News & Politics

Mr. Rogers Was a Total Revolutionary — Here's Why

He based his career on his horror of what he saw going on in the world around him and was outspoken his whole life about it.

Photo Credit: From 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'

The woman next to me in the movie theater is crying. Not the kind of delicate, dab your tears away and sniffle crying like I did at "Blockers." No, this woman is in full best friend's funeral heaving mode. We are watching a man tie his sneakers.

Fred Rogers always had talent for making adults sob. When he accepted his lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy in 1997, he moved an audience full of soap opera stars to tears in moments by simply asking them to take ten seconds to "think of the people who helped you become who you are, those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life."

In the fifteen years since his death, the absence of Mr. Rogers in the world only seems to grow more tear-jerkingly apparent. Not just because he was quiet and soothing and patient, but because he was ferocious and brave and radical. As Oscar winner Morgan Neville's timely, tear-duct lubricating documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" makes clear, the easily parodied, often underestimated icon of children's television was a total badass.

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Fred Rogers was an unlikely hero, an ordained Presbyterian minister and a puppeteer. Dismayed by the relentless pace, cruel slapstick and shameless commercialism of the still burgeoning medium of television — and concerned about its effects on children — he set out to create something different. As he once said, "I went into television because I hated it." At the age of 40, he debuted "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"on PBS. Unlike most broadcast fare, it was languorously paced, with sweater buttoning and fish feeding unfolding in real time. It was also, from the very beginning, not screwing around.

One of the bittersweet joys of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is how Neville portrays Rogers not as some squishy Teletubby but as a loving, curious, concerned and often fed up human being. Fred Rogers did not suffer fools. He based his career on his horror of what he saw going on in television and in the world around him, and he was outspoken his whole life about it. That's radical. His show was, too.

In his review of the film, Vulture's David Edelstein called it "a wonderful breather from reality," but I'd argue that Mister Rogers was more deeply entrenched in reality than any other children's television host ever. The documentary proudly showcases that. It shows how, when Robert Kennedy was murdered just four months after the series debuted, Daniel Striped Tiger was soon asking Lady Aberlin, "What does assassination mean?" so the two could discuss the distressing news. It contrasts footage of a white motel owner pouring muriatic acid into a swimming pool full of black guests with the very pointed episode in which Mister Rogers invited his African-American neighbor Officer Clemmons to share a cool foot soak with him in a kiddie pool.

And it shows the historic moment when, just a year into the show's run, Rogers had to speak to a Senate Subcommittee to defend public television against President Nixon's proposed decimation of its budget. He didn't speak of ice cream and rainbows. Instead, he read the words of one of his songs, inspired by a question a child had asked him. It was called "What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?" When he was finished, the usually brusque Senator John Pastore responded, "Looks like you just earned $20 million.”

Rogers knew that children don't live in happy bubbles, separate from the drama of the real world. His show took on bullying, fear, divorce and death. He believed, as Neville points to again and again, that children have rich emotional lives and deep feelings, and that they deserve respect. You can look at footage of him mesmerizing classrooms full of kids with a fuzzy puppet and see the gentleness there, but you'd be blind to miss the focused dignity he affords to every child.

"Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable," he famously said. "When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary."

People don't love Mister Rogers just because he was reassuring. They love him because he kept going, even as he struggled with self doubt. They love him because he could lead others through the depths of emotion, a skill few of us — especially men — are encouraged to cultivate.

Given his wild ideas that humans should be treated like humans, it's entirely predictable where the backlash against Rogers would originate. "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" doesn't shy from showing that not everyone was a fan. In 2007, a "Fox & Friends" segment referred to Rogers as an "evil, evil man," because "the kids of today who grew up with Mister Rogers were told by him, 'You're special just for being who you are.' He didn't say, 'If you want to be special you're going to have to work hard.' Now all these kids are growing up and realize hey, Mister Rogers lied to me. I'm not special." They went on to explain that young people of the "narcissistic society he gave birth to" feel "entitled just for being them" but that "the world owes you nothing."

How hollow inside must a person be to beef with Fred Rogers, because he was so loving and accepting? His message — as anyone so intellectually dishonest as to drum up attention by slamming a minister in a sweater knows perfectly well — was not that we don't have to work or try. He was an accomplished musician. Think he didn't understand practice? His message was, rather patriotically, the self-evident truth that we are all created equal, that we are all entitled to safety and happiness. This is what is terrifying to anyone would seek to oppress you, whether it's your family or your government. When you have been loved and accepted unconditionally, you understand on a cellular level that this is what you deserve. It doesn't mean you expect you're going to get perfect grades or a fancy job. It does mean you recognize you have intrinsic value, that you have something to offer the world, and that anyone who treats you as anything less than a full person — whatever your age, your race, your faith, your gender — is failing you. And our species.

Imagine what Mister Rogers would make of where we are now. Imagine what he'd say about the thousands of children currently being separated from their parents and detained in windowless facilities, as if their youth renders their emotional duress inconsequential. The lifelong registered Republican would be howling. "I'm very much interested in choices," he told the Dartmouth graduating class back in 2002. "What choices lead to ethnic cleansing? What choices lead to healing? What choices lead to the destruction of the environment, the erosion of the sabbath, suicide bombings or teenagers shooting teachers? What choices encourage heroism in the midst of chaos?" These are profound moral questions.

Hope is not wimpy and respect is not weak. To be a neighbor is to be invested in the lives of the people around us, to care about the well-being of others. That's a difficult mission. On the first anniversary of 9/11, Rogers released a special message to his "neighbors" to say "I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead," and oh boy does that feel like a very 2018 thing to say.

Near the end of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" several of the interviewees contemplate Rogers' legacy and his current relevance. It's Junlei Li, the co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, who makes the most Mister Rogers-like point. Don't ask yourself what Mister Rogers would do now. Ask yourself what you would do. Mister Rogers wasn't a relic of a simpler time; he was a warrior in one of the most turbulent periods in American history. And he shows us, more than ever, how to cultivate our own heroism in the midst of chaos.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.