Fangirl Magazine’s Sarah Buck has written an amazing paper on two of animations female icons. While they both came out of the same time in American history they represent the female ideal in very VERY different ways. It’s a fascinating read and gives a perspective on one little girls very big importance in the history of pop culture and literature. At the end I’ve kept intact the Bibliography so you can, if interested, look up the works Sarah used to put this together.
Lucy or Lady;
Charles Schultz’s Bossy Answer to Media’s Dogged Portrayal of Women
Written by Sarah Buck
On June 22, 1955, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Lady blinked her way into the hearts of young girls across America. The sweet pup seemed so very charming as she mimicked the wifely behaviors of her owner Darling by fetching Jim Dear his slippers and morning paper. Disney had truly achieved a new level of sexist role education as they placed not only a human female, but also her loyal female dog in the role of happy home maker. Only four days later, Charles Shultz’s relatively new comic strip, Peanuts, would run a Sunday strip in which Lucy Van Pelt would be in almost the exact situation but with radically different implications.
Charles Schultz is a comic strip writer who has been praised multiple times for his female characters. Especially considering when his strip began, it was incredibly uncommon to take on the responsibility of representing women fairly in media. We can see this in his egalitarian representation of male and female characters. By and large, the activities the characters take part in can be partaken by either male or female. That said, one thing you will come up against when discussing characters is Lucy’s bossiness. People can’t seem to handle a young lady who refuses her “yes, sirs” and curtsies in favor of making her younger brother salute her. (Schultz, 159) This is not anything new, and it’s something that has not changed since Schultz started writing Peanuts in the 1950s. Even in today’s media, powerful women are disregarded for being “bitches.” Hillary Clinton is an example used by Susan J. Douglas in her book, Enlightened Sexism. Douglas says “female” is still equated with being nice, supportive, nurturing, accommodating, and domestic, which is not compatible with anything that might involve leadership. “Power” is equated with domination, superiority, being tough, even ruthless. These two categories “simply are not supposed to go together.” (Douglas, 272) The truth when applied to a male character, would be more-or-less accepted without examination. Instead, she is often painted as a villainous character that should be disliked.
Indeed, Lucy’s male peers come under no such scrutiny from general readership. Schultz writes as many, if not more, bossy male characters in his strips. Schroeder, Lucy’s unrequited love interest, is just as cruel to Charlie Brown as any of the female characters are, and he is prone to violent outbursts of emotion, as seen the series of strips where Charlie Brown reads to Schroeder out of a book that appears to be a biography of Beethoven’s life. At the end of these strips, Schroeder reacts loudly and emotionally to what Charlie Brown is reading, (Schultz, 129) Readers view Schroeder as the tortured artist type, and therefore excuse his behavior but label Lucy for her cruelty and her outbursts.
So, back to the last Sunday in June 1955, Charles Schultz ran a strip featuring Lucy constructing a hypothetical world where she and Schroeder were married and “happy.” Lucy explains this idyllic situation saying, “While you were practicing the piano, I’d be in the kitchen making your breakfast… Then I’d bring it in like this, and set it all out nice, and prop up your favorite newspaper, and pour your coffee….” (Schultz, 77) On Wednesday, June 22, only four days before was when Disney’s Lady and the Tramp came out in the theater. The scene eerily similar to Lucy’s domestic fantasy plays out like this: Lady, the dog, assists her mistress, Darling, with bringing Jim Dear his breakfast, newspaper and slippers. Both of these scenes demonstrate the pervasive model that women were supposed to follow in the 1950s. Being female meant to be domestic and to meet the domestic needs of the men. While Disney fails to defy this convention in Lady and the Tramp and opts instead to reinforce Lady’s need to be domesticated by putting her in jail for leaving the house and ultimately turning her love interest Tramp into a house pet, Schultz is far more subversive.
As we have come to expect from the strips involving Lucy and Schroeder, Lucy is refused by the Beethoven-obsessed boy. Schroeder’s refusal is answered in the last panel with Lucy walking away saying, “Musicians aren’t real people!” The last line of this strip is where the subversion comes in. Lucy forces the reader to acknowledge that this domestic fantasy is a construct, just like the concept that there is such a thing as “real people.” Lucy reacts to this in a particularly non-gender defined way. When the object of her feminine desire denies her, her response is not the passivity that is so often shown for stereotypically female characters. Her response is not ever persistence but instead is to insult Schroeder and walk away. This questions the definition of traditional gender identity. Lucy is claiming that musicians are not real people, and they certainly are not if we accept the narrow definition of man as breadwinner and female as submissive domestic figure. Musicians are, in a traditional definition, moody, completely engulfed in their practice and penniless. If the reader questions Lucy’s construct of real people in regards to Schroeder, this opens the door for the reader to question the seeming simplicity of society’s gender norms. That is to say, Lucy’s dedication throughout 1955-1956 to being a domestic homemaker seems to be more of an empty threat, an idea placed in her head by the prevalent social ideas of her time, more than an actual desire to end up in the role of housewife.
