By Katherine Monk
They are both billion-dollar icons born in two dimensions, but the differences between Charlie Brown and Bart Simpson mark a striking shift in values that reflect a larger generational change in everything from merchandizing to the relationship between children and adults.
So on the eve of The Peanuts movie’s theatrical release, and the introduction of Charlie Brown to a new generation of young people, it seemed like a good time to take a good look at the two little boys who became kings of pop culture, and their respective ideological legacies written in thought bubbles and block letters on the universal psyche.
BASIC BIO: Charlie Brown: Born October 30, 1946 (character first appeared in 1950)
Approximate Age: 10
Zodiac Sign: Scorpio
Chinese Astrology Sign: Dog
Lifespan – franchise: 1950-2000 (one of the longest-running by a single author)
Readership: 355M (75 countries, 21 languages)
Estimated franchise revenue: $1 billion
Tagline: “Good Grief!”
Shakespearean equivalent: King Lear
Moral compass points to: How can I be better? How can I help others?
Defining object: Baseball glove
The Everyman of animated characters, Charlie Brown is known to fail and falter, but he never gives up. Hope springs eternal, making him a truly old-fashioned American hero.
Though Chuck’s Chinese Zodiac makes a lot of sense, given dogs are considered our humble and self-sacrificing best friends, he doesn’t seem like an obvious Scorpio – a sign associated with forcefulness and self-possession. Then again, he always did what he thought was right – even if it didn’t yield esthetic results. Witness the famed Charlie Brown Christmas tree, an item so recognizable, you can buy a fake one at Canadian Tire.
The baseball glove is symbolic of America’s most iconic game, giving Chuck a winsome Norman Rockwell feel. But baseball is also a team sport, and as the pitcher — even a bad one — Chuck is in a leadership position. He fails miserably, but for him, the most important part isn’t winning or losing, it’s being part of the team.
The great creator behind Charlie Brown, Charles Schultz, said the character was based in large part on his own childhood. Even the story of the Little Redheaded Girl was steeped in personal experience: Schultz had fallen for a woman named Donna Mae Johnson, and when he signed his first contract, he asked her for her hand in marriage. She declined, giving Charlie Brown the wounded heart of a true lover, and the gravitas of a Shakespearean hero. “Fusing adult ideas with a world of small children” was the whole point of Peanuts, said Schultz.
Charlie Brown wears short pants and a yellow shirt with a black zigzag, and during the winter, he sports a cap with flaps and a boiled wool jacket – midcentury standards that make Chuck a total hipster today. Throw on some thick-rimmed glasses and a forest of chin hair, and he’d pass for the owner of a craft brewery. Chuck doesn’t talk about his bald head that much, because back in the day, Hair Club for Men didn’t exist and kids in pre-school didn’t get plastic surgery.
Charlie Brown is older brother to Sally, and it’s a job that fills him with a sense of pride and purpose – apparently yelling “I’m a father” and giving his classmates chocolate cigars after Sally’s birth.
Charlie Brown is deeply attached to Snoopy, a dog who is a part of every important experience in Chuck’s childhood, and very often, his only companion. Charlie Brown sees Snoopy as a member of the family, and a friend, and a fully sentient presence.
RELATIONSHIP TO THE ADULT WORLD:
This is one area where the difference between Peanuts and The Simpsons is most stark, and perhaps most enlightening. In Peanuts, we never actually see adults. We can only hear their deep, droning voices as a muted trumpet in the background. For Schulz, this was an important piece in the puzzle because it ensured the Peanuts world was sealed and scaled down, allowing him to explore complex, grown-up topics such as love and war from the non-cynical perspective of a child. It also reflected an era when kids would roam through neighbourhoods in packs until the dinner bell rang at night.
When broadcast executives saw the first Peanuts Christmas special, they thought it would bomb because the music was weird and the message deeply earnest. But it was Vince Gueraldi’s score and Schultz’s aching sincerity that made Peanuts the generational signpost it became. Peanuts allows kids to feel the existential void via Charlie Brown’s angst, and it leaves an impression because it makes you feel real emotions such as loneliness, gratitude and love. “I suppose there’s a melancholy feeling in a lot of cartoonists, because cartooning, like all other humor, comes from bad things happening,” said Schultz. And if there’s one overarching difference between these two icons, it’s about feelings. Charlie Brown operates from a place of love and trust in his fellow human beings. Bart’s sarcasm is a measure of his distrust in the adult world, and the banal evils it inflicts on the hapless Everyman.
