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 Letterman, Rosie O’Donnell, or Arsenio Hall.
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.