“Try, Chuck, try to explain love,” urges Peppermint Patty.
“Well, say I see this cute little girl walk by–”
“Why does she have to be cute, Chuck? Can’t someone fall in love with a girl who isn’t cute and has freckles and a big nose? Explain that, Chuck!” Peppermint Patty scowls and crosses her arms.
“Well, maybe you’re right. Let’s just say then that I happen to see this girl walk by who has a great big nose and–”
“I didn’t say a great big nose! Chuck!” Peppermint Patty interrupts.
“You not only can’t explain love, actually you can’t even talk about it,” Charlie Brown sums up.
(Dialogue from Peanuts Cartoon by Charles Schultz)
Attending a performing arts middle school gives my daughter opportunities to explore characters both like and unlike herself. The past school year found her in not one, but two Peanuts productions. Playing Peppermint Patty and the Little Red-haired Girl presented different takes on what it means to be female.
In December, when Maya was cast as Peppermint Patty in “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” she wore the obligatory green shirt, borrowed her brother’s shorts and wore sandals in the winter, just like Patty.
Peppermint Patty was created by Charles Schultz in response to the women’s movement. Finally there was a character that didn’t wear a dress and could play sports, defying gender stereotypes. She got bad grades and her best friend Marcie called her “Sir” though it was never clear if it was attributed to Marcie’s poor eyesight or a passive aggressive response to Patty’s bossiness.
The audience warmed to her instantly and chuckled every time she said something smart and sassy with a punctuated, “Chuck.”
“She’s a perfect Peppermint Patty,” a friend said after the play.
I paused for a moment and wondered why. Is it because Peppermint Patty is so self-assured? Is it her tomboy look and the fact that Maya doesn’t even own a dress? Is it because Maya, like Patty, thinks she isn’t cute?
I remembered the day I caught Maya looking at herself in the mirror.
“Do you think you’re beautiful?” I asked.
“I know I’m beautiful on the inside,” she said. “And that’s really what matters.”
“Of course it is,” I agreed. “But do you think you are beautiful on the outside too?”
“I’m not sure,” she said looking away. I was dumbfounded. How could she not know? Watching her linger to look at the tabloids as we purchased our groceries, I thought, Oh, that’s why she doesn’t know.
Months later Maya read the cast list for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown “after try-outs.
“I’m playing the Little Red-haired Girl?” She was happy to have a part, but perplexed at the choice.
“I don’t see myself at all in that character,” she said.
“Your drama teacher knows what she’s doing,” I assured her.
The Little Red-haired Girl was based on a real-life beauty with whom Charles Shultz fell in love. He proposed. She said no and married someone else. Thus she became the forever wanted yet unattainable Little Red-haired Girl. She has no particular personality in the comic strip other than being cute.
We went searching for a dress. It had to be a girly dress and something that would fit the comic strip fashion time frame. We hit the vintage stores. I found an old fashioned pink dress that flared at the bottom. Maya’s size.
“No way,” Maya fumed. “Nothing pink!”
“But the little red-haired girl would’ve loved pink,” I defended.
“Not pink,” Maya said and that was the end of that conversation.
We found a light blue button-up dress and I bought her white Keds with lacy white bobby socks. We moved on to the hair.
We bought a semi-permanent dye that promised to wash out in about twelve shampooings. Maya wore a garbage bag while red juice covered her blonde hair. When it was dyed and dried, she walked out looking like an auburn bombshell.
“Did she just age like four years?” my husband asked.
I just nodded as she walked by. Was she holding her shoulders back a little more? Walking taller? Was that a flirty little smile?
The performance was inspiring. During the scene where Charlie Brown expresses angst about whether to approach the Little Red-haired Girl I couldn’t help but whisper, “That’s my daughter.”
The friend who thought she was perfect as Peppermint Patty came up after and said, “She was a perfect Little Red-haired Girl.”
And she was for those performances. Gone was the tentative, “I’m shy and don’t know what to say.” Erased was the anxious, “What if no one wants to be my friend?” She even went shopping with me and bought something besides a hoodie to hide her body.
On the final performance night she said, “I’m so glad I did it. I really felt a part of something, but it’s funny, I didn’t have hard lines to memorize and I didn’t make people laugh like when I was Peppermint Patty.”
Being a young girl in these times can be very confusing. Then again maybe being a young girl in any time was confusing. It was for me and I’m pretty sure it was for my mother and her mother. Having the opportunity to play the intellectual, funny, gender-bending, Peppermint Patty as well as the crush-inspiring Little Red-haired Girl is perhaps what we all are looking for: to know we’ve got it going on inside and out.
While I hope my daughter doesn’t define herself by what Charlie Brown thinks about her, I feel lucky to stand by and watch her work both of these female characters out for herself. Even though the dye still hasn’t completely washed out of her hair weeks after the curtain closed, I do agree that “happiness is two kinds of ice cream.”