For a long time, I have believed in the power of empathizing with a fictional character to transform the way we feel about ourselves. But how does this relationship play out when that character is not human, but cartoon?
In The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson stands out as a character very different to the rest of her family. She is intellectual, self-reflective and idealistic. So it should come as no surprise when she, just like any other real-life female, experiences body image problems.
In the episode “Sleeping With the Enemy”, Lisa is teased at school about her “big butt”, which sends her into a downward spiral of negative body image and unhealthy eating habits. She reads Thin by Third Grade and indulges in retail therapy — only to find a clothing store where a sales assistant planes down the thighs of a mannequin so it conforms to the new skinny standard. She discusses her feelings with Bart, saying, “I know that this obsession with thinness is unhealthy and anti-feminist, but that’s what a fat girl would say!”
Lisa is not the only cartoon character to have body image struggles. Family Guy’s Meg Griffin is a socially awkward, self-conscious teenage girl who is generally mistreated by her family, and her appearance is often exploited in the name of humor.
In the episode “Barely Legal”, Meg is depressed about not having a date to her prom, telling the family dog Brian “I’m so fat and gross,” and threatening to kill herself.
In other episodes, her brother Chris draws pictures of her with a pig’s body, father Peter farts in her face, she is depicted as a bulldog, and she is replaced by a prettier actress when the family gets their own reality show.
Meg isn’t portrayed as intellectual, like Lisa, and therefore her body image problems are not as complex. While their crises both stem from being made fun of, Lisa has the ability to question it, even as she succumbs to it. On the other hand, Meg is not shown being critical of her own position.
As in real life, neither characters’ struggles are ever fully resolved. At the end of the Simpsons episode, Homer asks Lisa if everything is OK, but she refuses to say that she’s now comfortable with her body. Instead, she acknowledges that, like many women still obsessed by weight, she has a long way to go. The fact that the issue wasn’t neatly resolved meant that it was a little more thought-provoking than a typical cartoon happy ending. In Meg’s case, the jokes just don’t stop coming.
Do you relate to Lisa or Meg? Are cartoon characters an effective means of exploring body image issues?