When I first read the synopsis for the new Peanuts animated movie, which debuts in theaters this week, I immediately started scanning the internet to see who would be the first social justice-minded columnist to criticize the movie’s retrograde sexual politics. The basic premise of the film is that the hapless Charlie Brown tries and fails spectacularly — over and over again — to get the attention of “The Little Red-Haired Girl,” a running subplot within the comic strip and cartoon specials since the early 60s. Apparently, the latest iteration of the Little Red-Haired Girl, computer animated and in 3D, maintains the same basic arc the character has traversed since its creation — namely, she exists only to be a MacGuffin and has no “agency” of her own. She’s that ever elusive, always seductive entity that exists only thanks to the male gaze of Charlie Brown and according to early reviews, she hardly even speaks throughout the entire new movie. There’s no way somebody out there isn’t cracking his or her knuckles, getting ready to tear into how problematic this makes Peanuts.
By the way, that entire description of who the Little Red-Haired Girl is and how she’s being robbed of her agency? That was me mimicking the hot takes and think pieces likely to come. The reality is that I couldn’t give less of a crap about a cartoon character precisely because it’s a cartoon character. And if you’ve got the time to fret over something as absurd as the lack of satisfactory political correctness in a children’s movie, you’re ironically pretty damn privileged seeing as how there are apparently no real problems in your life for you to concern yourself with.
Well, it turns out the first person to notice a potential issue with the new Little Red-Haired Girl isn’t some Tumblr snowflake or perpetually aggrieved cultural crusader at XOJane and this person doesn’t have a gripe about the character’s lack of her own personality. Variety‘s Peter Debruge turned his review of Peanuts into a chance to opine not on the sexual politics of the Charlie Brown/Little Red-Haired Girl relationship but on the identity politics of the movie and the opportunity its creators missed to bring “a little modernization” to the proceedings. And when you hear the word “modernization” used in the context of entertainment these days, the translation is “diversity,” which is probably why Debruge specifically cites the diversity problem with the movie in his column. In an otherwise positive review, Debruge takes the time to point out that “while Franklin remains Charlie Brown’s only brown friend, a non-white love interest would have been as progressive as Schulz’s tomboyish depiction of Peppermint Patty was back in the day.”
Now of course there wouldn’t be a damn thing wrong with Charlie Brown being infatuated with someone of a different skin color or ethnicity, but it’s getting to the point where the internet has to argue in favor of swapping out genders, races and ethnicities every time an established character is resurrected for a new audience. It’s a supposed cultural imperative: to reflect the “changing face of America” in all forms of entertainment. Now there are certainly examples of filmmakers and showrunners naturally making decisions to change up well-known characters and the result being phenomenal entertainment (a female Starbuck in the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica immediately comes to mind). But the impetus for a decision to make changes to an established character in an established canon should be creative, not political.
The Little Red-Haired Girl could’ve been transformed into a person of color, sure, but given the history of that character and the nostalgic attachment to Peanuts and all its characters that an entire generation has, the reason for making the change should be something other than to avoid being criticized by people like Peter Debruge. (Another thing to consider is that in the age of social media umbrage, you’ll never make everybody happy; there will always be people who howl that you didn’t go far enough in transforming the property to the satisfaction of the self-proclaimed Millennial melting pot.) The cast of Peanuts is a culturally sacrosanct creation and to take liberties with Charles Shulz’s vision you’d better have a pretty good reason. Sure, you can make the argument that since it’s a story aimed at children it’s especially important that non-white kids see themselves represented within the Peanuts gang. However, have we really reached the point where we believe that kids can’t identify with anyone who doesn’t look exactly like them? That to me seems shockingly cynical in its outlook.
Obviously, none of this should amount to an earth-shattering controversy. There are a hell of a lot more important issues to be contemplating right now. But maybe that’s the point: Entertainment is supposed to entertain, not in and of itself correct the political and societal mistakes of history. There should be plenty of new opportunities to create racially and ethnically diverse material — if only Hollywood would take some chances — so that reverse-engineering properties and stories firmly held within the cultural imagination isn’t always deemed necessary.
There was nothing wrong with Peanuts to begin with and unless you can show that it would benefit the story in some creative way, there’s no reason to change a thing about it.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.