Selma’s Choice Hit Me Harder at 35 Even Though I Don’t Want Kids
Having seen the show as a child when it was still fresh and edgy in the 1990s, this episode smarts differently in my thirties at the dawn of the 2020s.
Like many people who grew up in America in the 1990s, The Simpsons had a major role in my upbringing.
To say that America in 1993 was an entirely different planet than the one we inhabit in 2020 would be an understatement.
The Clinton era was an interesting time to grow up, not necessarily a better one depending on which context we’re talking about, although I witnessed many things that were simply a product of their time. In the early 1990s, the concept of an animated TV show that was meant for adults was a fresh and edgy concept. Or in the case of The Simpsons, it met somewhere in the middle between cartoonish antics and obvious fiction for children while there was plenty of realism and mature themes for adults. Today, “adult cartoons” are a genre that stands alone and many even think that modern cartoons meant for kids like Steven Universe are doing a better job with complexity and mature themes than their counterparts that allow swear words.
To me personally, The Simpsons was a form of escapism punctuated with life lessons. It encapsulated generational differences despite the characters never aging. Coming from an abusive home and living in an area where I experienced rabid antisemitism and intense social isolation, Springfield was the community I didn’t have at the time. Marge Simpson was the voice of reason my abusive mother certainly wasn’t, Homer was easily incited but would go to the ends of the earth for his children even if he didn’t always understand them. It was a brightly-colored world I’d frequently lose myself in and wonder what else it would teach me between the jokes.
Then there were episodes that stood out more than others, one being “Selma’s Choice” from the fourth season.
Back then, we didn’t have deluges of TV blogs, social media feeds, YouTube series, and the like that instantly talked about TV shows in real time. Binge-watching? No such thing unless you forked out a week’s wages for a collection of VHS tapes at least a year after the original air date! So it was more or less this huge momentous deal to discuss TV episodes at school or work the day after they aired, and since The Simpsons wasn’t on cable, it was one of the few I could actually discuss with my classmates when I otherwise felt culturally excluded. Given that my home was tantamount to a dumping ground for retired RCA equipment and we had at least three computers at a time when that was rare thanks to my father’s job, it’s obvious where my love of making digital media came from along with pining for media that was inaccessible.
And I just remember that all my third grade class could talk about after the airing of “Selma’s Choice” was how it was funny that Lisa tripped out like crazy after visiting Duff Gardens, and some were freaked out by how Bart played with his late great aunt’s cadaver. Despite the episode primarily being about Selma, she wasn’t discussed.
Whereas it already smacked me upside the head at eight years old that this was a cultural norm that must be reinforced: you’ve failed as a woman if you make it to middle age single and/or sans kids, and it’s not just young girls who have this impressed upon them.
Upon watching “Selma’s Choice” again at 35, this episode hits harder albeit differently.
I suppose some of this could be chalked up to the fact that regardless of how the characters’ ages haven’t changed in over thirty seasons, I’m now closer to the parents’ and Bouvier sisters’ ages than that of the kids when I initially watched it in the 90s. Unlike Selma Bouvier, I’ve had my mind made up for over a decade that I don’t want to have children. I didn’t want a partner for most of my twenties, then took a “single but open” stance, now it’s “I’d like a committed relationship with a guy who has a similar lifestyle and values, that includes me not becoming a stepmother”.
So, when you’re 35, still single, and have now been bombarded with reminders of social standards for far longer than when you were eight years old? It can make you look at the stark symbolism in this episode with new eyes, like the grandfather clock that Patty and Selma inherit from their late aunt Gladys loudly ticking in the backseat of the car.
Why does it hit differently? It’s not just because the 1990s were the last truly innocent age before the 24-hour news cycle and constant deluge of information, when Boomer culture still dominated the landscape and Millennials were spoon-fed false hope just like the sugary breakfast cereals advertised to us every Saturday morning.
For the host of differences the 2010s and 2020s have to offer yesteryear, there’s more representation of marginalized groups and things like single motherhood, divorce, gender-neutral promiscuity, and different types of relationships are now depicted in media more often, particularly media for mixed and female-skewing audiences. Even though showrunners seem hard-pressed to repeat the writers’ room cliche of “We don’t know what else to do with this strong female character who mostly has her shit together, let’s end her relationship and/or give her a baby!” (*cough cough* The Mindy Project *cough*), these things are otherwise not considered shocking anymore.
Rather, it’s what HASN’T changed in terms of social progress and personal observations since Selma’s lonesome epiphany originally aired in 1993.
Let’s start with the very catalyst for the plot, the death of Aunt Gladys.
The Simpsons was in its fourth season then, where the main characters were given enough time to develop. By the third and fourth seasons, this is where the secondary characters like extended family members and other denizens of Springfield also get a sip of limelight. However, Aunt Gladys nary got a mention prior to this episode. She seemingly burst out of nowhere solely to put a wrench in Homer’s weekend plans to take Bart and Lisa to Duff Gardens.
