“Separate Vocations” Season 3 Episode 18; originally aired February 27th, 1992
Bart and Lisa’s world are turned upside down revealing Lisa’s ultimate destiny to be a homemaker and Bart’s to be a cop.
A subtle note of feminist dissatisfaction bubbles under the surface of many episodes of The Simpsons. Sometimes, however, that subtle note of feministic dissatisfaction explodes into righteous rage. That’s certainly the case with “Separate Vocations.”
On the surface, the episode is primarily concerned with Lisa’s angst after the Career Aptitude Normalizing Test (or CANT) suggests her destiny lies in homemaking. On a more profound level, the episode is about the bottomless rage a smart young feminist experiences upon being told by society that she better get her recipes and man-pleasing secrets in order because the only viable existence for her lies in serving a husband and a family.
How grim is that? There are moments of bracing darkness scattered throughout “Separate Vocations” that are almost too emotionally apocalyptic to be funny. Think of an adorable little Marge dreaming about being an astronaut only to have her sisters bray derisively at her dreams or of Edna Krabappel bitterly grousing about being a glorified babysitter for dead-eyed fourth graders despite her Masters degree from Bryn Mawr. Krabappel isn’t any better an advertisement for teaching or the professional life than Marge is for homemaking. Marge and Edna are both fucked; they’re just screwed in a different fashion.
Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. “Separate Vocations” finds the dead-eyed denizens of Springfield Elementary taking the aforementioned CANT, a standardized test designed to determine their ultimate ideal career and destiny. The existential destinies doled out tend to be on the random side—it pegs Milhouse as a military strongman in training for example—especially where Bart and Lisa are concerned. It pegs Lisa as a future homemaker and Bart as a future cop.
Both are horrified. Lisa can’t imagine a sadder destiny than her mother’s while Bart has always strived to be on the wrong side of the law, not the right. The two cope with news of the test’s surprising results differently. Bart unexpectedly throws himself into his new persona as a snitch.
To introduce Bart to the joys of abusing power, the cops have Bart go on a ride-along that bears a suspicious resemblance to the McLovin/Seth Rogen/Bill Hader scenes in Superbad minus Bart being drunk. During the ride-along, Bart experiences his first taste of power when he is given a gun and very nearly murdered by a deranged Snake. Power corrupts. Soon power corrupts absolutely as Bart embraces his new snitch identity by hiring on as a hall monitor/Principal Skinner’s eyes and ears on the ground.
“Separate Vocations” is a great Bart/Skinner episode, in part because the usual dynamic is reversed. There’s a transgressive thrill in watching Bart and Skinner on the same team and wonderful Skinner moments like him admiring the school’s puma statue while hailing the puma as the “Principal of the mountains.”
“Separate Vocations” features some of the funniest cut-away gags in the show’s history, whether Bart is pondering a lost future as a drifter or when Bart’s voice is replaced by special guest star Steve Allen when he’s testifying against a mobster in a fantasy sequence.
This is the incarnation of The Simpsons Family Guy aspires to, the fast, loose, incredibly mean, anything-for-a-laugh golden years. At its peak, The Simpsons undercut that nastiness with sincere emotion but it was also unafraid to go to incredibly dark places for a throwaway laugh, including, as the commentators note uncomfortably here, to a joke riffing on a prominent rape case of the time.
While Bart channels his inner dirty cop, Lisa lapses into nihilism. No longer the teacher’s pet, Lisa now sneers her contempt for everyone and everything around her. Nothing is sacred anymore, not even the answer books that allow teachers to pretend that they are smarter than small children
The Simpsons is unflinching in its treatment of every American institution but it’s particularly hard on public schools. Deservedly so. In “Separate Vocations”, all it takes is the theft of answer keys to reduce the school and, by extension, society to anarchy and madness.
“Separate Vocations” ends with the upside-down world being turned right-side-up again. Bart falls on his own sword rather than risk Lisa’s future and Lisa rediscovers her inner goody two shoes but the principled pessimism of “Separate Vocations” leaves a nasty aftertaste no amount of episode-closing sentimentality can alleviate. Lisa’s lot in life is grim and though she ends the episode on a hopeful note, she’d be wise to hold onto her anger. She’ll need it.
—If I could be any animal, I would definitely be either the Nurse-Shark or the Lawyer-Bird. Both fine options
—I also inherently prefer the smell of bank customers
—I love Bart’s use of anachronistic homespun phrases like “Well I’ll be jiggered!” He’s downright DOOM-like in his love of outdated verbiage
—“Hey, I don’t need you to get me in the back of a police car.”
—“Lousy sheriff. Run me out of town. He’s lost my vote.”
—How fucking brutal was Lisa’s treatment of Marge? For that matter, how sad was that scene of Marge making a happy little smiley face for Homer and Bart’s breakfasts that is completely ignored? It’s as if everyone in the family is deliberately trying to negate Marge’s existence when all she ever does is serve them.
—“I may or may not die young. I haven’t decided.”
—“His honor is polling the electorate”: smutty wit at its most smugtastic
—“Son, this is against every regulation but son, will you cover us?”
—“Sleek, vigilant puma. Principal of the mountains.”
—“They used nylon rope this time. It feels so good against my skin. Almost sensuous!”
—Only The Simpsons would pay homage to both Cracked and Crazy. In 1992 at least. Now everyone’s a pop-culture geek. Back then it was rather rare.
—“So he didn’t have leprosy.”
—“You’re earning your eighteen grand a year” meow!
—“Have I ever told you kids about the sixties?” I think we’ve all had that guy. He was my freshman Biology teacher and good Lord did he just barely survive the Age of Aquarius.