Why Mr. Rogers Was Better Than Barney, but He’d Be in Big Trouble Today
Not that long ago, culturally speaking, someone known throughout the world for being neighborly said some things that most likely would have gotten him fired today.
John StonestreetShane Morris
Not that long ago, culturally speaking, someone known throughout the world for being neighborly said some things that most likely would have gotten him fired today. And, believe it or not, he said these things on public television!
Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood often performed songs he wrote to address issues that confused children or caused them to struggle. One of these songs, “Everybody’s Fancy,” was featured in numerous episodes of his hit show from 1968 to 1991. He hoped to help children love and value their bodies and to respect other children, too. Rogers was, of course, completely unaware of the modern controversies over LGBTQ identities that would soon dominate the culture, but, in several lines of the song, he expressed truths that are no longer permitted to be said out loud.
Take a listen:
Boys are boys from the beginning. Girls are girls right from the start. Everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine. Your body’s fancy and so is mine. … Only girls can grow up to be the mommies. Only boys can grow up to be the daddies.
Can you imagine someone saying these things on PBS today? In fact, in a segment last year from the Let’s Learn TV series, PBS stations across the country featured a drag queen who goes by the stage name “Lil Miss Hot Mess” singing lines from his book, The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round.” “Hot Mess” is a grown man who dresses in flamboyant and exaggerated women’s clothing and makeup, and then seeks an audience with children.
The most obvious takeaway is that any trust previous generations of parents and kids had for public television was, long ago, squandered. A second takeaway is just how quickly some ideas have shifted from being unthinkable to unquestionable. Therefore, we should doubt anyone who tries to gaslight us into thinking we’re regressive bigots for believing male and female are realities built into human nature.
Only a short time ago, some facts were considered so obvious and universally accepted that Mister Rogers could sing about them to children on a publicly funded medium, and no one thought anything whatsoever about gender dysphoria, transgender identity or drag queens when he did. Does that mean Fred Rogers was a bigot? Was he a transphobe? No. In fact, no one had ever heard of such accusations at the time.
As an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers viewed the world in a noticeably Christian way. Though he didn’t often discuss his faith publicly, his dedication to and concern for children was, in very real ways, Christ-like. For example, Rogers did not avoid difficult subjects if he believed kids needed to talk about them. So, he dealt with death, divorce, and racism, and he had a way of empathizing with the especially deep sorrow and confusion children can feel over such things.
“Everybody’s Fancy” was Rogers’ way of teaching children that they are fearfully and wonderfully made. For Rogers, that included talking about the human body as something good, as worth appreciating and caring for. Mister Rogers even taught children that one thing that made bodies special was that they were gendered, and that this gender had significance for who and what they would become in life. As he said, only boys can grow up to be daddies, and only girls can grow up to be mommies.
In this, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was unlike so many children’s shows that vaguely taught and sang about how “everyone is special.” Barney was not only irritating, it was gnostic. Mr. Rogers, at least in this song, had a robust applied creational theology.
That’s not to say Mr. Rogers always got it right. It seems, for example, that his compassion eventually got in the way of clear thinking on sexuality and gender, though he kept his views quiet for the sake of avoiding controversy.
Even so, his strong affirmation of the goodness and permanence of male and female—and the fact that he generated no controversy for saying these things—should make us think. What he sang then is no less obviously true now, and it’s absurd to suggest that Mister Rogers was some hate-filled bigot for holding these views, as our president seemed to imply recently.
No, it’s those who tell children that their “fancy bodies” may, in fact, be the wrong bodies and in need of social, chemical, or surgical alteration, who are living in the land of make-believe.
Today’s Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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