still intelligent and sensitive with Erin and her friends — she made them friendship bracelets, suggested they throw a beach party and taught them about the ocean. But she also let go of some of her more damning qualities, like the occasional holier-than-thou attitude or her tendency to soapbox. Sometimes those traits were written for Lisa in ways that felt mean, but other times they merely seemed like her only real ways to express her frustration in a world that didn’t understand her (for example, even I, a pretentious vegan, thought that Lisa was in the wrong for trying to push gazpacho on Homer’s barbecue, but also understood her outburst after her whole school systematically turned on her). The more Lisa’s friends understood her, the less she needed to overreach to make herself heard. Et cetera.

I never found my Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport — I thought it would be the new town I moved to when I was 10, and then I thought it would be the next town I moved to when I was 16. When that didn’t work and I transferred to an art school, I thought I’d find it there, but that was instead the first time that I was not artsy enough. I thought it would come to me in college, but instead of reinventing myself as a salt-of-the-earth, small-town tomboy I was quickly exposed for being the neurotic goody-two-shoes I really was. It was around college that I started to give up on finding my Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport. No matter how far removed I was from my past, I could never escape who I was.

But I realized later that I was chasing the wrong thing. I wasn’t looking for a new place where I could wipe my slate clean, put on a new hat, adopt some new catchphrases and jettison all my old baggage. What I had been seeking so desperately was my Erin, someone who accepted me as a whole and not as a collection of traits selected in a Sims interface. I’d been seeking a quiet moment sitting by a fountain, a low-key hangout in the living room, a peaceful night on the beach. I was seeking someone who could tell me that I couldn’t cover up the person I am — and that the person I am is enough.

I have a lot of feelings about movies and TV shows that would be embarrassing if it weren’t 2020.

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