Welcome to the Neighborhood of Solitude
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
by Eileen Hunt Botting
When Tom Hanks zoomed into Saturday Night Live to claim the title of First Celebrity Patient of the Covid-19 pandemic, it made me wonder: Who was the real patient zero? Scientists don’t know, and probably never will. But I had a strong hunch about who could be America’s prime icon of patience in the solitude of quarantine: Hanks’s alter-ego of the moment, Mister Rogers.
To clarify, I mean the real Mister Rogers, who is himself a fiction, impersonated by a variety of talented actors who have played different versions of him: besides the originator of the role, the American Presbyterian minister and puppeteer Fred Rogers, we have also seen Eddie Murphy’s satirical skits as the divinely vulgar “Mister Robinson” on S.N.L., as well as Hanks’s Oscar-nominated performance as Rogers—both as the character and as Fred Rogers himself—for the 2019 biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on journalist Tom Junod’s transformative encounter with the man who fashioned this multi-media phenomenon.
The real—I mean fictive—Mister Rogers dramatized the artistic true self of his creator, Fred Rogers, in a TV series titled Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Begun in 1968, this meta-theatrical televisual production dominated children’s public television in the United States for over thirty years. Its cultural impact continues to resonate to the point that the world’s most popular actor—Hanks—can play Fred Rogers as Mister Rogers on S.N.L. and Instagram in an effort to muffle the panic inherent in the very idea of pan(dem)ic.
Born in 1928, the historical Fred Rogers was a quiet, asthmatic man who spent part of his childhood “in a kind of quarantine,” playing with puppets in his bedroom. He had to hide inside due to the poor air quality of his rust-belt town in western Pennsylvania during the Great Depression and its aftermath. Perhaps it was in deliberate contrast that Hanks’s S.N.L. monologue broadcasted his swift recovery from the novel coronavirus from the relative safety of a swanky bunker with a fully stocked stainless-steel kitchen.
Although Hanks deserved his Oscar nomination for his warm and affectionate performance as Fred Rogers, the real Mister Rogers is the unsung pop cultural hero of love in the time of corona. This should be clear to anyone who grew up in the 1970s, especially in the United States. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood— with the almost trippy Land of Make-Believe at its psychic core—was routine if not mandatory television viewing for most of Generation X. Parents now worry about too much screen time. Back then, the Boomers worried about whether their kids were getting enough Mister Rogers.
Fast forward almost fifty years. I am now a mom who is trying to figure out how to work from home while waiting to see if my kid gets the green light to go to kindergarten. Going under lockdown was like returning to a dystopian version of my Gen-X childhood. As I went down the rabbit hole of children’s public television in a desperate attempt to “homeschool,” I began to see things from a different slant. Things that used to look normal, now looked absolutely bonkers. Like shaking hands, for instance.
What I notice now—after countless weeks of voluntary self-quarantine with just my immediate family and the Internet for company—is that Mister Rogers almost never left his house either. It slowly dawned on me: Why would he ever leave? There was so much to do in the Land of Make-Believe! Or perhaps, I wondered—had he been in quarantine the whole time?
As a matter of safety, Mister Rogers accepted only speedy deliveries from the postman. With a flurry of frantic hand gestures, Mister McFeely would drop the packages by the doorstep before he rushed off to infect the rest of the neighborhood. But not Mister Rogers!
After securely retrieving his delivery, Mister Rogers quickly re-entered the house. Immediately removing his light jacket or long sweater as well as his shoes, he would replace them with a button-up or zipper sweater and a clean pair of sneakers. He kept identical clean spares in his meticulously organized entryway closet. I couldn’t help but wonder if he completed the purification process when the cameras were off. Did he do his own laundry, or burn his outdoor clothing and footwear in a basement incinerator before ordering clean spares for delivery?
Mister Rogers rarely went to the grocery store, but his pantry was completely stocked. He happily made and ate bland meals at home alone every day. He hummed a tune to keep his mind off the fact that there were no other people in the house, except those weird puppets he made with paper maché during the early, creative, phase of quarantine.
Pet care was a serious concern while sticking to a stay-at-home policy. Mister Rogers remembered to feed the fish at the same time each day. Trapped in the aquarium, they had no choice but to listen to him if food was the reward.
