By Sam Keyes
Episode 1300 of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, titled “Potato Bugs and Cows,” aired in 1973. It is one of the earlier operas produced on the show (our family favorite is 1980’s “Windstorm in Bubble Land”). In most cases, the operas are produced within the Neighborhood of Make-Believe — King Friday XIII summons his royal opera director Reardon and asks him to produce an opera within a week. So, leading up to the opera itself, there are episodes in which the various characters of Make-Believe work on their operatic characters, costumes, and storyline.
Watching Mister Rogers with my children is a constant reminder of how impoverished our culture can be when it comes to childhood. This is not simply a rant about how TV was better when I was growing up (I’m not sure that I really want to sing the praises of Thundercats). Mister Rogers, despite the apparent emphasis on imagination, is a show precisely about the real. It contains “fantasy” in the truest sense, not as an escape from reality (I am tempted to make comparisons here with PJ Masks) but as a way of entering it more fully.
Mister Rogers doesn’t miraculously make my kids good; they are just as capable of throwing a tantrum when an episode ends as they are when we turn the TV off after Wild Kratts. Still, in terms of deep effect, the show has a way of opening up the imagination rather than directing it. For example, PJ Masks seems to produce nothing but the desire to play PJ Masks — a desire ramped up by and in some sense dependent on the marketing of various products in your local toy section. By contrast, when you can sing songs about potato bugs, you can sing songs about anything.
In the Potato Bug opera, a young cow named Priscilla meets a dancing potato bug. (His song and dance routine is rather to the point. “I … am … a potato bug! Potato bug! Potato bug!” etc.) She decides that she would rather be a potato bug than a cow; she does not know any groovy cows, and she does not believe that she can be groovy as a cow. She makes plans to run away and become a potato bug, assisted by another potato bug named Idaho. Her mother is distressed and calls the farmer. The farmer is perplexed and calls the king. (The farmer’s wife, played by Lady Elaine Fairchild, is a sort of cool counter-balance to the panic, singing “I wish you’d let Priscilla handle this; I wish you’d let her do her thing.”)
Priscilla’s transition comes to halt when the King brings in Joe Bull, a groovy singing bull. Priscilla realizes that she does not need to be a potato bug to be the kind of person she thinks she wants to be. The story wraps up with a barn dance and everything in its right place.
I used the word “transition” above with intention. It is hard for me to take in this story without reference to the present moment and its obsessive deconstruction of human body-soul integrity. As I watched the opera most recently, I wondered what contemporary gender theorists and activists would think. Would they balk at the show’s insistence that Priscilla ought to be content with the body she was born with? Would they sniff at the somewhat simplistic suggestion that meeting a “groovy” bull would easily fix her dysphoria? Mister Rogers may seem to represent the gospel of niceness, but here, it seems, there are limits — not to compassion, or to love, but to the ways we allow our friends to deny what is true.
Of course, the simple question — “Who am I?” — is not one that ought to be answered based strictly on physiology any more than on psychology. A person with gender dysphoria (or any other kind of dysphoria, or any kind of physical difference leading to the same questions) is a concrete person, not an idea; their difficulty cannot be solved by recourse to coercive binaries, whether physical or psychological. Yet I submit further that these challenges can no more be solved by violent disintegration of the human person. We cannot confront the difficulties of our bodies by trying to make them into something they are not, just as we cannot confront the difficulties of our souls by seeking to redefine them by strength of will.
Though it is perhaps a little too easily done in the Potato Bug opera, the solution is indeed not very far from the sudden encounter with groovy Joe Bull. Friendship, as a form of human love, provides more than pleasant feelings and a way to pass the time. It narrates our existence beyond the walls of both self-description and mere nature. It is through the other that we can see who we are (and who we are not). So identity comes, at base, not from a declaration of intention (“I am going to become a potato bug”) but from a set of concrete relationships that develop over time. Nature, as a given set of created realities, stands as the first such relationship. But, when Christians speak of how grace elevates and perfects nature, they claim that friendship with God is capable of making nature not something other than what it is but something more.
We do not really know what this means, though for starters we know that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Look ahead, in other words. Priscilla’s problem, in the opera, isn’t that she wants to be a potato bug, but that she doesn’t want to be a cow. She’s refusing the gift of concrete existence and all its possibilities and risks (which are no doubt many). Seeing the gift anew, through the life of another, opens up her future. To get to future glory we have to first be where we are, which means not just “living in the present” but living with our bodies and souls. We may not always experience this composite identity as a gift — indeed, the traditional attribute of “subtlety” in resurrected humanity suggests its eschatological perfection and elevation as well as its current challenges — but it is just in such a gift, not despite it, that we are capable of becoming “fully alive,” in Irenaeus’ famous line, when we come to the New Jerusalem.
Dr. Sam Keyes is professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.