Reading Peanuts

A short time ago, I began to re-read the pile of Peanuts paperbacks which were originally my father’s.

The characters, and moments from the books, were a sort of code between Dad and me. Mostly it was just silly things – a gesture of Snoopy’s or a phrase of Linus’ that we both recognised, that was the perfect shorthand for whatever it was we felt at that moment.

But beneath that was the way the cartoons expressed a certain relationship to life. To read these books again after a matter of decades is like finding myself coming up behind my eight-year-old self, and re-reading them with her, over my own shoulder.

Only now do I even begin to suspect what it was I absorbed from those pages, from the mind of Charles M. Schulz.

* * *

The character of Charlie Brown, though created in 1950, is like an antidote to that noxious and oppressive optimism that infects aspects of modern life and corporate work life in particular. He perfectly captures a certain low-level depressiveness which – I’m going to take a punt here – you will detect in any number of moderately sensitive human beings, if you dig just a little.

There’s no doubt I recognised something in him – in a direct and intimate way – his shyness and insecurity, his predictable disasters, his catastrophic failures of confidence – counterbalanced by his ever-renewed hope, trust and effort, mingled with outright flights of fantasy. But: there was a steady thread holding these opposing trends in check – basic goodness and integrity, an essential steadiness of character.

Then there was that tendency to never quite feel at home in the world.

I see now that I intuited my father in this character, and in as much as I saw myself at that time as being like my father, I saw myself in Charlie Brown as well.

* * *

But if I consciously identified with a character, it was Linus van Pelt, Lucy’s little brother. Mainly it was his younger sibling status, as this was my status too. As he said, ‘So much in the world depends upon who gets born first’: an acknowledgement of power relations in place from the start.

Linus was quirky, smart, and had a leaning towards the spiritual. If I didn’t actually sit in a pumpkin patch once a year, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear and select my pumpkin patch as the most ‘sincere’, I could still relate to the sorts of yearnings that Linus felt.

Then again, I also, in a sense, ‘identified’ with Snoopy: another ‘weird little kid’. Or perhaps it’s just that I loved him: his imaginings – World War I flying ace, hockey player, author, ferocious mountain lion, penguin impersonator – and his little house, with its endless interior spaces and possibilities – his Van Gogh (lost in a fire) and his Andrew Wyeth – his stereo, pool table and cedar closet. His front door was always open. Somehow, I wanted a life like that.

* * *

I didn’t, though, identify with any of the female characters. Or if I did, it was a complicated sort of identification that, in retrospect, seems to have involved more rejection than alignment.

I saw Lucy – a powerful figure – largely in terms of her big sister role and her charged relationships with others.

Other than Lucy, the other female characters represented mostly a certain kind of girl in whom I could have little interest: what girl really could? Violet, Patty, Sally, Frieda – all more peripheral characters – were inclined towards unkindness and vanity, gossip and unconsidered opinion. As people, they seemed inconsequential.

Two characters introduced later in the series, Peppermint Patty and Marcie, seemed to reverse this picture. Peppermint Patty was confident, blunt, assertive, generous, and managed a baseball team. Marcie, her friend, was intelligent, bookish, kind, truthful, and given to calling Peppermint Patty ‘Sir’.

Their presence suggests that Schulz was not only conscious of the situation of women, but anxious to show real, modern females. Still, their role in Peanuts is contrast; they are there for their foibles, their particularities. It says a lot that Schulz noticed and took care to depict such characters, but they have limited appeal, or at least they did for me.

So then the question is, just how does this identifying business work, if I could find so little to identify with in the female characters of Peanuts?

Was it to do with merely identifying myself, as did presumably Charles M. Schulz, with the main protagonists – with Lucy representing an antagonist?

Did it work any differently because I came to these characters as a child rather than as an adult? That is, at this time in my life, was I as likely to identify with males as with females?