While being a wife and homemaker is not in itself a bad thing, we need to keep in mind that in 1955, it was expected of women to be a homemaker. Even if one went to college, once she was married, she was expected to stay home and keep the house. In fact, one could actually major in home economics in college to help prepare for this life. Never in the run of Peanuts does Lucy end up in a domestic role. For fifty years, she does many things, not the least of which are becoming a psychiatrist, playing sports, being a campaign manager and a self-proclaimed corporal. The reality of Lucy is that she does everything but the things that are expected from her gender.
One of my favorite examples of this from the year 1955 was when Lucy is first called a fuss-budget. Since we do not encounter Lucy’s interaction with her mother, who is the first to dub her a fuss-budget, we must extrapolate Lucy’s fuss-budgetiness from what we do see. For the purpose of this essay we will define a fuss-budget as a bit of a know-it-all who is prone to react emotionally in frustrating situations and owns a certain amount of cruelty which is often translated into ambition. (Schultz, 181, 140, 144, 212) When we apply the fuss-budget attributes to a female, we might quantify them as “bitchiness,” whereas a male characterized with them would be called at the very worst, a strong personality. In March 1955, Lucy won what I imagine to be coveted award of “World’s Number One Fuss-budget.” (Schultz, 33) Throughout the volume, Charlie Brown expresses interest in how Lucy achieved her fuss-budget prowess. While Lucy being labeled a fuss-budget may harshly remind some of the discrepancy in the media of women being labeled as “bitches,” Schultz does the most wonderful brilliant thing of making fuss-budget a title worth celebrating.
In the strip that ran right after Lucy won her award, Charlie Brown is seeking advice “for other little girls who may wish to become fuss-budgets” to which Lucy replies that “the most important thing is to have faith in yourself.” (Schultz, 33) While this initially reads as making her bossiness darling, as the year passes, Schultz evolves the idea of the fuss-budget. In September 1955, Patty asks Lucy if Linus is a fuss-budget, too. Lucy’s answer is that he is not yet a full-fledged fuss-budget, but grants him the title of “Apprentice Fuss-budget,” which Linus seems quite pleased about. Not only is Schultz assigning the term “fuss-budget” to a boy, but he is making it a title to be proud of. This strip was written more than 50 years before Bell Hooks would famously fight back against the “Ban Bossy” movement of Twitter in 2014, yet Schultz is delicately subverting the idea that little girls should be ashamed of being fuss-budgets or that the term should not be applied to little boys as well.
In July 1956, Schultz comes out with a series of strips where Charlie Brown is introduced to Lucy’s library in which you can find such volumes as “The Power of Positive Fussing,” and “I Was a Fuss-budget for the F.B.I.” (Schultz, 249) Now, the identity of fuss-budget has become elevated to the point that entire volumes were being written about it. Lucy’s fuss-budgeting is not just juvenile petulance, but an identity she prides herself in, and something she also has studied extensively. The series of library strips culminates in a strip where Charlie Brown reads the titles of three very interesting fuss-budget books, “Can a Fuss-Budget Find Love and Happiness?” “The Decline and Fall of the Fuss-Budget,” and finally, “Can a Fuss-Budget Become President.” (Schultz, 250) These three fuss-budget books present over three panels an outline of the reader’s journey as they consider Lucy as a character. While she may appear to be nothing but a silly little girl at first, she quickly takes on a villainous tone to many readers, but ultimately culminates in a strong character who we have no doubt is capable of becoming president, as she will, later in the strip, profess to aspire to. Again we see an eerie foreshadowing of the fight for women’s rights in Schultz’s work.
Another notable thing about Lucy is her tendency towards actions that are not typically female. For instance on page 26 of the 1955-56 volume, we see her smash Schroeder’s Beethoven bust with a baseball bat out of frustration at Schroeder’s lack of attention towards her. When Schroeder gets out another one from a closet full of busts, Lucy simply goes back to the piano and says, “I’ll probably never get married.” Here we have the character not only acting outside of gender norms but also admitting that she may not quite fit in the narrow, 1950s idea of what a girl should be.
