Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Won't You Be My Neighbor

So I’m at the concession stand after seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, getting my popcorn refill to take home with me. (Come on, why else go to the movies? I always get the large popcorn that comes with a free refill, eat one bag during the movie, and refill it and eat a second bag at home. I’m amazed at people who can go to a movie and not get popcorn. I notice they tend to also be the same people who insist on sitting toward the back of the theater instead of up front. Grownups are weird. But I digress.)

As the concession gal hands me my popcorn, I say, “That was a surprisingly emotional movie.” She says, “Oh, which one?” I tell her the Mister Rogers one. She responds, “Everybody comes out of that movie crying. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

I’m sure for many people seeing this film, it’s a pleasant kind of nostalgia, a chance to reconnect with a cherished TV show of their childhood.

I can’t really say that’s true for me. I didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers in that sense. I remember the show certainly, though I was surprised to find out when it debuted. Growing up I had always thought of it as a show that had been on forever, just one I happened not to watch. (I was a Saturday morning cartoons kid—Jonny Quest, et al—and almost never watched anything else that would have been considered children’s television.) In fact it came on the air well into my childhood.

Anyway, mostly I was vaguely aware of the show and had a sense of the basic format and such, but only from occasional channel flipping or maybe other people mentioning it. (Same with Sesame Street—I never watched that either.)

Then there was a period of I suppose a few weeks, when I was somewhere around 11 to 14, that I watched it semi-regularly to laugh at how lame it was, i.e., the same reason I went through a similar period of watching Speed Racer. Mister Rogers was the very epitome of unhip, which to a sixth grader or whatever I was meant that he and his show were fun targets of mockery. (I wasn’t the only one who felt that way of course. The show was always a prime target of satirists, from Johnny Carson to Eddie Murphy.)

The quintessential Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood moment for me came one episode where he had been speaking briefly on the telephone, put it down, walked over and fed his fish or made some reference to his fish, and then paused, looked very seriously into the camera, and informed his audience, “Fish don’t talk on the telephone.”

I watched for the occasional gem like that, which tended to occur more often when the live Mister Rogers was on camera. I invariably got bored with the “Land of Make-Believe” (or “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” or “Kingdom of Make-Believe” or whatever they called it) segments, which took up much of the shows. Then I got bored with the show as a whole and moved on to laughing at other things I felt superior to.

The previews of this film, though, didn’t hit me at all that way. I didn’t come to this movie with the attitude that it would be a chance to laugh at something ridiculous. Instead the previews gave me a glimpse of something I apparently hadn’t picked up on in childhood, at least not consciously, that Mister Rogers was kind of a cool dude in his way who was able to genuinely connect with children in a manner that added plenty of positive energy to the world. I inferred that the documentary was a celebration of Mister Rogers, and I found myself at least somewhat receptive to that idea.

Actually the documentary I thought about when I saw the previews was The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which I’d found an entertaining film that succeeded in leaving me with a more sympathetic than not impression of a figure (disgraced televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker) I’d previously regarded as self-evidently ridiculous and to at least some small degree corrupt and evil. So I anticipated that this could be another feel-good, quirky documentary that caused me to view its unlikely subject significantly more favorably than I previously had.

And so it did. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? caused me to think quite highly of Fred Rogers. But what was most striking to me is that it didn’t just affect my abstract or intellectual assessment of him and the show that way, but reached me emotionally—as I alluded to above—far more than I would have guessed.

I was going to talk about that—what I like about Mister Rogers, and the emotions this film provoked in me—and then offer some modest caveats and criticisms. But in thinking about it, I’d rather do that in the reverse order: Cover the caveats first, and end on the positive note of what there is to appreciate about Mister Rogers and about Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The film focuses primarily on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and supplements this with a certain amount of biographical material on Rogers and briefer discussions of other projects of his.

