Being A Man, Part 3: The Neighborhood

Mr. Rogers

Mister Rogers, neighbor. (The Fred Rogers Company)

This is Part 3 of Being A ManVisit the men of the past two weeks in Pawnee and Brooklyn.

Which beloved children’s TV star was a NAVY Seal sniper in Vietnam with dozens of confirmed kills, has tattoos covering his back and both arms, may or may not have sexually abused a child, and definitely ended his career with a final “fuck you” to the kids he had entertained for nearly four decades?

Many people who have spent more than a day on the internet in the past fifteen years will answer Fred Rogers, creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the children’s program that aired on PBS (and its predecessor) from 1968 to 2001. Fortunately for the world, they are all wrong. (That middle finger thing was real, but out of context and obviously a different year.)

Mister Rogers—it still seems wrong to his first name—dedicated his entire career to television and to the children who visited him every day. On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood  and the shows that preceded it, he spoke to kids with respect while maintaining his authority as an adult. He spoke to his young audience as he would anyone else, whether it was Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show, David LettermanRosie O’Donnell, or Arsenio Hall.

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King Friday and his creator. (The Fred Rogers Company)

A staple of Mister Rogers’ message was encouraging kids to express their feelings in honest, healthy ways. As he said in his address to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, “feelings are mentionable and manageable.” (Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island responded to his reaction to the statement that he was “supposed to be a pretty tough guy.”)

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.” (The World According to Mister Rogers)

Mister Rogers was not afraid of traditional gender roles, and as a grown man, was often seen participating in activities traditionally performed by women, or giving the women (or female puppet) characters on his show roles typically filled by men. (Fred Rogers, the man, was sometimes hesitant to address the evolving landscape of gender and sexuality in the time the show aired)

I think it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger; much more dramatic that showing scenes of gunfire. (Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, May 1, 1969)

Anger was a recurring theme in Mister Rogers’ message, and in his songs. “What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?”, the title being a question asked by a young fan, and “I’m Angry” both try to address the reason a child feels angry and how to deal with that anger.

Rogers ended his final episode on August 31, 2001, by addressing the adults who grew up with the show. He reminded them, one last time, that he liked them just the way they were.

Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.

(“What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?“)

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Being A Man, Part 2: Brooklyn, New York

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Sgt. Terry Jeffords, NYPD. (Universal Television)

As another television police procedural show explains at the beginning of every episode, the police are tasked with investigating crimes to serve the people. The people of New York City— and Brooklyn, especially—are served by one Sergeant Terry Jeffords of the 99th precinct, created by the same minds that brought us Parks and Recreation.

Whether you know him as The Ebony Falcon or the much simpler “Scary Terry,” Jeffords is an easily-recognized figure in the precinct. At six feet, four inches tall and 240 pounds of muscle and suspenders, he could cast a shadow over any of his colleagues, if he weren’t holding one of them over his own head. A chest bump with this former Syracuse University linebacker will end with someone on the floor. When Terry slams an office door, he causes structural damage.

When the audience meets Terry Jeffords in the series’ pilot episode, he is on desk duty after firing a combined eighteen rounds into two unarmed suspects while investigating a case.

Fortunately, the suspects were a mannequin and a piñata. After the brith of his twin daughters, Cagney and Lacey, Jeffords struggled with a fear of them growing up without a father. In contrast with the stereotypical “large black man” on TV, Jeffords frequently, and often in third-person, shares his softer side. Terry Jeffords is a devoted father, gifted artist, and an unfaltering pillar of support to his friends. He is intimidated by his somehow-bigger brother-in-law, who refers to him as “Tiny Terry.” He overcame obesity and struggled with a food addiction. After being detained by a fellow officer for being black in his own middle-class neighborhood, he struggles to balance the immediate consequences and the world he wants his baby girls to grow up in.

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Terry Jeffords, artist. (Universal Television)

Many of Jeffords’ traits are lifted from the real life of Terry Crews, the NFL player-turned-actor for whom the role was created. As an actor, Crews has moved from action movies to drama to comedy, managing to design furniture, build computers, and illustrate magazine covers in between.

In fall 2017, as women worldwide came together to speak about their experiences as victims of harassment and sexual assault, Crews became an outspoken male voice within the #MeToo movement. Crews detailed his experience being groped several years earlier by a well-known Hollywood agent and his reaction to it. In November 2017, Crews filed a report with the real-life Los Angeles Police Department.

He was met with a mixed response. While many applauded his willingness to come forward, many did not. Russell Simmons, music producer and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, encouraged Crews to “give [his abuser] a pass.” Twitter trolls decided that the victim of male-on-male sexual assault had to be gay (an attack also levied against actor Anthony Rapp, who recently accused Kevin Spacey of an assault in the 1980s). Others questioned Crews’ masculinity because he did not respond with violence.

“My wife told me, three years earlier, she said ‘Terry, never handle any situation like this with violence. You are a target. You can be baited and pulled if you react physically.’ . . . If I would have just retaliated, in defense, I would be in jail right now. And that’s one thing I knew, being a large, African-American man, I would be seen as a thug. But I’m not a thug. I’m an artist.” (Good Morning America)

There is a debate whether the #MeToo movement should limited to women, but Crews’ voice is needed in the fight against sexual abuse. 1 in 6 men experience sexual abuse in their lifetime, but 87% do not report the incident. In the weeks and months since Crews filed his report, more men have come forward with similar incidents in their own lives.

Terry, whether Crews or Jeffords, subverts the stereotype of what a man is. He has spoken openly about the challenges he has faced (writing “Manhood: How to Be a Better Man or Just Live with One” in the process), and remains committed to the fight against sexual abuse.

Next week we visit a land of make believe to see one of America’s favorite men.