Sunday, August 16, 2015

Charles Schultz, Peanuts and dwarfism

Several years ago, in a conversation I was part of, someone mentioned that the appearance of the human characters in the famous Peanuts comic strip was based upon the appearance of people with dwarfism.  Even though Peanuts is a very famous and beloved comic, I wasn't thrilled to hear this.  It's similar to how I feel when adults refer to their children as munchkins.  Both are examples of the infantilization of people with dwarfism.  

I never pursued the claim that Peanuts characters may have been based upon the appearance of dwarfism.  I enjoyed most the of the animated television specials.  As a young child, I went through a lot of tissues, unable to stop my tears in front of the baby sitter and my brother while watching "Snoopy Come Home," for the first time.  I love the scene from the Thanksgiving special when Peppermint Patty is yelling at Charlie Brown for failing to produce a traditional turkey dinner, while in the background another character is joyfully tossing into his mouth the popcorn that Charlie Brown has served. Until I broke it a few years ago, my favorite coffee mug of all time was one with the image of Charlie Brown exclaiming either 'Good Grief' or 'Oh, Brother.' I was so attached to the mug, once, while my sister-in-law visited, I had to resist the urge to snatch the mug from her hands when she used it for a cup of tea.  Yet, I never paid much attention to the comic strip.  That is probably why I never gave much thought to the possibility of the connection between Peanuts and dwarfism. 

But today, I came across an article on social media that claims Peanuts lost its significance in the late 1960's and early 1970's.  According to the article, How Snoopy Killed Peanuts, as the cartoon began to focus more on Snoopy, and on the dog's desire to be and act human, attention was taken away from the human characters.  The author asserts that as this transition progressed, the comic moved moved closer on the spectrum to the feelings evoked in a Hallmark Greeting Card and moved away from a vehicle for social commentary and insight into what it's like to be young in a world that can be demanding and cruel.  If there is any truth to the author's hypothesis, the comic strip lost its value before I was even old enough to read. Reading the article, I imagined that, like most things I read, there was more to the Peanuts Comic Strip than what I saw on the page.  

The article made me wonder again about the connection between Peanuts and dwarfism.  I am no Internet sleuth, but a quick online search uncovered an article entitled, "The enduring wisdom of a Charlie Brown Christmas."  The article supports the idea that there is a connection. In one description of the Christmas special, the author writes, "Charlie rests his large Peanuts head on his diminutive Peanuts hand, endearing proportions paired with an out sized human spirit believed to have been inspired by a female artist with dwarfism Schulz had befriended at an early illustration job."  

I didn't find any other articles, but I also didn't dig any deeper.  If there is a connection between dwarfism and Peanuts, I hope that Charles Schultz didn't intend any sort of symbolic significance.  I hope he did it just because it is what it is.  Oftentimes, when a non little person assigns symbolic significance to dwarfism, the results are not good.  But in any case, the articles I found today did give me more of an appreciation for Peanuts.  I want to go back to find early comic strips. 

Also, I want to listen to the beginning of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" without watching the images.  I am motivated by a paragraph from "The enduring wisdom of a Charlie Brown Christmas." 

If, on the other hand, you listen to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with your eyes on the road and the DVD screen pointed to the back of the minivan, there is something about its remarkable opening passage and a handful of segments that follow that jump out at you. They have little to do with the commercialization of Christmas or the true meaning of Christmas, but everything to do with the things we are tasked with overcoming if we are ever going to express the love we really feel for one another.

It may be a Hallmark moment, but it's hard not to be moved by the words, "the things we are tasked with overcoming if we are ever going to express the love we really feel for one another."

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