A Tribute to Charles Schultz, the Feminist

by Jesse Fask
       When Charles Schultz began his comic “Peanuts” in 1950, strict gender roles were as much a part of America as baseball and Thanksgiving. One would not have expected a young midwestern war veteran to challenge them, and to be so successful in doing so.

       Schultz gets a lot of credit for creating a world dominated by children in which adults were never seen or heard from. But the world of “Peanuts” was one dominated not only by youth, but also by girls.

       As small children in the fifties, the Peanuts gang was one of the earliest displays of the baby boomers in pop culture, a generation of women which would, of course, experience far more change in gender equity than any generation in history.

       And Schultz foreshadowed this movement by creating some of the strongest female characters ever seen in mainstream American culture.

       His “Peanuts” defied all gender stereotypes--and no one noticed.

       Let us look at the girls of “Peanuts.” The comic strip is definitely ruled by a tyrant named Lucy Van Pelt. Without a sensitive bone in her body, Lucy yanks the football away from Charlie Brown every time, right before he’s about to kick it, just to show her dominance over him. She is the entrepreneur, starting her own business, charging five cents for therapy. She is bossy and inconsiderate, only looking out for number one. She thinks of boys as either stupid imbeciles to step on, as is the case with Charlie Brown and her oversensitive little brother Linus, or as sex objects, as she does with her beloved artistic Schroeder, who is only trying to master the works of Beethoven while he is continually sexually harassed by Miss Van Pelt. Lucy is clearly a female chauvinist.

       The other girl who holds much power in Schultz’s cartoon world is Peppermint Patty, the “Peanuts” jock. Patty is good at every sport. She is assertive, loud, and aggressive. She allows Charlie Brown to play sports only because she seems to have a bit of a crush on him. But whenever Chuck gets too emotional, she blasts him with a barrage of insults. And Schultz’s most obvious gender reversal occurs when Peppermint Patty’s best friend Marcie, who is the smartest and best student of the group, calls Patty “Sir” every time she addresses her.

       Then, we have our lovable saps, the boys of “Peanuts,” Charlie Brown and Linus. Always filled with anxieties and emotions, they launch emotional soliloquies. They are passive and powerless. Linus sucks his thumb and cannot go anywhere without his security blanket. Linus is not only tormented by his older sister Lucy but, like Schroeder, he is also a sex object and is sexually harassed by Charlie Brown’s sister Sally.

       Meanwhile, Charlie Brown suffers from low self-esteem and a poor self-image. He is never satisfied with his personal appearance. But he is loved because he is considerate, friendly and well-mannered, albeit subordinate.

       While Schultz reverses gender stereotypes, all of his characters are maladjusted and seemingly unhealthy. By switching the gender roles of his characters, Schultz leaves his readers thinking that his characters are even more dysfunctional than they really are, because people are not used to seeing oversensitive boys or tyrannical girls.

       The characters would not have seemed so mixed up if Schultz had made Lucy a boy and Charlie Brown a girl. But, the cartoonist genius pulled the big switch on us, setting the stage for the most well-adjusted and stable of all the “Peanuts” characters, Snoopy.

       Snoopy is genderless and flawless. He is successful in whatever he does. He has many personalities, but is without anxieties and is a rock of stability. He can wear a dress or be a World War I Flying Ace. He can be assertive and put Lucy in her place, or be sensitive and share a tender moment with Linus. And, once again, it is because of the gender reversals that Snoopy seems even more solid and reliable. He is the zen master of “Peanuts.”

       With passing of Charles Schultz last month, the world lost a great innovator, a man who created some of the most diverse and complex cartoon characters ever seen, and in creating them he touched the lives of so many people over the last half-century. But it is his subtle feminism that makes Schultz so interesting to me. For while “Cathy” and “Luann” may be popular with women, they are lost on me. Anyone who wants to read a true feminist cartoon will read the classic strips about the dominance and power of Lucy and Peppermint Patty, by the late great Charles Schultz..

Jesse Fask, a graduate of Baltimore City College and Beloit College in Wisconsin, has returned to his hometown to work and launch his writing career. He lives in Hampden.

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This story was published on March 1, 2000.