Won’t You Be My Neighbor Chronicles the Life of One of the Good Guys
Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003) became an iconic symbol of the “do-good” vision of PBS during his long run as creator, star, and producer of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. For many critics, the show was simplistic and naive, whitewashing harsh realities and taking a simplistic approach to complex phenomena and events such as the Vietnam War. Others believed he was brainwashing children with liberal or progressive values. Both critics should come away with a different impression of Rogers’ contributions to television and civil society after watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary chronicling the development and long run of his television show.
For most of his career, Rogers eschewed the public limelight and avoided public commentary despite being a lifelong Republican. Rather, he focused his efforts on one purpose: to communicate to young children that they have singular, objective value that should be honored and cherished in its own right. He rightly recognized that many children were growing up in homes and neighborhoods that did not reinforce the concept of unconditional love and their objective worth as a human being. Perhaps more importantly, he understood intuitively that young children harbor intense feelings, have an innate desire to be loved, and are conflicted about the world around them.
Rogers designed his show to speak directly to the four, five, six, and seven-year-old child who is developmentally incapable of intellectualizing or reconciling the conflict and disorder around them. His story foundation was the inherent desire for children to empathize and develop an independent, individual identity. He also used low-tech set design and puppets to tell stories in a context and language they would understand. He correctly understood that children, young ones, in particular, let their imaginations connect dots and interpret images naturally through their own context. Fred Rogers understood his audience. This wasn’t progressive liberalism. It’s now mainstream developmental child psychology, and the documentary does an excellent job of showing that Rogers was ahead of his time, not leading a liberal political revolution.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor also hints at some of the conflicts, tensions, and contradictions that made up Rogers’ everyday life. As much as he successfully gave voice to, and communicated with, children on complex issues of race, death, divorce, assassination, war, love, physical disabilities, mental illness, etc., he had trouble communicating the same concerns and worries with adults at their level. This discomfort in the harder-edged world of adults is illustrated Won’t You Be My Neighbor through clips from his interviews with adults and journalists working in his own medium (television). Rogers’ often used the puppets he developed for his show to discuss the issues of the day and the problems he was addressing during these interviews. Similarly, he used simple songs to communicate important ideas and issues. These techniques were endearing to interviewers. They were also effective, at least in communicating the intent behind his television show. This tendency to default into the world he created for children, however, also likely led many adults to dismiss his contributions and understanding of real issues too quickly.
Rogers’ relationships with his own co-workers at times became strained. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, he sometimes conveyed contradictory signals to cast members and show staff. When one of the most important on-air figures in the show was revealed as gay by a third party, Rogers directly told him that if his homosexuality became public he would have to leave the show. Yet, Rogers apparently had, or at least developed, a more holistic view of human dignity. When hearing one of Rogers’ most well-known catchphrases–I like you (love you) just the way you are–the same cast member looked at him and asked if that meant him, too. Rogers responded: “I’ve been telling you that for two years, but today is the first time you heard it.” (It’s unclear in the documentary how much time lapsed between the two interactions.)
As much as he focused on helping young children navigate complex real-world challenges, Rogers did not live a personal life free of stress or self-doubt. He went through several periods when he wondered whether his life’s calling was enough. On his deathbed, he asked his wife if God would think of him as a “sheep,” a reference to the parable of the sheep and goats in the Gospel of Matthew (25: 31-46). The sheep were the blessed, men (and women) who were redeemed and saved. They had earned eternal life and would ascend to heaven and be with The Lord. The goats represented men and women who were condemned and lost. They would descend into hell. His wife re-assured him that he would be one of the sheep. Those who watch the documentary will agree.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is still in theaters, but the movie is well worth watching at any time and in any format. Fred Rogers’ faith in the simple but powerful value of being and doing good is critical to the foundations of civil society. The movie serves as a welcome reminder that good people exist and that some people still believe in the fundamental goodness of human beings. Today’s world could use a lot more Fred Rogers, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a poignant reminder why.