One of the themes of the film is that Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were unique for their time in their radical approach to children’s television. We are repeatedly shown the contrast with clips of the sedate, avuncular Rogers interspersed with flashy clips of clowns taking pies to the face, cartoon heroes and villains shooting and beating on each other, and green slime landing on characters’ heads on You Can’t Do That on Television. The implication—sometimes pretty explicit in fact—is that other than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, children’s TV was a wasteland of slapstick, violence, pandering to the worst instincts of children, and crass commercialism. Rogers, on the other hand, believed in speaking to children with compassion and dignity, respecting and accepting them, and educating them. When there was play or make believe, it was always enriching rather than just pointless frenzy and goofiness.

Furthermore, the film maintains, Rogers was well ahead of his time on social issues, most notably by having an African American cast member (“Officer Clemmons”) and treating him as an equal. In one striking scene—at a time, we’re reminded, when the idea of segregated swimming pools was a controversial issue that could provoke violent conflict—Rogers invites Officer Clemmons to take off his shoes and join him in cooling their feet together in a little kiddie pool, and then even shares his towel with him and helps dry his feet in Christlike fashion.

Speaking of which, Rogers was an ordained minister. He also had at least some training in child psychology, which he used to make his show as constructive and effective for children as he could. At times he talked to children about difficult and potentially traumatic issues like death or divorce, again the implication being that this set his show apart from any other.

Mostly I went along with this, and I was glad to know that, hey, there was a lot more to appreciate about this guy than I picked up on when I was a kid myself.

But at the same time, aren’t they overstating the uniqueness a bit here? I have to say they’re cherry picking their examples of “bad” children’s television to make Rogers look as good as possible by comparison.

The run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001) overlapped considerably with that of the aforementioned Sesame Street (1969-present), for instance. Is that just another garbage show? As I said, that’s not a show I watched, but I do know that everyone has always raved about how good it is for kids.

You can go back a lot further than that, though, to shows that predated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There has always been educational television for children, shows that were not just wall-to-wall explosions and slapstick gags that appealed to the lowest common denominator. What about Romper Room? Kukla, Fran, and Ollie? Maybe Captain Kangaroo, though I think that may have had somewhat more silliness. (That again is one I didn’t watch.) Heck, even Woody Woodpecker cartoons had those lame live action documentary segments sprinkled in to try to trick kids into learning.

I’m not saying any of those, or any other shows, were exactly like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in all relevant particulars. To some extent he probably was doing something different. More arguably perhaps he was even doing something better. But it’s simply not the case that back in the olden days of the ’60s and ’70s—again, the era of Sesame Street, after all—every show other than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a lot of silly screaming and running around and pies in the face and cartoon action figures tricking kids into harassing their parents to buy them sugary cereal.

Let’s go a step further. I’m not convinced that even the supposedly trashy kids shows that the movie contrasts with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood lack all redeeming value. I would think kids appreciate, and benefit from, a variety of input. Sometimes they’re in the mode that a dose of Mister Rogers, with his kind, avuncular, educational style, might be great for them. But that doesn’t mean there can’t also be a place in their lives, as in the lives of adults, for entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Flash and silliness can have value too. As can a certain amount of suspense or scariness.

Kids’ comedies that operate on multiple levels so that even adults can get something out of them—like the modern trend in animated movies exemplified by Shrek, Despicable Me, The Incredibles, etc.—expose kids to things like irony, dry humor, cultural references from the past, etc. Much of that will go over their heads, but I say let them get what they can get—which will vary at different ages and from individual to individual—and give them some practice with subtlety and the challenge of material that isn’t all guaranteed to be understandable to them.

Mister Rogers-type programming probably does enrich childhood, especially early childhood. But let it be part of a mix that includes the stuff this movie looks down its nose at, whether it be the Three Stooges, Peewee Herman, or whatever.

Now what of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s allegedly being so far ahead of its time on social issues like race? When I was watching the film, I got caught up in that, especially the striking scene with Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons bathing their bare feet together, and I thought that that was indeed impressive, and that maybe in that respect the show was a lot more radical and progressive than I would have appreciated as a kid back then.

