The Fred Rogers Moment

The subject of masculine ways of coping has never been more top-of-mind.

In her book You Just Don’t Understand (1992) Deborah Tannen notes that men tend to be more assertive and less self-disclosive than women. Tannen was one of many scholars interested in mapping the different rhetorical styles of the sexes. That was the 90s. Now, nearly two decades later, gender has never been a more fluid idea. Moreover, early research on male behavior patterns tended to take myriad exceptions off the table.  Even so, she was surely right to note that there is a masculine style of assertion and opinion-giving that remains a relatively durable norm.

Even a lunch with my male colleagues can lead to a round of firm and forceful opinions laid out for others at the table to take or leave. We throw them around like players in the infield warming up before a game. The style is more or less the opposite of the listening and questioning that Tannen described as a norm for a feminine style.

These old formulations came to mind when I was watching Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You be My Neighbor (2018) and the more recent Tom Hanks film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). Both feature a lot of footage of Rogers with children, of course, but also with a number of parents and admirers as well.  In our current polarized climate it clearly shows a different kind of man.  The film which has just migrated to cable and public television outlets features the children’s television pioneer as a patient slow-talker with a natural curiosity.  Rogers was a good match for the kids that Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was intended to reach.

It was even more interesting to see Rogers testifying before Congress in 1969, trying to secure permanent funding for the shaky new medium of public television. In contrast to the crusty chair of the Senate Sub-Committee on Communications, Rogers seemed like a totally different kind of advocate: patient, a bit tentative, and more indirect than assertive. The Presbyterian minister who turned to children’s television in order to save it seemed more pastoral than insistent.  Was he ahead of his time?

May 1, 1969: Fred Rogers testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications

On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers, host of the (then) recently nationally syndicated children’s television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (named Misterogers’ …

The subject of masculine ways of coping has never been more top-of-mind. The wider release of these Rogers films were preceded with a high visibility of a set of ads sponsored by the Gillette brand of Procter and Gamble.  “We Believe: the Best Men Can Be” was a series of spots cut to different lengths, all disowning a kind of macho-masculinity that is still easily recognized: matching threats with threats, groping women, and thoughtless fathers raising boys to be more tough than compassionate.

With the #MeToo Movement and “rape culture” as topic number one in Hollywood as well as most American university campuses, there has perhaps never been a cultural moment when the idea of masculine bravado looked so out of place. Of course how ‘out of place’ depends where one is.  But we are clearly at the beginning of a period when bluster and opinion-giving (“mansplaining” in one modern formulation) look like they’ve had their day.  Among other signs, the shameless mendaciousness of our President looks even more tired and shopworn.