Peppermint Patty, Lucy, Sally and Getting into Good Trouble
If you get the chance to travel up to Northern California, you will hopefully make a stop into Charles Schulz’s world. Yes, there is the awesome Charles M. Schulz Museum which is much more than a history of his classic comic strip continually produced for fifty years, 18,000 comic strips. The mere breath of his productivity as an artist and social commentator is staggering. But there is other weirdness to his world that also deserves the visit. There is his full sized ice rink. A native Minnesotan, he loved the game of hockey and so he built an ice arena. Players from all over the region came to compete in tournaments, as did Schulz. Figure skaters were also part of the landscape as they came up for competitions and ice shows. There is his famous table at the coffee shop where, for many years, he had his breakfast and held court before going back to his studio to produce his strip. This Schulz universe was all within walking distance to his home.
There were two exhibits that immediately drew my attention, one of which truly made me think about the impact of culture and art on the issue of gender and schools.
The first, running until September 12, 2021 is Lucy: From Fussbudget to Feminist gives the visitor something we are familiar with -- Lucy as the quintessential “difficult” woman who makes us rethink our own biased assumptions concerning gender. Lucy’s aggressive sexualized posturing with the pianist Schroeder, her ongoing battles with Snoopy, her professional life (the psychiatry stand - no lemonade here!) And of course her relentless pulling away of the football from underneath Charlie Brown. Lucy is in control and has no qualms about dictating the norms of the entire game. Schulz’s Lucy did not start this way in the 1950s, but by the 60s and 70s, Schulz had morphed Lucy into a powerful archetype within his comic world.
The more compelling exhibit for me was Girl Power in Peanuts running through November 8, 2021. I would not have called myself a devotee of Peanuts as a young reader, but I did my time with the comic as a child. It was hard not to, growing up in the United States during the 60s and 70s. What this exhibition triggered in my memory was how much of the Peanuts took place in schools, with the famously never drawn Mrs. Othmar as their teacher, who had lots to say in the form of "Wah wah woh wah wah". I always saw this as less of some backhanded insult directed at teachers, but more as adults just did not have a real place in the Peanuts world. Mrs. Othmar’s presence was the necessary concession to move certain ideas and jokes forward.
The other memory, which was my real moment of epiphany with Schulz’s world, was how often it was girls who were getting in trouble for their behavior in school. Peppermint Patty is a terrible student and also the most gifted athlete in the Peanuts tribe of characters.
Schulz’s radical feminist is constantly getting sent to the principal’s office for speaking back to the teacher and sleeping in class. Her mother passed away and she grows up in a single parent home, where she is raised by her father who is often away on business. She cannot sleep when he is not home, leading to her exhaustion. Schulz’s characters are complex and he does not fall into the trap of aligning his female characters to traditional roles of obedience in the classroom or anywhere else.
Even Charlie Brown’s sister ,Sally, the most girly of the Peanuts women, has her limits. She also is not particularly fond of school, imagining that she was held back in kindergarten. She has to wear an eye patch because she is diagnosed with lazy eye. Snoopy steals the patch so he can pretend he is a pirate. Sally also ends up in the principal’s office on occasion and it is the nature of her transgressions which are striking.
Sally’s smart ass remark seems to be what gets her sent to the principal’s office, but what precipitates it? It is her outrage that her report is expected to revolve around the workings of men. She literally flips that coin in order to focus on Wallace Stevens’ wife, Elsie, as the central protagonist in her report. Sally and Peppermint Patty are much smarter than the world of school gives them credit for. Their frustrations have to do with not belonging to the dominant narratives which constitute school. They know that there is something very wrong, the very nature of which is much more apparent to the reader of the strip than to its young female characters.
What Schulz captures is not young girls acting out, but the more important reaction that the system has to their voices of resistance. For Schulz, these young women demand to be seen and heard on their own terms without having to acquiesce to dominant cultural expectations. Sitting outside the Principal’s office is a small price to pay in order to keep one's authentic voice.