And much is said about the way society views older women, particularly those who aren’t wives and/or mothers, in the way that most of the Simpson family treats her funeral. Older women get treated like they’re invisible, and are disposable inconveniences, regardless of life choices. But it’s really amped up to 11 when she is not, or was not, someone’s wife. Especially true if she didn’t have children: she’s now an object of pity, but also one of scorn.
Hell, she’s even misgendered by the priest at her own funeral which adds to the avalanche of disrespect. Patty grabs the mic from him to give what she feels is a proper eulogy: “Gladys lived and died alone.”
Gladys’ death is treated as this insignificant footnote, a mere interruption and plot device. By the fourth season it’s also established that despite her mama bear tendencies, Marge is often a doormat for her family. She is frustrated by her husband and children displaying such callousness on the way to her aunt’s funeral, who is also shown in a rather passive light in the one childhood memory she has of her that is a send-up to Prince of Tides.
At eight years old, I didn’t understand the overt and cloaked cultural references throughout the show but appreciate them so much more now. Murphy Brown was groundbreaking for embracing single motherhood. In fact, it’s been noted that single motherhood has vastly increased since the airing of that episode, where then-Vice President Dan Quayle infamously castigated single professional women raising children alone for “mocking the importance of fathers” without stopping to consider whether it was by choice or not. That single motherhood was something to damn rather than support or even a celebrate, a punishment for women rather than another type of family.
Aunt Gladys was lonely when she made her video will, and sees Patty and Selma treading down the same path.
But are they truly lonely? After all, the two women live together and Marge is a significant part of their lives along with the Springfield community and their jobs at the DMV. Government jobs like the DMV have also historically been a lifesaver for women who did not marry: 20% of federal government jobs were held by women in 1939, a time when women were expected to stop working after getting married. In a stark contrast to Marge who bee-lined to marriage and children, this difference in the trio’s lives was often brought up in the first couple seasons of The Simpsons.
Patty and Selma see Marge’s marriage to Homer as punishment, even as society continues to dump on them for being “old maids”.
Avoiding that kind of social punishment is what makes Selma’s search for a father for her children so despondently desperate.
Selma is so desperate to find a man to knock her up ASAP that she signs up for video dating, one of the predecessors of sterile and soulless dating apps. Remember, she’s single, so this is something that must be fixed above all else.
But this brings up an interesting side note that plays into overall Simpsons continuity, as this concept shows in several episodes, not just Selma’s Choice: the thought of dating or having sex with one of the Bouvier twins is seen as this disgusting and degrading act for the male character in question. All of the things that women do in real life like shave their legs, use depilatory products on the face, wear unflattering but comfortable undergarments, and pass out in them on vacation? They’re unforgivably ugly acts, and Patty and Selma both unabashedly do these things on camera! That any ordinary schmuck would deign to touch an obviously pre-menopausal woman who’s not model-thin and Vogue cover-ready would be BLASPHEMY!
Even though it’s been shown that men still willingly hop in bed with her no less, they just don’t want their friends to know and make it seem like they’re doing her a favor. It made me feel so sad for her then, but now that I’ve gone through the humiliating experience of being some asshole’s dirty secret by this age and see this is something that still isn’t going to change any time soon, I identify even more with her now. I’m just glad that before I reached 35, I learned the difference between “my ex is an asshole” and “I deserved to be treated way better”.
Upon being horrified at the thought of having children with Hans Moleman just to quell her fear of loneliness in old age, Selma pursues sperm donation. Patty warns her about the hazards of choosing paternal DNA from a catalog, bringing up the time she got a mail order husband. Selma opened the door to a cardboard cutout suddenly falling face-first on the floor to the point you could see its cardboard supports. This image duly struck me upon revisiting. Child me thought it was just a funny non-sequitur, but adult me saw it two ways.
One being a continuation of Selma’s venture into video dating. There’s thousands, if not millions, of articles, essays, and even research science about online dating. I already said my peace about why I refuse to engage in it, and don’t see it as limiting my prospects like some of my peers have chastised me for. But it’s an apt metaphor for how someone you only talk to within a few swipes (or a few seconds of a video tape in this context) just wants to get what they want then go back to the pool and try again, often putting up this totally fake front or even outright catfishing, like that cardboard cutout that falls down seconds after Selma answers the door.
The second way it felt like a baseball bat to the spleen is that for a lot of women who make it to my age without having any lasting romantic relationship, it can often feel like that cardboard cutout is it. A joking novelty in response to genuine loneliness, or perhaps a way to laugh off something that doesn’t really bother you.
But all of Selma’s dating foibles that are evident to us, played for entertainment? They still drive home this narrative that she’s somehow failed.
I’ve written about some of the events and voyages that led me to confirming my stance on being childfree by choice. In one of my UK chapters not mentioned in that piece, I was staying with my friend’s great aunt in Glasgow. She was a gracious hostess who showed us around town before we went off to explore on our own, and let us keep our extra bags at her place before we went to Wasted in Morecambe (my second time there, her first). After we took the ferry at Cairnryan to see Belfast after only hearing about it in Stiff Little Fingers songs, we enjoyed some quiet evenings in Glasgow sipping tea with Auntie and telling of our adventures in England and at home before we returned to the states. A movie with a rather sexy scene was on the TV and suddenly she interjected, “You know, I just never found a boy I liked enough.”
