I’ve inherited a lot from my dad: my height, my bad eyesight, a love for Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, a tendency to over-analyse and over-intellectualise my problems, an appreciation for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (although he pretends he doesn’t like it as much as he does) and a fondness for Lego sets. But top of that list has to be the Peanuts comics and I read his battered childhood paperback copies of the collected strips over and over again until they were just part of how I saw the world.
I hadn’t read the comics for years, when I was invited to a press viewing of Somerset House’s new Peanuts exhibition and, coming back to them, I was amazed by how genuinely progressive they are. The treatment of feminism, mental health, religion and family relationships is insightful, sensitive but irreverent, and almost startlingly modern in its mindset. Written and drawn by Charles M Schulz, the strip ran from 1950 all the way through to 2000, with the last strip published the day after his death. Schulz’s female characters are revelatory, reading back as an adult – determined, complex, resilient and confident, even more so in comparison with the female characters appearing in other newspaper comics of the time, who were often relegated to bland, supporting roles.
Although the hapless Charlie Brown is nominally the main character, as a child I was entranced by Lucy van Pelt from the very beginning. Described by journalist Christopher Caldwell as “a combination of infinite appetites and infinite self-esteem… she is the most terrifying character in the history of comics”. But what makes her, to Caldwell, “an American nightmare” made her a feminist icon to many. She is indeed a girl of infinite appetites and infinite self-esteem – as well as being bossy, assertive, opinionated and “crabby” – and she is joyous for it, not to mention horrifying to men who see those things as negative. For Claire Catterall, the curator of the Somerset House exhibition, Caldwell’s attitude is unsurprising: “I do find that it’s mainly men who describe Lucy as a bully. Men are always describing her as a harridan or a fishwife, but, no, that’s not what she’s about at all. It is interesting – every single woman I’ve met thinks she’s fantastic, but many men hate her.”
Lucy was rapidly embraced as a feminist (and explicitly refers to herself as one in the comic). Gloria Steinem even adopted her as an emblem for her feminist Ms. magazine, which Lucy covered in April 1976. As Catterall says: “Of course she’s a feminist, absolutely. There’s no two ways about it. She doesn’t really care what other people think, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She can’t stand Charlie Brown’s wishy-washyness. It’s a sort of primal scream in a way.” Lucy is angry and rails against the world as she sees it, in a way that’s almost disconcertingly prescient for rage present in the current conversations about gender equality.
It can be unhelpful, if tempting, to retroactively fit proto-feminism to characters that suit the narrative from a 2018 gaze, but Schulz’s credentials are solid; when I spoke to his widow, Jean, she easily and frequently referred to his feminism – without me asking if that’s how he identified. There are many small clues and moments that mark his strength of feeling throughout the comics, and in the exhibition – including a letter he sent to a 19-year-old Hillary Rodham in 1968, congratulating her on becoming government president at Wellesley College.
Lucy is angry and rails against the world as she sees it, in a way that’s almost disconcertingly prescient for rage present in the current conversations about gender equality
Schulz’s belief in gender equality is never shown more clearly than in Peppermint Patty, the freckled, sporty girl who fights for her right to not have to wear a dress to school and for more budget for the girls’ baseball team. She first featured in Peanuts in 1966, six years before Title IX was passed – a statute that banned gender discrimination in any federal educational activity and was met with vigorous backlash from the establishment.
The tennis player Billie Jean King (played recently by Emma Stone in the Battle Of The Sexes) founded the Women’s Sports Foundation to fight back, and, admiring Peanuts, invited Schulz to be on the board. As well as being a board member and trustee, for 12 days in 1979 the storyline of Peanuts featured Patty as an informed, fierce advocate for gender equality in sport, explicitly mentioning pay and budget disparities. “He was a great supporter of the women’s sports foundation early on,” his widow, Jean, tells me. “I don’t know whether he met Billie Jean King because of the feminism expressed in the strip or whether he met her and then became a feminist, but I think he just came by his feminism from the women around him. He was known to say that he thought women were superior to men.”
Patty was a character Schulz spent a lot of time thinking about, gradually building up her background and home life; she falls asleep in class because she waits up for her single father to come home from work, and has a story where she looks for an appropriate card to give to her single father on Mother’s Day, eventually deciding to go home and give him a hug. Jean believes his particular affection for her is rooted in his relationship with his daughters: “Patty’s father calls her ‘his rare gem’ – and Sparky [Schulz’s nickname] used to call Jill, his youngest daughter, his rare gem; that softness towards Patty was definitely related to his feelings for his little girl.”
My dad is not quite so sentimental as to call me his rare gem, but I spent most of the time visiting the exhibition wishing he was there to see the videos of Schulz drawing, to sit at the reconstruction of Lucy’s five-cent therapy booth or to see Schulz’s own childhood catching mitt. My dad would also probably shake his head affectionately at my sentimentalisation of the way that stories are made and read, and made again and read again through parents and families. But I hope I inherit his paperback Peanuts, so I can pass them on to the next generation.