Mister Rogers fully committed himself to social distancing. He built a life-size diorama of the human unconscious in the form of The Neighborhood of Make-Believe. This hidden world could only be accessed through a toy train tunnel in his home on the set of a television studio. Once inside, Mister Rogers didn’t let his guard down. He hid behind a wall and talked through a hand puppet to prevent community spread of the virus between his id, ego, and superego.
Perhaps the most prescient dimension of Mister Rogers’s artistic vision was to broadcast his soothing personality. His business model was futuristically tech-oriented too. He remotely built a following among fellow vulnerable people stuck at home with nothing better to do than laugh at low production value TV.
Mister Rogers typically kept his distance, but when he did break quarantine he would strike against racism and other prejudice. He was good friends with the friendly neighborhood black policeman, Officer Clemmons. In the spring of 1969, around the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the pair sat smiling in Mister Rogers’s yard near the porch. To cool off from a hot day, they placed their naked feet in a plastic wading pool. They remained silent, but the anti-segregation message was clear. Social distancing should not be a cover for racism—a social disease so contagious and dangerous that it threatens the human potential for peace and neighborliness.
In the first philosophy book on Covid-19, Pan(dem)ic!, Slavoj Žižek has extended the left critique of American society that he set out in his response to 9/11, Welcome to the Desert of the Real. In that influential 2002 book, he described the experience of seeing the Twin Towers come down as a hyperreal exposure of the capitalistic death-spiral that was overwhelming not only America but the whole world. The title of his book cleverly referred to the iconic scene in the Wachowski sisters’ film The Matrix (1999), wherein the resistance leader Morpheus sardonically welcomes the hacker Neo to the desert-like, bombed-out urban landscape of the real world, which lies beyond the glossy virtual reality they had been raised to believe was true.
In Pan(dem)ic!, Žižek welcomes readers “to the viral desert” by unmasking the capitalistic power politics behind the economic disaster of Covid-19. He mocks the irrational panic over toilet paper shortages in the U.S. and Britain as signs of the paranoid, moralizing, and consumptive style of Western capitalism. He makes the provocation that the crude material culture of neoliberalism has ill-prepared the U.S. and other late capitalistic societies to escape the grips of a self-destructive pandem-panic.
As much as I appreciate his solidaristic political reading of The Matrix, as well as his economic analysis of the current crisis, I disagree with Žižek’s pessimistic view of my country’s imaginative resources for surviving the present pandemic. I find that the reverse is true about the neuroses of Americans in quarantine—at least for my lost generation. Challenging our reputation for under-achievement, the 65.2 million Americans aged 39 to 54 have been winning the 2020 Olympics of social distancing. Why? Gen X prefers to work (and watch movies) from the cocoon of home. The many nerds among us have been avoiding awkward social interactions for decades by communicating through keyboards. We do a lot of protesting on social media, too, most recently in the wake of the horrific racist murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
In the postscript to Pan(dem)ic!, Žižek endorsed the social recluse’s response to Covid-19. Emerging as a new European Mister Rogers for post-apocalyptic communism, Žižek advised people to stay home and indulge their love of bad television “until the pandemic passes.” Despite the snark, he admitted “the screen won’t fully save you. The main task is to structure your daily life in a stable and meaningful way.”
Watching Mister Rogers’s stable and meaningful routine taught my generation of Americans (and many Millennials after us) how to endure an interminable period of boredom—the eighteen infantilizing years of childhood—with nothing to do but rely on screens to hone our command of irony, sarcasm, and cultural critique. Long before 9/11 or The Matrix, Mister Rogers prepped us to see that the desert of the real opens a portal into the dark plenitude of the imagination.
Streaming online is the final proof that Mister Rogers is Gen X’s—and perhaps all of America’s—cultural patient zero, or model for patient, caring, and socially-conscious endurance of Covid-19. Skip the recent movie and documentary made about the actor, and go back to the original episodes that invented the character. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2018, the show has aged well, even matured, into something quite profound. Mister Rogers begins each day by welcoming his viewers to a friendly neighborhood of solitude, wherein one of his puppets—“X” the Owl—just wants to be left alone, working on poetry inside his tree.
No matter how you find Mister Rogers and his ever-multiplying artistic creations, their televisual medium sings the uncanny ethical message of our pandemic and its growing civil unrest:
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please,
Please won’t you be
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