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The Hood: In Memory of Fred Rogers 1928-2003

"The Child is in Me Still, or Not So Still"

In 1951, Fred McFeely Rogers graduated from Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, with a degree in music composition. Rollins was known for its performing arts programs, and it also names Anthony Perkins among its famous alumni. This is a fun coincidence, but your authors want to say up front that they have no interest at all in finding humor in the image of Mister Rogers as a psychopath with libido trouble. It’s obvious enough to us that people find him creepy, but that fact certainly says more about us than it does about Rogers himself.

Rogers’ crinkly, smiling eyes evoked mayhem and deviancy to many adults, and not just those in the fields of stand-up comedy and radio announcing, either. World-weary modernity has for a long time now sought cathartic and socially cohesive disgust in the specter of the kind, infantile grown man who within himself holds a sexual monster: think of Peter Lorre’s chubby-cheeked glee as he interacted with his little victims in Fritz Lang’s M, or indeed of Rogers’ old schoolmate Tony Perkins’ expression of chipper innocence in Psycho. Think of how truly upsetting it is that Michael Jackson would rather play with children than party with fly girls. Childhood is a sacred state. Children who cross the line between the worlds of childhood and adulthood strike us as cute, or as preternatural and transcendent, or, if female, as preternaturally sexy. But adults who try to cross that line, going the other direction, are seen as evocations of absolute moral and aesthetic filth. This phenomenon is, of course, many times more pronounced if the offending adult is male.

Right after graduating from college, Rogers began his career in television, the newborn medium of his time. Working on the production side of shows like The Voice of Firestone, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, and The Kate Smith Hour, he participated in the uncertain evolutionary baby-steps of an industry that, by the time he became a mover and a shaker within it, would have come to look very different than it did in the early 1950s. Primitive television had an innocent faith in the perfect compatibility of advertising and entertainment. The variety-show format was, of course, more akin to premodern theatre— or to radio, from which The Kate Smith Hour was a direct migrant— than to the four-walled illusions of the bourgeois stage that would eventually come to dominate prime-time and "mainstream" television. By the time those of us with childhood memories of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were first plunked down in front of the tube, it was abundantly clear that "normal" television was either fact (the news) or pure fictions that ignored their audience. The variety-show format stuck around only for the marginal viewer, or the average viewer in his or her marginal moments: daybreak talk shows for housewives and shut-ins; late-night talk shows for the swingers, slumber-partyers, and insomniacs; game shows for the elderly and the disenfranchised who needed to escape around the dinner hour.

And then, of course, there was children’s television. The indiscretions for which people found Rogers so upsetting could not have occurred in any other format. In most variety shows, the presence of a studio audience and sporadic shots of an exotic skyline would make it clear to the audience members that the whole show really was unfolding somewhere else. Beloved talk-show personalities appeared to be speaking to you, but they weren’t really. They were speaking to people much like yourself, but with the initiative and courage to pull out some savings for that trip to Los Angeles or New York. A wistful distance was the result, one that left the viewer’s fundamental solitude pristine.

But Mister Rogers had no studio audience to mediate between him and his audience. He looked directly at America’s children, and he called each of them "you."

There are plenty of common-sense objections to Marshall McLuhan’s by-now old-fashioned assertion that the mass media would launch each of us into forms of communal selfhood previously suppressed in literate society. These objections are particularly apt where television is concerned. Indeed, television is cited much more often in popular commentaries as a factor leading to the hyper-atomization of society, to the creation of types of individuals whose incapacity to exist comfortably in social contexts would have been unthinkable in earlier ages. Television provides its viewers with all the benefits of companionship, while at the same time allowing them to be silent, hidden, anonymous non-people. An odd state of mind is the result, a sense of perfect liberty that could only lead to apathy. In some cases, it might well lead to a full-blown antipathy to anything that sparks of the present, the interior, the emotional, the mushy. You often see this reach its height in kids.

And that antipathy may be responsible, as much as any sexual paranoia, for Rogers’ ability to make American skins crawl. Consider songs from the show like "I’m Proud of You"
I’m proud of you.