It makes me think of a conversation I had with a friend in my teens. How as we’d got older we’d looked to the accomplishments of Mozart, measuring ourselves against his life, seeing ourselves as somehow failing as we’d aged past certain of his milestones – first composition at five years old, first symphony at eight, etc.

It sounds ludicrous in retrospect since certainly neither she nor I were geniuses – but early on in our lives we felt distinguished enough by our ‘potential’ that this actually made a sort of sense. Maleness/femaleness was irrelevant to this idea, or seemed so.

I likewise regarded Leonardo da Vinci – the prototypical ‘Renaissance man’ – as a model of what might be possible in life. Brilliance in both art and science! Was it hubris? Was I praised too much? Or is that just how it works for children in a certain environment … who latch on, imaginatively, to the most exalted human being they know of, without questioning …

Was there an element in the identifying process of actually rejecting the female – or rather, the portrayal of the feminine – in Peanuts, not only because it was less central but because aspects of it were on some level sheer poison: manipulative; gossipy; trivial; uncaring if not cruel; intellectually, spiritually and philosophically disengaged?

The concerns of the males seemed universal; the concerns of the females, solely female. Even Charlie Brown’s obsession with baseball spoke to the deeper obsessions and inadequacies of all, despite its distinctly male qualities.

I write this, but I don’t really understand it …

* * *

Thinking this does not diminish the powerful, empathetic pull of the characters I have loved for so long. Only now, I can look at it and recognise how less-than-ideal Peanuts often is as a representation of females and the feminine.

I can’t know what Schulz had in mind, but I don’t believe he meant to diminish women; only to express what it is to be human.

Though the girl characters may be a little out of date, it is still possible to spot their mode of interaction in gaggles of girls and women today. (Though of course it is, and has always been, only a small part of the expression of femininity.)

As for Lucy: it seems to be, if anything, not so much depicting her as dreadfully, horrifyingly female as highlighting with painful sensitivity her plight as a human being. Knowing especially that she loves to build and to create, but is compelled to pull her creations to bits again. Understanding that she wants more than anything to be loved and honoured, but is doomed to forever sabotage her own efforts towards this. What part of Schulz’s life, of his psyche, did this emerge from, I wonder?

I discovered this in The Female Eunuch, in the chapter ‘Resentment’:

A far better account of the miserable destructiveness of womankind is made by Charles M. Schultz [sic] in his characterization of Lucy van Pelt in the brilliant saga of Peanuts. Lucy’s constant nagging anxiety, her imperviousness to all suffering but her own, her ruthless aggravation of Charlie Brown’s inadequacy fears, her self-righteousness, her jealousy of Linus’s blanket, her utter incomprehension of Schroeder’s music together with her grotesque attempts to vamp him, her crabbiness, her fuss-budgetry, the diabolical intensity of her housekeeping, her inability to smile except maliciously, her effect on Charlie Brown’s ill-fated baseball team, it’s all there and any woman who cannot recognize, however dimly, her own image in that unhappy little face, has not yet understood the gravity of her situation …

It was written in the late 60s, and – whether or not you agree with this account of the general situation of women in those days – things have certainly changed since then.

Nevertheless, even if you (if a woman) do not see yourself, as Germaine Greer suggests, in Lucy’s ‘unhappy little face’ – have you not known a woman – if not perpetually like this – at least recognisably inclined to enter this mode of suppressed rage, of inarticulate repression, from time to time?

Yet Lucy is the one with the greatest apparent power, strength and capacity at this moment in time that Schulz has depicted in something like 18,000 cartoon strips, through her voice, her physical strength, her knowledge of how to immediately get what she wants. Only Snoopy seems able to truly stand up to her – illustrated, for example, by a two-hour arm-wrestling match between them which Snoopy breaks by kissing her on the nose – and this is not through the expression of masculine qualities (despite his hero fantasies), but because he represents creative potential.

Lucy exists in a world where her power, strength and capacity are doomed to be frustrated – her ideas about how she might be satisfied (through marriage to Schroeder, largely) already compromised by her requirement to acquire her needs through others, rather than directly through her own efforts.

