I finally saw the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? last weekend. There’s a scene from the original show that I can’t get over: Mr. Rogers with his trousers rolled up as he mists his bare feet and ankles with a hose. When the footage appeared on my TV screen, I held my breath for a moment. There was something surprising to me about the sight of Mr. Rogers’s naked feet.
The scene doesn’t end there. One of the neighbors, Officer Clemmons, stops by and Mr. Rogers invites him to join him in cooling off.
The film explains that this scene was created to address racial issues at the time. The episode first aired in 1969, only five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Fred Rogers was offering children a simple image to counteract whatever hateful messaging they had already encountered: that it is normal for black and white people to share intimate moments, to share water, that it is normal for a white man to tenderly dry his black neighbor’s feet with a towel.
It is 2018, and I find both the scene and the image still incredibly subversive in its tenderness. It is a radical comment, not just on race, but on maleness.
When I reflect on this scene, I am reminded of my father and the two days every summer that were so hot that he wore shorts instead of pants. I think of how surprising he looked to me then. I can’t think of a single instance, besides this scene in Mr. Rogers, where TV or film have represented men in the simple, sensual act of caring for the body for pleasure or relief. I can think of scenes of men showering or shaving, scenes that feature a leading man’s strong upper body, all hairy chest and biceps, but that feels somehow much less tender than a closeup of ankles and feet.
That, I think, is why this scene surprised me. In Mr. Rogers’s world, men get to care for their bodies as women do.
Later on in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? we learn that Francois Clemmons, the man who played Officer Clemmons, is gay. We learn that Fred Rogers told him that he couldn’t go to clubs and or be open about his sexuality, or he would be fired from the show. We lean that Clemmons, in part to safeguard his career, married a woman. (The marriage lasted five years. )
The film doesn’t linger here—it’s quick to move on to assure us that Fred Rogers and his wife had many gay friends, and that Fred Rogers ultimately did accept Clemmens exactly as he was. The film doesn’t linger, but I do.
One feature of oppression is that people in positions of privilege and power often have to choose between bad options, in this case: truly accept your neighbor and risk losing the show you’ve spent years building, or ask your neighbor to stay in the closet. It’s clear to me why he chose the latter. But still it’s worth noting that the man who was willing to use his platform to comment on racism, the man who was willing to offer an alternative model of masculinity, the man whose vision was a message of unconditional love, could not also be the man who let an actor on his show live as his true self.
It’s clear that Clemmens admires and forgives Mr. Rogers in spite of the sacrifice he asked him to make. It’s clear that, at the end of the day, Mr. Rogers was not just the giver of unconditional acceptance, he was the recipient of it too.