But on further reflection, I’m not so sure. I remember that time—the late ’60s and the ’70s—and the television of that time pretty well, and frankly efforts to be liberal on race were so commonplace as to be cliché.

I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, and I remember how people used to complain (or probably joke more than complain) about the “rule” we inferred that every TV show now had to have a black person. I even remember conversations that developed into a “Six Degrees of Kevin Spacey”-type game where people called out TV shows and you had to name the black character. Some were more challenging than others, but I don’t think there were any that ultimately stumped us. (“My Three Sons!” “Ooh, good one. I don’t know that there are any on that show.” “Wait, I’m pretty sure one of the kids had a counselor at school that was a black guy. He was in one or two episodes.” “Oh yeah, that’s right. He probably had, like, one line in one episode or something.”)

You know, that was the era of Star Trek, where though the leader was a white male, beyond that they made sure to have one of everything—an Asian, a woman, an alien, a black person, whatever.

A lot of it was crude tokenism, but non-whites were far from invisible on television back then. The movie contrasts the scene of Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons with the fact that in the real world there was still outrage about integrated public facilities, but if you contrasted it instead with what you might see if you randomly changed the channel there might not be all that much contrast.

Furthermore, in the area of homosexuality, where television hadn’t yet been opened up much at all, neither had Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As the film points out (in one of the few instances that could be seen as in any way critical), Rogers had an opportunity to take a more radical, liberal stand on sexuality and chose not to.

The actor who portrayed Officer Clemmons was (and is—he’s interviewed extensively in the film) gay in real life. There was some possibility this would become publicly known—there was scuttlebutt that he had been seen at a gay bar—and Rogers told him that either he remain strictly closeted or he would be removed from the show.

Rogers wasn’t necessarily motivated by anti-gay prejudice. The evidence about that is mixed. Granted, he was an ordained minister, but seemingly of the “nice” type of Christianity, not the vicious, hateful Focus on the Family type that has become so much more prominent in recent decades, especially in politics. And he reportedly had gay friends and was seemingly fully comfortable with them.

The reasons that he cited didn’t have to do with homosexuality being allegedly morally wrong, but with it being sufficiently unpopular that if it became more widely known that a character on the show was gay, then many parents would forbid their kids to watch it, PBS corporate sponsors would withdraw their support of it, and it would likely go off the air. He wasn’t ready to take a principled stand that he feared would be suicidal in terms of his show and his career.

So it was a pragmatic argument. Which is fine, but runs counter to the notion that Rogers was a social justice hero.

So while Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood deserves credit for respecting kids and wanting to educate them rather than just entertain them and market to them, and for taking an enlightened position on race and some social issues, I’m not convinced it was as different from or as superior to other children’s programming of its time as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would have us believe.

Actually there is one respect in which it may indeed have stood out. That is its slow, deliberate pace. Rogers spoke to kids in that easily lampooned soft-spoken, understated style, enunciating each word carefully, smilingly mixing in little prompts (“Can you say…?”) to help the younger kids keep up. In the movie, he is praised as an interviewer by such past guests as the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma for the way he would allow the interviewee to gather his thoughts and speak in his own style at his own pace, while listening raptly and making no move to interrupt or speed things up.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t afraid of pauses, of silence. It didn’t assume that the only way to keep kids’ attention was with frenetic action.

One particularly interesting example cited in the film is the time Mister Rogers asked if the children would like to know how long a minute is, and then proceeded to spend an entire minute in virtual silence while they all watched the second hand of a clock make its way all around. That’s so contrary to normal television as to be the kind of thing I would expect from Andy Kaufman. (Well, except that Andy would want to do it for an hour.)