Only a few months later, a strip runs in which Charlie Brown explains to a bewildered Lucy what a reviewer of Schroeder’s concert meant by “a brilliant display of pyrotechnics.” Upon learning that it means he played “real fast,” Lucy gives Schroeder a firm slap on the back and yells, “Atta boy, Schroeder,” an action which we are more accustomed to applying to young men who play sports. While it’s tempting to wave these behaviors away as an example of the “dude in drag” stereotype, it is important to remember that Lucy existed during a time when the gender signifiers we scoff at now were actually expected of people. “Dude in drag” is a term used to describe the phenomena of when female characters in pop culture are simply male character stereotypes dressed up as women. Lucy does not adhere strictly to male or female behaviors. One could even go so far as to theorize that her obsession with marrying Schroeder (and sometimes Charlie Brown) is a way that Schultz has evened her out. It’s a balancing act between two extremes of gendered behavior.
Since we’re talking about gendering things, we should discuss gender signifiers. This is important in regards to this early Schultz work as, without fail, female characters are presented in dresses, while males are presented in pants. In Anita Sarkeesian’s video series Tropes vs. Women, she defines gender signifiers as “our culture’s visual vocabulary intended to convey information about gender to the viewer.” (Sarkeesian) (http://www.feministfrequency.com/2013/11/ms-male-character-tropes-vs-women/) In Peanuts, Schultz conveys the gender of his characters most obviously through clothing. All girls in these early strips will be wearing a dress, no matter what situation they’re in. Later in the strip’s run, Schultz will introduce Peppermint Patty, who will defy this model he started out with.
Because it is hard to excuse gender signifiers, we must deal with this particular aspect of early Schultz by admitting it’s a sign of the times. For a girl to wear only dresses and skirts in the 1950s was the rule, not the exception. To reduce gender down to choices in clothing is to simplify the complex reality that a person, and even a fictional character, should not be defined completely by their gender. Lucy should not be viewed as a bossy female chauvinist because she wears a dress and yells at people. For people who view her with this kind of lens, the fact that she is a girl overshadows all other aspects her personality entirely. Girls are bossy; boys are tough. Today’s young women, like their 1950s predecessors, are suffering from what feminist author Peggy Orenstein calls the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Little girls are being lumped into one, big category based solely on their gender. Everything is pink, everything is poofy and everyone wears dresses. Her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter states,
“According to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture’s emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior.” (Orenstein, 6)
To define young women by a preconceived, mass market notion of gender is harmful to their identity and their self-esteem.
Thankfully, when it comes to Schultz, we can take comfort in the fact that the gender signifiers of Peanuts go no further than dresses and hair styles. The characters remain relatively shapeless, boxy torsos and stubby limbs, and the girl characters do not suffer from the affliction of eyelashes or pouty lips. There is, however, a smattering of hair bows throughout the strip’s life span, but these are few and far-between. In fact, when the strip starts running in color, Lucy’s dress is blue.
When I was a young girl, Peanuts was a favorite comic strip of mine. My favorite character was, of course, Lucy. I remember my cousin responding to this information with a rolling her eyes and saying, “Of course, she is.” Like Lucy, I suffered from being labeled as bossy and bitchy. I took pride in being compared to such a character as many women before and after me have. Charles Schultz created a character who snuck under the radar of 1950s gender norms to give a voice to those who felt oppressed by them. As Lucy herself wondered aloud on a newspaper page whether she could adhere to the strict idea of what it meant to be a woman, so many young women wondered the same thing silently in movie theaters as that poor, pretty spaniel was muzzled and thrown in a cell for questioning her household role. Lucy was not the character that embodied the attitudes of the 50s despite her apparent fixation on them, she was the character that media of the time needed in order to change the tide. Today as we face down another wave of young girls who are being defined again by the Disney corporation and their contemporaries by strict gender determiners, we all could use a lot more Lucy and a lot less Lady.
Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done. New York: Times, 2010. Print.
Lady and the Tramp. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske. Walt Disney Productions, 1955. Film.
Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-girl Culture. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
Sarkeesian, Anita. “Ms. Male Character – Tropes vs Women.” Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.
Schulz, Charles M. The Complete Peanuts, 1955 to 1956. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2004. Print.