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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A post structuralist Reading of Friendship in one of The Simpson's Episode

By Abdeslam Badre

I – Introduction                                      

‘To have a friend you must be one’


This paper attempts to construct a critical reading on the issue of friendship, being the prevalent theme in The Simpsons episode we watched in class. Despite its being one of the prerequisites of the individual’s social life, the meaning of ‘friendship’ and the value of a ‘friend’ may differ from one individual to another, from one life-stage to another, and from one community to another; further, they may even differ between males and females. On the this ground, my reading of friendship, as tackled in the episode, will be built in terms of binary oppositions between sexes and generations. Put simply, being the catalyst of the theme in this episode, Liza’s understanding of friendship will be opposed to both her brother, Bart, as a representative of the opposite sex, and her mother, Mrs. Marge, as being the emblem of the older/adult generation. For so doing, I will approach these elements from post-structuralist perspective to show that the notion of friendship is a constructed concept whose meaning is elusive, always absent/present: something that one can not fix down, since its meaning differs among individuals, sex, groups, and generations.



II – Description of the scene


In this episode, Liza Simpson is seeking friends. Right from the beginning, we see her craving to have some schoolmates signed her yearbook: she joined more than one group to have her desire satisfied, but it seems that no one recognizes her presence, and her effort to have a memorable word from a friend goes in vain. It is at this point that the feeling of loneliness infiltrates her soul and keeps growing to the existent of a feeling of marginalization, then a rejection by her peers. After leaving the Springfield house for the summer vacation, that feeling of loneliness is still dwelling in her heart. Boldly enough, Liza does not seem to give up easily, for she decides to confront that emptiness by a pertinent quest of new friends in the beach-house area where she is to spend her holidays. However, until now, all her attempts give no fruitful results, a fact which induces a number of questions in her mind the main of which is what might be the reason behind her being rejected by her peers. And after seeking her mother’s advice, she is told that she’d better be what she is not in order to have what she seeks. Thus, she decides to go for her brother’s persona, and then we hear her saying “bye, bye Liza Simpson.” Right after changing her personality, she finds a three-peer group (two boys and one girl) which has been indifferent to her presence. So, she decides to take more risk in order to catch their attention: she, for instance, has accepted to go skating with them though she is not good at skating. As a rewarded, they finally grant her a little space within their circle; but Liza decides to gain more space within the group by inviting them to her house, suggesting the idea of a beach party, and showing them all her skills. By so doing, Liza wins her friends’ confidence and more importantly, she gains their sympathy, which is incarnated in the fact that she receives a little gift (bracelet) from one of her new friends. However, things do not always go as we wish them. Driven by jealousy and envy, her brother, Bart, is determined to put an end to her relation with the group of friends; accordingly, he reveals to them that Liza is not actually what she appears to be but simply a ‘teacher-pet,” who is incarnating her brother’s actual personality in order to impress them, a fact which upsets the beach kids. Liza again ends up lonely, with no friends. But this time she is tired of what she is and what she has pretended to be, for, as she said: ‘in me it does not work. In someone else it does not work.” Now, she spends most of her time with her brother with whom she is at the defensive. Noticeably, her antagonistic contact with her brother underlines another dimension of juxtaposition: though she goes to some entertainment parks with him, she does not enjoy her time as she would have done if she had been with friends. By the end, the three friends are going to visit Liza and admit to her that they consider her as a friend, regardless of what or who she is as long as she a Friend. They also signed her yearbook, which was a nice and rewarding surprise for Liza.


III - A post-stucturalist analysis


The above mentioned scene is loaded with media artifacts, revolving around the theme of friendship. Starting from the school end-year party, the signing of the year-book, beach-kids, the bracelet Liza received from her friends, to the signed book she got by the end of the episode. All these sings, both denotative & connotative- refer to the signified ‘friends’/friendship.’ At first, the reader/viewer perceives the notion of friendship though Liza’s eyes: her spontaneous behaviors with the schoolmates inform us that friendship is a sublime socialization process that requires no specific socio-economic status, social-class belonging, or typical personality traits. All what one needs to do/have so as to have friends or be accepted among them is to be a friend. Strikingly, the fact that she did not have her book signed by her peers besides her being neglected by them reveals that Liza’s perception of the notion is not accurate or not agreed-upon by her community. Again it is through Liza’s reflection that we reach this reality which sets a question mark against the actual meaning of friendship.


Upon her attempt to modify her understanding of friendship, Liza learnt from her Mum that one should not always be what one is, if willing to have friends. Hence, Mrs. Marge tells the reader/viewer that Liza’s understanding of friendship is rather instinctive, naïve, and innocent, for it lacks the social dimension – the agreed upon codes. This idea is ascertained by Lisa’s actual decision to change her personality and incorporate her brother’s. Indeed, this decision marked a bold line between Liza’s previous and present understanding of friendship. Further, it marks Lisa’s departure from the stage of innocence to the phase of experience, where every human interaction is – or should be- mingled with social and cultural norms in order to be recognized and approved by the group.


After going for her brother’s persona, Liza managed to make friends and apparently appeared to grasp the social meaning of friendship; and so does the viewer/reader. However, Bart unveiling of the real Liza to the beach-kids, and the disapproved reaction of the latter towards her have again destabilized both Liza and the viewer’s understanding of the exact meaning of friendship. This is so because Bart added another dimension to the concept. When he said, for instance, that the beach-kids were supposed to be his friends, simply because they appreciated his personality, acted out through Lisa, he was lucidly claiming that friendship is void of any social norms: for him friendship is gained on the basis of the individual’s personal skills and performances within the group. Unlike his mother who defined friendship from a socio-cultural perspective, Bart understood it from an individualistic stand. And in the realm of both extremes, Liza, the meaning of friendship along with the reader/viewer are lost. We understand this from her saying: ‘In me it does not work. In someone else it does not work,”


The final decision of the beach-kids to visit Liza and admit that they accepted her no matter who she was as long as she was a FRIEND has an outstanding significance. The importance of the act lies not only on its positive effect on Liza, but it also caters for an alternative definition of friendship that the reader/viewer has to adapt, namely, being as it is, friendship should be based on what friends are able to do to save their friendship and not on how they do it.


To rap it up, the three or four definitions of friendship that we got from this episode reveal the arbitrariness of the concept. From a post-structuralist point of view, each of the episode’s characters holds a different signified for the same signifier: each of them defines friendship differently. Liza’s quest of friends, in this respect, represents an attempt to pin down a fixed meaning of the concept; but at each time she believed to have it fixed, ‘meaning’ keeps escaping grasp. Even after she gained her friends’ approval, by the end of the film, she had to leave them and go back home; and thus, meaning again proved to be slippery. This image epitomizes the post-structural idea of the absent/present meaning where the signifier is void of a particular signified.


IV – conclusion


True enough, Liza has learnt new tricks on how to make new friends. Yet, it is not sure whether what she learnt will help her gain new friends because it all depends again on how friendship will be defined by the people she might meet, on the special/time settings, and on the purpose of having friends. With these elements in mind, friendship – the signified- will keep incarnating different meaning which may not correspond to the signifier.


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