* * *

It wasn’t until I went to university at an all-women’s college that I was immersed in a world of positive and conscious identification with the female, both in life and in literature – as opposed to merely being exposed to it. Is that even comprehensible?

It seems late – too late, perhaps. But too late for what?

One thing I do know is that I always felt human – fully human. (Whatever that means!) But I was going to have occasion to re-evaluate that idea about myself down the track.

I might have seen myself as ‘human’ before I was ‘female’, but something important was missing.

I now think, for a woman to have a peaceful relationship with her femininity, her felt experience cannot be one of continually seeing the female diminished, outshone, trivialised.

She must conceive of herself as neither satellite nor antagonist to the universal protagonist, but as protagonist herself.

I imagine what that would be like: knowing only a reality of femaleness and maleness balanced – equally privileged to thrive and to be expressed, and to be the expression of what we are.

We’re getting closer to that all the time, of course. We are.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Woman in a state of dysphoria

dysphoria  (noun)  A state of unease

* * *

I’m on the tram, entering Melbourne from the southern suburbs, coming up to the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, when it hits.

Bonds – the Australian underwear brand – has gone for complete saturation in its ‘100 Years of …’ campaign. There are smaller ads behind the benches at the tram stop (‘100 years of bums’), there’s a larger one appearing periodically in the electric signboard wrapped around Young and Jackson on the corner (‘100 years of wow’), and finally there’s the huge billboard topping them all: ‘100 years of babes’. Babes.

Bonds 100 Years of babes editWhat kind of make-me-puke, patronising language is that?

That this particular ad happens to include a couple of men, not just women, doesn’t really improve things. In fact, it could hardly be a more perfect illustration of a straight-up split between your bog-standard masculinity and femininity. The boys are muscular, they’re wearing more clothes and they look ready to jump in and ‘drive’ … whatever it is that needs driving. The girls are very slender, they’re exposing more skin, and by their looks and postures, they’re communicating they’re probably OK with not driving right now. I’m sure somewhere in their real lives they’re as ready to drive as the next person; they just aren’t being encouraged to communicate that right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s all meant in good fun. And don’t think it’s the amount of skin being shown that’s getting to me, either. As underwear goes, Bonds is pretty innocuous.

What’s getting to me is seeing my own kind perpetually represented as utter boobs. And this – layer upon layer of ads, in the very heart of the city – amplifies the effect a hundredfold.

As if that weren’t enough, L’Oréal is presenting a campaign on the other side of the tram stop. ‘ColourRicheMakesMe …’ More pouty faces – passive, ever-promising.

L'Oreal tram edit

Seriously! Are they for real?

Of course, no one takes ads literally, least of all the people who create them. Everyone knows they are about brand recognition and persuading people to buy stuff. Everyone recognises the tricks of the trade, the game that’s being played. I mean: don’t they?

Yet behind all the strategies, all the noise of advertising, is one mammoth deceit: that to respond to the choices they present is an exercise in genuine power. Those whispery, distracting choices that are not so much about briefs or boyleg, orange fever or silky toffee, as they are about opt in or drop out

And it is that opt in or drop out message that gets us in the gut, that haunts so many of us every time we think about what our life might be and how we’re supposed to set about making it happen.

Is that what we want? For our environment to be choked with images that set us up to believe opting in is first and foremost about maintaining a mirage of self? That it is necessary to look and behave in certain ways before we can even begin to feel entitled to act, to challenge, to count?

* * *

Dysphoria – a profound unease – is to look up one day and see your own kind represented everywhere you look, and to nowhere see yourself.

It is not that I want to see physicality like mine represented everywhere I go. I’m not talking about wanting to see tiny women like me looming from billboards and tram stops, posturing and flaunting. ‘Tiny’ doesn’t much express my self-identity in any case. The me‑ness of me.

It’s not the body, as such, that I’m talking about.

I’m talking about power, capacity, mind.

