Movie Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?
If you grew up like I grew up, watching this, the highest grossing biographical documentary film of all time, might make you feel a little bittersweet. I grew up with a physically absentee father and an emotionally absentee mother. I grew up with a drug-addicted thief of a brother. I am sure there were kids with worse backgrounds for whom Mister Rogers was potentially their only source of love from an adult.
Fred Rogers knew that not only could children understand the world at emotionally high levels, but that the majority of children didn’t trust the adults around them. The reason being that adults didn’t respect children as individuals and furthermore that they didn’t respect childhood itself. They’d forgotten what it was like to be a child. They couldn’t empathize.
In some ways, not only had adults lost the magic that makes childhood great, they sought to eradicate its memory by making little adults in their image. These kids not only had their childhood stolen but became malformed adults. All from the lack of unconditional love and acceptance from their parents. Rogers saw this and saw television as a unique medium in which to rectify this.
He also used his show as a vehicle to heal some of the wounds he suffered in his own childhood. To reclaim that sovereignty, respect, and magic. In this way, he passed the litmus test that every child asks every adult. Can you see me, hear me, understand me and validate me. Rogers educated and tackled tough subjects, ranging from assassination to the Challenger tragedy. He was a voice of reason in a landscape that otherwise consisted of escapist fantasy.
While I have some memories of watching Mr. Rogers as a child. I don’t have many, I believe because the consumer-driven model of television and toys had all but swept him aside. Because both he and Sesame Street were not the narcotic that ever busier parents needed to hook their children on. Television as a babysitter. But much like a computer, garbage in equals garbage out also holds true for children.
My memories of what I grew up watching consist mostly of cartoons, the Transformers and Thundercats. A little He-Man and She-Ra. SilverHawks and Jem. Eventually moving onto Power Rangers and Sailor Moon. I read mostly comic books such as Spider-Man and X-Men but these were less readily available than cartoons were. Most of my consumption related fantastic transformations from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Unlike Fred Rogers, none of these shows were telling children they were good enough as is. That they were loved. Or teaching us about the world. In fact, they often reinforced the prevailing mindset of our parents to make us adults. Faster. Even though children hooked on because we all hoped that a transformation would give us visibility and respect. And make us want to buy toys.
The morality they taught was an afterthought that often came after the show had ended and our attention span waned. It was also an adult morality neatly packaged in consumerism. Whereas Fred Rogers researched, wrote, directed, composed, sang, acted, created a world that acted as a sort of bridge for children. A growing bridge. Really, he single-handedly tried to make sure the new at the time invention of television would be a boon specifically for children in society.
Let’s hope we keep trying to be better neighbors and better to our children. 143 Fred Rodgers.