Moving on, the film brings up another criticism that has been offered of Rogers and his approach to children—not to affirm it but at least to acknowledge its existence. That is that he, and people like him, have actually caused a great deal of harm by convincing kids that they’re special and wonderful and deserve to be accepted and praised and loved, and deserve to have high self-esteem and all the rest, without having to actually do anything or earn anything, and that this has greatly increased the number of lazy, entitled people in the world who spend a lot of time whining about their unfair lot in life but little time actually challenging themselves, trying to be better, contributing anything to the world, or caring about others rather than focusing solely on themselves and how incredibly wonderful they are in every way. (Wow, what an absurdly long sentence. Were I just a little less lazy I’d go back and rewrite that.)

Such critics see him as a key figure in that whole “everybody gets a trophy” movement to raise kids’ self-esteem by safeguarding them from any risk to their fragile egos.

It’s funny, although I’m in partial agreement with some of the criticisms of the “make sure kids never see themselves as having lost or failed at anything” philosophy, I never made the connection with Mister Rogers. Watching this film, I was very much going along with the idea that his kindness and positivity were all to the good; when these knocks on him are mentioned near the end I was startled.

Are the critics right to see him as being a part of that movement that I myself have also had misgivings about? If so, do I need to change my mind about him and see him as more harmful than not, or at best as more mixed than I thought through most of this movie? Or should I instead change my mind about that philosophy of emphasizing boosting kids’ self-esteem over anything else, and endorse that approach after all?

Having now had time to consider the matter, I’m inclined to retain most or all of the misgivings I’ve had about that philosophy of child raising, but to say that Rogers’s approach was more defensible than that and doesn’t fully fit that dubious philosophy.

It kind of comes down to what you think of unconditional love. Or as one interviewee in the film notes, if you disapprove of Rogers’s philosophy then in a way you’re disapproving of one of the foundational principles of Christianity.

The critics charge that if you let people know that you’re going to love and accept them unconditionally, then they’ll have no incentive to earn such positivity. They can do great things, they can do rotten things, they can try, they can not bother to try, they can win, they can lose, they can obey rules, they can disobey rules, and you’re going to rave about how wonderful they are regardless. Whereas if your love and approval were conditional on their doing the things you want kids to do (get good grades, play nice, eat their vegetables, respect their elders, whatever), then they’d have a reason to do those things.

I’m not so sure about that though. That assumes that kids, that people, operate in a kind of Skinnerian manner where they’re constantly implicitly calculating costs and benefits and choosing the path that’s more in their self-interest. But is that accurate?

When you’re loved, and it’s clear to you that that love will always be there, that it’s unconditional, will you necessarily react with the attitude, “Cool! Now I can do whatever I want and still get the reward!”? For people with the shriveled souls of Ayn Randians, maybe so. But that’s not everybody.

I’m inclined instead to think that most people who become aware they are loved in that fashion will instead feel a sort of gratitude for that, and will develop a more loving nature themselves. They won’t calculate what they have to do or don’t have to do; they’ll naturally want to do good regardless of whether they have to or not. Experiencing a childhood where love is always present, rather than being doled out sparingly in response to supposed desert, results in a more confident, happier, empowered child. That’s not necessarily a spoiled, entitled child, but a child who is better positioned emotionally to pass along that love, to want to create for others the positive atmosphere that was created for them. Whether they reflect on it consciously or not, love is the norm in their life, something they’re inclined to perpetuate, just as violence or smoking or greed and materialism might be the norm in another child’s life due to the environment in which they were raised and the way they were treated.

When you’re loved unconditionally, I would think it makes you—all else being equal—more likely to want to “give back” in the way you live your life, not to respond with, “Ha ha, I don’t have to give back, because I get the reward regardless.”

But there’s an important distinction to draw here. Unconditional love doesn’t require you to assure your child at every opportunity that they’re always right, that they’re great at everything they do, that they never fail at anything. That’s not love, that’s lying.

Unconditional love means “I’ll always love you even though you are imperfect, even though you have both true and false beliefs, even though you do both good and bad things.” It means you’ll always be in that person’s corner, always be rooting for them, always want what’s best for them. It means you’ll always support them, not in the sense of “Anything you do I’ll agree with and support,” but in the sense of always supporting them to be better people.