THE EX-PRESS, November 6, 2015
BASIC BIO: Bart Simpson: Born April 1, 1979 (character first appeared in 1987)
Zodiac Sign: Aries
Chinese Astrology: Sheep
Lifespan – franchise: 1987-current (longest-running prime time sitcom)
Viewership: Top (33.6 million in 1990 for Bart Gets an F, and low, 3.4 million in 2014)
Estimated franchise revenue: over $3 billion
Tagline: “Don’t have a cow, man!”
Shakespearean equivalent: Hamlet
Moral compass points to: What’s in it for me?
Defining object: Skateboard
Narcissistic, sarcastic and disrespectful, Bart Simpson is a bleak emblem of the ME generation that marched through every North American mall and left with an SUV full of shopping bags.
It’s a double whammy of ovine energy as Bart Simpson represents the ram and sheep, which according to astrology experts, makes for a “straightforward” personality type. Described as candid, easygoing and a bit of a dreamer, these fluffy types make friends easily and are attracted to the action of daily life. “They hate deception and will refuse to be a part of them.” Sounds like Bart, part revolutionary anarchist and part stuffed animal.
What better representation of the 1980s than a skateboard? A kids’ toy that grew up into a billion-dollar industry, the skateboard came with a “skate punk” social stigma, which translated beautifully into Bart’s kinetic screen presence. Skateboarding is also an individual sport, geared around personal performance and celebrity worth.
Matt Groening was supposed to create a series of animated vignettes for the Tracey Ullman show featuring scenes from his strip “Life in Hell,” but when he realized he’d be forced to give up the copyright to his creations, he created a whole new set of characters based on his own “dysfunctional family.” He even gave them his parents’ names, while the name Bart was crafted from the same letters as ‘brat.’
Like other cartoon boy characters including Dennis the Menace, Richie Rich and good ol’ Chuck, Bart Simpson has a rather limited wardrobe. Usually appearing in short blue pants and a red T-shirt, Bart adopts the uniform of his peers—but he’s often seen sporting branded merchandize, from Itchy and Scratchy shirts to Krusty the Klown pajamas, reflecting the explosive surge in franchise marketing that started in the mid-1980s, shortly after E.T. ate Reese’s Pieces. Unlike Chuck, Bart was born with lots of hair.
Bart Simpson is the older brother to Lisa, a genius and prodigy who represents the most adult character on the show. Like Lucy and Chuck, Lisa can psychoanalyze Bart, only in a far more academic way that exposes Bart’s many personality disorders with surgical precision.
Santa’s Little Helper – the Simpson family greyhound – was rescued at the racetrack after the original owner abandoned the animal after finishing last. Santa’s Little Helper has been given bigger parts over the course of the series, but he’s more of background character than a lead. Unlike other cartoon animals, neither Snoopy nor Santa’s Little Helper actually speak in English, but they do communicate with the human world, and often point out where we’re inhumane, and unevolved. Unlike Chuck, Bart doesn’t have a deep bond with Santa’s Little Helper. He’s too self-involved, and lacks the same degree of empathy.
RELATIONSHIP TO THE ADULT WORLD:
Like all helicopter parent-child-dynamics, Bart spends as much time with Marge and Homer as he does with his peers, and almost all the drama stems from Bart’s misbehavior. Boys always get into trouble, but what’s interesting about our modern era is the way the onus of responsibility has shifted to the parent. When Bart’s bad, it’s Marge and Homer who are forced to bear the weight of embarrassment – and Bart knows it, skillfully coopting the legal system to smear Homer as often as possible. In Groening’s world, there is no separation between the world of the child and the world of the adult, and as a result, there is no separation between innocence and experience. And perhaps that’s where the built-in cynicism comes from, because Bart and Lisa can see how flawed and stupid the adult world can be – without being able to truly change anything because they are just kids. “This was never about being cool,” Bart tells Homer after seeking emancipation as a minor in the 300th episode. “This is about you not caring how I feel.”
The Simpsons has been called one of the most important television shows of all time, but it’s not the ratings juggernaut it once was. The show has seen a steady decline in the past few years, suggesting it may not be resonating with the next generation of youth. Maybe Bart’s sarcasm, pre-teen nihilism and self-obsession are slowly fading out of fashion as the Zeitgeist softens. Perhaps we’re primed for a more earnest hero who really cares, and carries a flower of peace instead of a spray can of dissent.