I hope that you’re as proud as

I am proud of you.

and "It’s You I Like"
It’s you I like,

The way you are right now,

The way down deep inside you—

Not the things that hide you…

But it’s you I like—

Every part of you,

Your skin, your eyes, your feelings…

We could have handled the sentiment had it been delivered to us by Mariah Carey, provided there remained the possibility of a disco re-mix and a mid-riff-bearing photo on the liner notes. But Rogers was a man in sweaters who tried to make it clear that he lived in a world of bleary-eyed domesticity no different from our own. In short, he tried to know us too well.

MRN was a methodical and monophonic enrapturing, a pixelated Gregorian chant. And it was slow: the pauses interminable by the reckoning of television-time, the molasses voice, the constant reassurance, the redundancies, the aesthetics of calm. MRN’s strategy for the management of attention was sui generis, antithetical to what television has a reputation for. Fred Rogers, the television pioneer, largely abstained from the tube, and what he watched he didn’t like. For members of your authors’ generation, the alternatives to MRN were Sesame Street and Pee Wee’s Playhouse, both of which bombarded with garrish coloring and histrionics. Rogers had said, "I’ve resisted that. I’m interested in continuity. There’s something that goes against my existential being to have things cut up like that." In the world of children’s television, Rogers was Tarkovsky, making his honed case against the mind-games of an Eisenstein or, more relevantly, a Soderbergh.

MRN achieved its continuity by ample pro- and analepsis. Thinking backwards and forwards occupied a huge portion of the show. Before you made a trip into the Neighborhood, Mister Rogers would mention your destination. He would describe where he was thinking of going. Only then would he suggest a visit. At the episode’s conclusion, all its elements would be recapped. Learning by repetition is anathema to surprise.

More than any narrative device, though, it was Mister Rogers’ unbroken gaze that held attention. Mister Rogers looked straight at you with an ability to make you feel as if you were the only one being spoken to. Buckaroo, the law was made just for you. You gave your attention because he was giving all of his. Again, here is one of the sources of the mental disturbances he caused in so many adults and older children. Rogers’ words and gaze cast the responsibility of "you"-ness onto people who were learning to use the television to escape that burden.

After the first few years of the show, Rogers began to plan thematically-linked episodes. There were weeklong cycles on a single topic, such as growing, competition, sharing, learning, or divorce. Just imagine: a five-day seminar on divorce for three-year-olds. Divorce is a dour subject for children’s programming, and its seriousness undermines the stereotype that the show is only sweetness and light. Mister Rogers is sweetness and light, to be sure, and everyone in the Neighborhood is friendly. But trauma is ubiquitous. Childhood is rotten. We’re dragged around to places we don’t want to be. We have no control over when we come and go. We’re encouraged one moment, screamed at the next. The world around us is alive with tripwires we must set off to discover. Mister Rogers’ reassurances were never delivered as empty self-affirmation, but always in the face of specific anxieties. There is school and the anxiety of separation. There are dentists, second-graders, dying pets, loose teeth, world disasters, new babies in the house, burning libraries, the dark, false accusations of nose-picking, extremely large flying insects with oily black armor which arrive each June and make growling noises as they graze your ears unsuspected in the backyard, a wholly unfamiliar and painful-looking set of private parts, clowns, and booster shots. It is surprising that any of us endured.

We know a few children now, and many of them are freakish postmodern collages of selves, a la Jim Carrey. The self slithers among identities, not unlike Dante’s punishment for thieves. Leaping from gags, allusions, and one-liners to impersonations, innocent obscenities, posturing for attention, mimicking the facial expressions of cartoons, these kids have clearly drawn their senses of self from the television. But it isn’t at all a self-aware sense of self. There is no "I" there, just a stream of imitations. MRN was unique in how respectfully it approached the issue of selfhood. Mister Rogers steadfastly refused to reckon with the blandishments of cool, the cluster of performative strategies through which so many children relate to their worlds.

Children need consolation. They may need consolation more than they need fun. Mister Rogers promised to give you his time and to listen. He didn’t promise to entertain you. He promised to make you a citizen of his town, to introduce you to his friends. These are subtle, adult joys. Mister Rogers treated children like adults. In fact, his viewers were honored in their personhood more than many adults are by their vocations and diversions.

He will be missed.


Valerie Jaffee and Ara Vartanian

Jaffee and Vartanian wrote Mr. Rogers' obituary in the May 2003 issue of the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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