Unconditional love isn’t “I love you, therefore you’re always right, and always deserving of the rewards that used to require effort and accomplishment.” It’s “I love you even though you—like me and like everyone—are sometimes wrong, and I’ll root for you to succeed and support your efforts to do what you need to do to succeed, and continue to be there for you both when you do indeed succeed and when you fail.”

So, yeah, I don’t agree with the philosophy of making sure kids never have any reason to feel guilty, have self-doubt, think they might be in the wrong, see themselves as having lost or failed at something. In reality, kids sometimes suck at playing a musical instrument, strike out when the game is on the line, treat their siblings poorly, quit something when they should have persevered, cheat on a test, what have you. To state or imply otherwise to them so they won’t feel bad is to lie. To assure them of your love and acceptance regardless of their imperfections is not.

I don’t see Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as embodying the objectionable version of the self-esteem boosting child raising philosophy. He’s sending positive energy to children, letting them know how much he enjoys their company, assuring them how happy it makes him to have them as a neighbor. That’s hardly the equivalent of telling them that they’re entitled to get everything they want in life without ever having to work or sacrifice for it.

But let’s talk more about what it is about Fred Rogers and about this film that had the greatest emotional impact on me, or evidently on moviegoers in general, given the concession employee’s comments about everyone emerging from this movie in tears.

What comes through most is just what a kind, compassionate person he was. The patient, caring style we see in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t an act, it wasn’t a character he played on TV. All evidence is that he was utterly sincere in deeply caring about people, especially children, and in delighting in being with them and contributing something positive to their lives.

He could have a depressive side to him, but it was when he despaired that the world would ever be like he knew it could be if we all chose our better natures. He felt down when he looked at the state of the world late in his life and felt like his work had been in vain, that perhaps he had fooled himself in thinking that providing quality, respectful television could encourage a generation to grow up more gentle and loving. He felt down when he was given a chance to do a PBS show for adults, and he used roughly his same style of kindly teaching and guidance and drawing people’s attention to the beauty and wonders all around them in the world, and it flopped. He felt down when he had given up his show and retired and didn’t know what to do with himself any more that could make a positive difference in the world—explaining his mood to his wife on one occasion with, “I miss my playmates.”

So he was typically a very positive person, but even when he wasn’t so positive it was evidence of just how much he cared.

But you see no insincerity in him. In a typical scene in the movie, in a sort of meet and greet public appearance for fans of the show, a little child—I’d guess about 4 or 5—comes up to him and says, “Mister Rogers, I have something to tell you.” “What is it you’d like to tell me?” he says to her, bending down and smiling. “I like you,” she says simply. “Well, I like you too,” he responds, “And I’m so glad you told me that!”

And it’s so sweet and so real, because if you think about it, if you were to speak totally from the heart in that situation, and not just say what strategically you think is most likely to have the most positive effect on the child, or say what you think you’re expected to say, or say what the character you play on TV would most likely say, you probably would say something like, “I’m so glad you told me that!” Of course you’d be glad to be told that, because there’s little in life more pleasing, more rewarding than finding out you have won over a child like that.

Rogers is the kind of person who got that. He knew how extraordinarily special it is to connect with children, to be a friend and neighbor to them, to influence them in a positive direction.

But I shouldn’t say just children, but people. It’s sad in that sense that his show for adults failed, because really his message was every bit as relevant for adults as for children, and the adults in his life who recognized that appreciated it and could be profoundly affected by him.

I’m not sure what I think about theories about our “inner child” and such, but you can kind of see it at work in this film. When you think of Mister Rogers and his show, of course it’s generally in relation to children. You think of him explaining things in the most patient, literal way, always reminding those he’s addressing that they’re worthy of love, respect, and acceptance, that they’re wonderful company, that they and the world they occupy are special and beautiful. And maybe you think all that corny stuff is fine for little kids, but irrelevant or unnecessary once you’re past that stage. Until you stop and realize that that’s not so, that there’s a part of you that needs to hear those things at every age.

