Simpsons and math

I was completely bogged down with work so I missed some friends’ Simpsons Math Party in honor of last night’s episode, in which Principal Skinner is removed from his position after a Larry Summers-like incident in which he said girls are bad at math. His replacement divides the school along gender lines — the girls’ half is beautifully landscaped with famous women artists’ works on the walls, and so on. Unfortunately for Lisa, math class is now about how numbers “make you feel.” “Is the number 7 odd, or just different?” asks the teacher, before leading the class in a self-affirmation conga line.

Lisa decides to sneak over to the boys side, which, in typical Simpsons fashion, has been turned into a post-apocalyptic warzone. The boys are savages, running around playing “guns” and drawing robots made of guns blowing up things with guns that shoot guns. The one saving grace for Lisa is that they study real math there. With Marge’s help she dresses as a boy and goes to math class where she (gasp!) actually learns that +5 and -5 are solutions to X2 = 25. When Lisa gets into a playground fight Bart discovers her secret and helps her become more like a boy. Lisa gains acceptance by beating up Ralph and “becoming all that she hates.”

In the end, Lisa wins the prize for best math student and unmasks herself, saying that it proves girls are good at math. Bart responds with the point that it is because she “became a boy” that she could learn the math. As Lisa tries to wend her way through these opposing points the auditorium descends into chaos. As the credits roll we’re treated to Jethro Tull’s masterpiece, Thick As A Brick.

For me, the credits were probably the best part of this episode. While I have to give credit to the show for taking a difficult issue and trying their best to satirize it, it misses the point, I think. To the writers, the public discussion of the Summers case focused too much on him and not on what the underlying problem issue, which is that of mathematics education. Correspondingly, Skinner is disposed of in a matter of minutes (his pandering nature could be another subject of discussion). The new principal, a hard-talking cariacature of a feminist, decries inequity but is uninterested in real reform. The episode kind of moves from there on out in the logic of The Simpsons world. In a way, it all justifies Skinner/Summers, since the most vocal critics are uninterested in the real issue at hand (math).

The issue of gender and learning and whether there are “gendered” school subjects is just brought up at the end of the episode and never addressed! Perhaps to the writers it lampoons itself by its absurdity and we’re supposed to laugh Bart out of the debate, but Lisa takes him seriously and so do a huge number of people. Indeed, the gender-labeling of academic disciplines is probably one of the more harmful effects of our current public education system. When Bart claims that you have to be boy-like to learn math, is this a pointer to the debate we should be having, or just a garnish for the episode? I would argue that the chaos of the “chair-fight” at the end points gives the latter effect — the last thing the show wants is to seriously moralize. But to leave it so ambiguous is a bit dangerous, I think.

What the episode does do is bring up a whole barrel of ideas to play around with and fodder for discussion, so it wasn’t a total wash. Plus, how often do you hear Thick As A Brick on TV?

0 thoughts on “Simpsons and math

  1. *ahem*

    You missed one. Second paragraph, first sentence…

    Oh, and to comment on the actual content of your post… in the past few years, I’ve found it painful to watch new Simpsons episodes because they seem too random and without a real point — as if the writers were sitting around smoking pot and then jotting down whatever came to mind. (jrandall will argue with me on that point (and he has).) It sounds like here they thought they had a topic to say something about, but then they squandered any opportunity to really make a statement about the issue.

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