We weren’t sure what to say to that. After she went to bed and we headed to the patio with cigs and beers, my friend said to me, “Wait, do you think she meant she just never found a guy to marry?”
I responded in disbelief, “Or that she’s sixty years old and never had sex?”
As I fitfully tried to sleep on the couch in Auntie’s living room, something about her story gripped me with panic. I was 20 years old and with so much uncertainty about my future. What if that was me? I just never found anyone I liked enough, or never found anyone who liked me?
I was on the fence at the time about whether I wanted to start a family, I chose childfree life two years later but patently didn’t want a relationship then. I could say though that I definitely wouldn’t be sixty with no sexual history. No less, why did Auntie’s minor remark terrify me so much?
At 35, I’ve made peace with some things that’ll just never happen. Older folks constantly tell me I still got time to find my dream toad daddy just yet. In the 15 years that passed after that night I was terrified at the prospect of never finding anyone, I realized that the persistent messaging like what I saw in Selma’s Choice drove home the feeling that if I never partnered, regardless of my reason, I’d be a failure. But that my fate as a failure would be sealed if it was because no man wanted me rather than that I chose different.
Selma clearly has the same panic and with more urgency, given her age. But in the end, she chooses differently.
Selma does the responsible thing in babysitting Bart and Lisa as a test drive to see if she’s cut out for parenthood, and the chaotic trip to Duff Gardens reveals that she truly doesn’t think she’s cut out for motherhood. Upon taking the kids home, her usual antipathy for Homer goes out the window —she pulls him aside in a genuine show of respect that for all his buffoonery, he signed up for the hard job of taking care of three kids.
Her panic is short-lived as she quickly finds that Jub-Jub the iguana is the perfect match for her need to mother, but inability to look after children in the long run. Despite this, Selma eventually does adopt a baby in Season 16, only this time the inciting incident is oncoming menopause.
Nonetheless, having always been fond of reptiles and amphibians, seeing Selma happily embrace her new pet iguana — unwanted by Grandma Bouvier after inheriting him upon Gladys’ death — struck a chord in me. I didn’t understand at the time that her singing “Natural Woman” to him was a reference to Murphy Brown, but this triumphant ending showed me that despite society telling women like us that we were failures, other options were available and I didn’t have to rigidly conform to the marriage and nuclear family script.
Aside from Murphy Brown, Selma’s Choice is rich with appropriate cultural references that make even more sense now.
In addition to what I now see is an obvious homage to that seminal episode of Murphy Brown, other media is referenced where women push the boundaries of what they’re told to do, such as Yentl. Yentl purposely assumes the role of a man to study religious texts, as Avigdor informs her that she cannot be a Talmudic scholar and a wife and mother.
Then we have the namesake of the episode, based on the book Sophie’s Choice which got a movie adaptation in 1982 starring Meryl Streep and the guy who played Gary Granger in The Addams Family Values as Sophie and Stingo respectively. Saying you have a “Sophie’s Choice” basically means you have a no-win situation with tremendous pressure, and a horrible outcome that will make you feel terrible about yourself and haunt you all your life regardless of which choice you made.
And well…now that I’m significantly more world-weary, I can duly say that it encapsulates societal views of women’s choices quite well. Have kids? You’re going to get endlessly judged for how you raise them. Don’t have them too old, or too young. Don’t have kids? You evil selfish harlot not living out your intended purpose as a woman! Want to have a committed relationship/marriage? You don’t need a man, sweetheart! Happily single? You SHOULD find someone!
The Sophie’s Choice part nowadays is less about the actual choice and outcome, more about how you’ll face harsh judgement regardless of what you do. My logic is that if women can just never win at this and someone’s always going to tell us we’re doing something wrong, we might as well do whatever the fuck we want with our lives.
But let’s conclude this treatise with the poem that Gladys tries to read in her video will, that even Patty and Selma agree to skip: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.
Regardless of gender and reproductive choices, we all ponder that road not taken. “Should I have picked a different major in college? Done that study abroad program?” For millions of people with uteri, what your life would look like with or without children is a major one. If you chose a different partner, or stayed single your entire life: would you really have been any better or worse off had you traversed a completely different path?
Clearly, Aunt Gladys gave much thought to the fact that she didn’t tread the paths of marriage and/or children and in her case, she regretted the choice. Since her character wasn’t really developed or explored, what with the extensive Simpsons Wikia only showing her in this one episode in thirty-plus seasons, her motivation for this choice remained unclear although the Robert Frost poem provides a clue that summarily got skipped.
Real life is not a TV show. We don’t stay the same age for decades or decide to kill off and resurrect characters based on voice actor availability. Deciding whether or not to start a family is a serious choice, sometimes one that gets decided based on hormones and heart rather than logic. Some of us are resolute about our choices and know we made the right call in our heart of hearts. But you’re only human if you make it to old age and ponder the road not taken.
I still have a lot of road ahead to focus on rather than ruminate on the untraveled paths. But while I tip my hat to those old tales of a stateless Springfield, I know that I’m not a failure no matter which path I wind up taking.