That’s one of the most powerful things in this film. You see that in the interviews, in the way the interviewees in the film consistently speak of Rogers with great affection and appreciation. Not just that his kind and sincere approach to life and to people is good for kids, or was good for them when they were kids, but that it touched them when they were adults.

One of the reasons it’s hard to judge him too harshly for not having been willing to martyr the show by taking a stronger gay rights stand in the Officer Clemmons case I mentioned earlier is that the gay actor himself—François Clemmons—who played Officer Clemmons expresses such admiration for him.

He relates in one interview clip how one day they were filming a bit for the show, or rehearsing a bit for the show, and Rogers said something like “I accept you and think you’re wonderful the way you are,” or words to that effect, and he was momentarily uncertain whether that was a line for the show directed to the TV audience of children. He said to Rogers, “Were you talking to me?” and Rogers replied, “François, I’ve been talking to you for two years; you only just now realized it.”

And he says that at that moment he was overcome with emotion and broke down, because no one in his childhood, no one in his life, not his parents nor family members nor anyone, had ever expressed to him that simple sentiment, that they accepted him, that they loved him, just as he was.

Does saying things like that make for soft kids, spoiled kids, who turn into selfish, entitled adults? I don’t know, but I have to doubt it, seeing the tears in the eyes of the now elderly François Clemmons, telling how he never knew how desperately he needed to hear those words until someone actually uttered them to him. From that point on, he says, Rogers was a father figure to him.

There are many emotional “wow” moments like that in this film that are prime candidates for the scenes I would guess cause people to leave this movie in tears. They certainly got me choked up.

But, you know, if I had to single out one such scene that really got to me the most, that hit me like a ton of bricks, I know what it would be.

It’s when they show a clip from one of the times Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood dealt with a gravely serious issue, that of assassination and the recent assassination of Bobby Kennedy specifically. In fact I think it was from a prime time PBS special rather than a regular episode of the show.

In the scene, the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger is talking to live human character Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin). (One of things I enjoyed learning in the film is how the various puppet characters—all voiced by Rogers—represented different aspects of him and his personality. Daniel was his first puppet, from a show that predated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in fact, and was in some ways his most autobiographical puppet. Daniel was Rogers as a child, with all the insecurities and fears of a child, needing to hear the things Rogers needed to hear back then, needing to be listened to the way Rogers needed to be listened to back then.)

Daniel hands Lady Aberlin a balloon and asks her nicely if she will blow it up for him. She obliges. He then asks her to let the air out of it. She’s a bit puzzled, but does as he asks. The air slowly escapes from the balloon, and then after a pause he asks her, in the simple and heartbreakingly straightforward way of a child, “What’s ‘assassination’?”

Lady Aberlin looks a little off-balance for a moment, wanting to be very careful how she answers a question like that. She tries to keep her answer short and understandable, and to steer between being dishonest, euphemistic or evasive, versus addressing the subject in a way that will be too upsetting to a small child. Daniel listens, but can only handle so much. “I think I’d rather talk about this word some other time,” he says. She nods and assures him that that’s a perfectly acceptable response to something as troubling as this. “Any time you want, Daniel,” she tells him.

Oh my God. It’s a damn kids’ show, but it’s absolutely riveting, not just seeing how the child Daniel experiences something like this and tries to process it, but also sensing what’s going on inside Lady Aberlin.

Then the film cuts from that clip of the show to a few seconds of news footage of Senator Kennedy being shot, and the enormity of it is stunning. I sensed a drop of moisture rolling down my cheek, and I’m pretty darn sure the roof of the theater wasn’t leaking.

There’s plenty more I could say about Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but that was the scene that really got to me. I can’t claim to have ever been a true fan of Mister Rogers or his show as a kid, but this movie certainly gave me an appreciation for both.

Maybe we do all have an inner child who craves love and reassurance, but maybe we also all have an inner Mister Rogers capable of providing that love and reassurance. And maybe it’s a step in the direction of emotional maturity and growth to acknowledge both and not leave them hidden too deep inside us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s