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This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
There’s a debate raging on some gender-politics websites over Lucy van Pelt, stoked anew by the breakout success of The Peanuts Movie. Sure, she’s strong and assertive, a woman not easily pushed around. But is she truly a feminist, or just a bossy jerk to her little brother — and Charlie Brown, and pretty much any creature, two-legged or otherwise (see strips below), that crosses her path?
Whichever way you come down on the question (“Lucy was probably just fed up with the patriarchy and took it out on Charlie,” is one feminist blogger’s attempt to square the circle), it’s inarguable that Charles M. Schulz, the late, great creator of the beloved comic strip, was a man ahead of his time, at least when it comes to gender equality.
He began drawing Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang in 1950, an era of rigid gender stereotypes, yet he was championing third-wave feminism decades before the second wave had begun to swell. Consider the girls in the gang: Lucy is a businesswoman running her own practice (charging 5 cents for therapy) who treats boys as either blockheads or — in the case of Beethoven-obsessed Schroeder — sex objects. Peppermint Patty, who flouts her school’s dress code by wearing Birkenstocks to class, is by far the best athlete of the bunch (no wonder her best friend, Marcie, calls her “Sir”).
The boys, meanwhile, often are insecure, powerless and passive — and in Linus‘ case, sexually harassed by Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally (who, by the way, also displays a knack for marketing and negotiation).
“If you look at the really early comic strips, Charlie Brown was a bit of a wisecracker,” says Jean Schulz, the cartoonist’s wife of 26 years (he died in 2000). “He was the one picking on other people. But Sparky” — Schulz’s nickname — “realized at one point that the strip was in danger of becoming a boys’ strip, that he needed more girls in it. So he came up with Peppermint Patty. He said he walked by a candy dish one day and decided to put the character in the gang.”
Schulz himself wasn’t always flawless in his treatment of women — his first marriage ended after a brief affair with a much younger mistress — but he clearly was a supporter of women’s rights. He helped Billie Jean King in her crusade for Title IX, was on the board of the Women’s Sports Foundation and once coached a woman’s softball team (although partly because he had a crush on a fellow instructor — “his little red-haired girl,” as she referred to herself).
Still, his strip is filled with resilient, articulate, self-actualized women like Lucy, whose feminist credentials continue, after 65 years, to be the subject of debate.
“I don’t know if she’s a feminist,” says Steve Martino, director of The Peanuts Movie, the 3D animated crowd-pleaser (it’s drawing nostalgic adults and new kid audiences alike) that so far has grossed more than $172 million worldwide and is in hot contention for an animated feature Oscar nomination. “But if Lucy found out she wasn’t being paid as much as Charlie Brown to be in my movie, I’d have definitely heard about it. The cameras would have stopped rolling until the pay inequity had been dealt with. We wouldn’t be getting any more film in the can until it was fixed.”
Jean Schulz offers a slightly more nuanced answer to the age-old question — an answer Lucy herself would no doubt appreciate. “Is she a feminist or a jerk?” Schulz ponders. “Can’t she be both?”
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