There’s a scene in The Simpsons episode “Lisa’s Substitute” that I’ve always loved. In it, Lisa is smarting from the unexpected loss of her mentor, Homer had acted boorishly insensitive about it, and the two of them try to make peace after Lisa is clearly devastated at losing one male figure in her life who inspired her and not terribly pleased with the one she’s been left with.
Despite Homer’s clumsy attempts to start the conversation, a funny thing happens as the two of them find their groove. Homer admits, in a roundabout way, that he doesn’t really get Lisa. He admits, in a surprising bit of self-awareness from the Simpsons patriarch, that he is a pretty provincial guy. Homer realizes that his daughter is different and bright and has a future ahead of her that will take her to places he can’t even imagine. Despite that, he loves her, he supports her, and he wants that future for her, even if he’s not sure what he can do to help her get there. It gives the two of them a connection at an emotional level, even if Homer and Lisa may never connect on an intellectual level. There’s support even when there’s not understanding, and that means a great deal to a young woman struggling with what to do.
There’s a similar scene between Bob and Tina in “The Hormone-iums,” that stands out in a show that’s proved to be one of The Simpsons’s great inheritors. When Tina is struggling with whether to follow her dreams of becoming a soloist in the Hormone-iums (Wagstaff School’s preteen issues-based music group), despite the fact that it would cement her as the poster child for an idea she doesn’t believe in–that kissing is wrong and dangerous–Bob is there to listen. And like Homer, one of Bob’s trademark qualities (and the one that makes him a good dad even if he occasionally, by dint of narrative necessity, brings his kids along on some pretty dangerous adventures) is that he loves and supports his kids, even when he doesn’t really understand them.
Tina is still something of a mystery to Bob. There’s only so much that a middle-aged man and his preteen daughter are going to have in common. In some ways, it’s hard for two people in such different places in their lives to be comprehensible to one another, even if they’re family members. But Bob knows that Tina is in pain. He can tell that she’s struggling. And though he may not completely understand why, he knows The Hormone-iums are important to her, but that so is doing and saying what she believes.
With all the insight he can muster for an experience far removed from his own, Bob tells his daughter that even though he’s the adult, and even though it might bother the other grown-ups in her life, they’re her lips, and she gets to decide what to do with them, whether it’s singing in a puberty-based school choir, telling her fellow students the truth about mono, or kissing boys at her friend’s spin the bottle party. Bob may not always understand his daughter, but he can tell when she’s hurting; he knows what she cares about, and he believes in her and her happiness. That goes a hell of a long way.
Which is good, because Tina needs that help in “The Hormone-iums.” The episode does a nice job at drawing the way in which Tina is legitimately conflicted by the choices in front of her. There’s something inherently funny about Tina as a character, because on the one hand she is a very passionate, strong-willed young woman with big dreams and an unabashed attachment to things like ponies, butts, and her erotic friend fiction. And yet Dan Mintz’s subdued tone in voicing her wrings the humor out of the contrast between Tina’s reserved, semi-monotone demeanor and the exuberance under the surface.
But there’s also an inherent sweetness to Tina, a child whose ambitions and hopes outstrip her ability to realize them just yet. It’s easy to root for her and even easier to feel for her here, because she has to choose between what she wants and what she believes in. As small as the stakes are in “The Hormone-iums,” that’s a big deal, especially when you’re thirteen.
On the one hand, Tina has her dreams of stardom. Her opening musical fantasy, where she belts out an ode to pimples in front of her fellow Wagstaffers, replete with top hat and sparkling lights, underscores how big, if unique, her dreams are. And her subsequent nighttime reverie about how becoming the soloist in The Hormone-iums would lead her to not only fortune and fame, but also romance and the respect of her peers, establishes what this play means to Tina. Here is her chance not just to be in the spotlight, but to express herself and move up a notch in the social standings that she’s constantly laboring under.
On the other hand, in an inspired twist, Tina quickly realizes that realizing her dreams would hurt, rather than help her position in the social pecking order, as the Frond-penned play would make her the mascot for an anti-kissing message that her fellow seventh-graders find very uncool. Sure, it’s the magnified drama of middle school, but there’s real pathos for Tina when she’s disinvited to Jocelyn’s party. She hoped that playing “Mona-nucleosis” would be her ticket to earning the admiration of her peers, and instead, it threatens to leave her as a pariah for a cause she doesn’t even believe in.
Tina bristles at Mr. Frond’s scare tactics. His scared straight-style musical about the dangers of adolescent kissing makes the episode partly a commentary on abstinence-only education. But more importantly, it sets up a conflict that speaks to the heart of who Tina is as a character. “Mona-nucleosis” runs counter to Tina’s own strong feelings on the issues at hand. That leaves her in a difficult position. Does she sacrifice her beliefs and her social status in the hopes of pursuing her big dream? Or does she give up the chance to be the permanent soloist in the group in order to speak up for what she believes in and make a stand against Frond’s misinformation?
Episodes like “Tina-rannosaurus Wrecks” have shown that Tina is a young woman of principle, and that predicts the path she ultimately chooses here. But what’s invigorating about “The Hormone-iums,” regardless of whether you can predict the outcome ahead of time, is how the episode leans into Tina’s boldness and bravery. It’s incredibly endearing to see the reserved-yet-bombastic Tina push back at Frond by declaring that kissing not only won’t cause mono, but is perfectly safe and natural, and attempt to prove it in an emphatic fashion with a live demonstration. It’s just as heartwarming to see her belief in herself and commitment to her principles be rewarded by a reinvitiation to the party she had been fretting about.
Tina doesn’t have the same clear connection with a particular parent the way that Bob and Louise, or Linda and Gene do. But that doesn’t mean she lacks a closeness with her mom and dad. And though Bob may not always completely “get” his daughter, he gets when she’s in pain and gives her the approval and support she needs to follow her heart. It’s wonderful to see Tina encouraged and accepted like that, and even better to see her rewarded, by her friends and by the world at large, for being true to who she is.
Odds and Ends
- Linda’s wine shoe idea, and the pitch to the Fishoeders is much more slight comic relief in the episode, but it’s still a fun B-story and a great opportunity to bring in a bevvy of the show’s superb side characters to bounce off one another.
- “Just because people don’t care about something doesn’t mean it’s not important.” Ah, the wonderful wisdom of Linda Belcher!
- There is something delightfully adorable and sad about Linda selling Teddy a nickel for a dime, which is enhanced by Teddy’s continued enthusiasm for the deal.
- Similarly, Mr. Frond’s enthusiasm at the principal saying that his idea for a mono musical is “fine,” has the right mix of excitement and patheticness to bring the laughs.
- “Maybe no one will come to the mandatory assembly.” Tina’s eternal optimism is another one of her endearing qualities.
- The local rich guy having a money fight? Simpsons did it!
- Still, Mr. Fishoeder’s slow realization that the whole wine shoe pitch wasn’t just as a precursor to giving him the rent money was a very nice little comedic moment.