Many women refuse to be an ornament, and to fritter away precious life on what is merely ornamental. Let me see that message dominating the advertising and media, everywhere I turn.

Many women have accepted the challenges and responsibilities of choice, and have made their own way, prepared to ride the consequences. Let me see that kind of courage plastered across the heart of my city.

Many women know that to stop and to wait and to fantasise about what life might bring is pure poison to a living soul. Let me see represented those women, who are realising the pure and serious ambitions of their girlhood.

* * *

The performance of ‘femininity’ attached to being female – have I ever really understood it? Why on earth do we acquiesce to it even still? Stand that way. Walk that way. Wear that thing. Show or not show. Bend your head and bare your neck. Smile. Smiiiiile.

Some women say that being different to the ‘ideal’ freed them, as girls, to follow another path, to define themselves another way.

Molly Ivins, a political commentator whose particular speciality was covering the toe-curling shenanigans of Texan politicians, wrote:

I should confess that I’ve always been more of an observer than a participant in Texas Womanhood: the spirit was willing but I was declared ineligible on grounds of size early. You can’t be six feet tall and cute, both … I spent my girlhood as a Clydesdale among thoroughbreds. I clopped along amongst them cheerfully, admiring their grace, but the strange training rituals they went through left me secretly relieved that no one would ever expect me to step on a racetrack …

Sometimes it’s our inability to fit in that saves us – writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and general treaders-of-the-road-less-taken.

* * *

If you were a bit more clued in than I generally am about these things, you might have recognised that one of the models in the blitzkrieg of Bonds ads is the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. In fact she is the new Bonds ‘ambassador’, aka ‘brand babe’. (Could two terms be more oxymoronic?)

And you might say – well – isn’t she an example of a woman making it happen? Getting on with her stuff? Choosing?

And yes, she absolutely is. After all, she moved from Mullumbimby to Miami at 15 by herself, partly to get away, partly to pursue her interest in music. She’s got to be the opposite of gutless. But still she’s in there, pouting and posturing like the others, in fact outdoing them on all counts.

Like I said, Bonds underwear is pretty innocuous. Iggy brings an injection of sex hitherto unknown to Bonds advertising. Or at least, that was my reading of the situation, until I read this quote from Pacific brands chief executive David Bortolussi in the Australian Business Review:

‘What we love about Iggy is her straight-talking, can-do, Aussie girl personality.’

Uh … right.

* * *

There are antidotes to all this. I mean, apart from moving to your own desert island or writing frustrated blog posts or just somehow remaining inured to it. They are like tiny bursts of colour – impudent knots – in a huge fabric of business-as-usual.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber sends up the posturings of celebrities in photos she posts on Instagram.

Sonia Singh, a Tasmanian scientist made redundant from Australia’s primary science research organisation, CSIRO, had the brilliant idea of taking a handful of overpainted dolls and replacing their ludicrously exaggerated ‘make-up’ with natural-looking features. Photos of the dolls went viral, and a new business was born.

There’s a ‘#nomakeup’ Twitter feed and stories crop up from time to time of women (and occasionally men like Karl Stefanovic) who are challenging the conventions of ‘feminine’ presentation.

What’s striking, though, is how often these are about expressing what women are not – that is, that women are not just about their bodies – while making the challenge in a way that is still body-centred.

Is it my imagination, or do we grow more faint-hearted when we try to express just what it is we are?

Perhaps it’s that we’re reluctant to exchange one straightjacket for another? Fair enough.

Maybe that leaves us more space to challenge, to enact, to invent, to hammer out our real and our possible selves with commitment, if not downright ferocity.

Maybe that Leaves us free to focus on women can do, not on what they are or what they look like.

Next International Women’s Day (Tuesday, March 8), I want to see the intersection at Flinders and Swanston given over to HUGE images of women who are getting on with their stuff – and trampling the gender divide nonsense underfoot while they’re about it. No posturing or pouting.

That would cure my dysphoria, right enough.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015