Herman Munster can be right on racism and still be wrong, Hank Stuever writes.
So it happens, in the United States of 2020, that while the
Rev. Al Sharpton was eulogizing George Floyd in Minneapolis on Thursday afternoon after 10 days of protest and unrest across the country (and around the world) over police killings of black people, many others were online exalting the wisdom of Herman Munster, sharing and resharing a clip from an episode of the original Munsters TV sitcom that aired 55 years ago.
In the clip, Herman (a Frankenstein monster who happens to be a husband and father) is trying to teach his little were wolfish son, Eddie Munster, a vital lesson in self-worth and acceptance of others.
“The lesson I want you to learn,” Herman says, “is that it doesn’t matter what you look like. You could be tall or short, or fat or thin, or ugly — or handsome, like your father — or you can be black or yellow or white, it doesn’t matter. But what does matter is the size of your heart and the strength of your character.”
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with what Herman (played by Fred Gwynne) says or how he says it — except it doesn’t quite get us to where we need to be right now. In fact, it’s another way for people (white people, let’s say) to let themselves off the hook, by once more declaring that race “doesn’t matter,” and equating it with appearance (ugly or handsome, fat or thin). Celebrating Herman’s simple wisdom is an entirely too facile way of glossing over a moment in which the United States may at last be at a breakthrough with its own history.
His speech to Eddie is flavoured, subtextually, with the same logic that strays in the direction of “All lives matter.”
Black, or yellow, or white. (Or cadaverous green — it doesn’t
matter!) I can almost hear some big, booming voices from decades ago, who always felt compelled to add to this sentiment a list of races that didn’t even exist: “Doesn’t matter to me if you’re purple and polka-dotted,” my middle-school basketball coach once said to my all-white teammates and me, 40 years ago, as we prepared for a scrimmage game at a reservation.
But I get it. For decades, TV viewers have been brought up to believe in the sort of equality that often exists only in the abstract, or in speeches from authority figures. It was drilled into us to see people’s character before anything else — the size of one’s heart, as Herman says — and forget our other differences.
He was about as woke as a sitcom character could be in 1965, speaking from the viewpoint of one of many old-school sitcom characters (Martians, hillbillies, housewife-witches) who metaphorically represented the ostracized people Hollywood was too timid to directly portray. But looking past race didn’t bring us to the peace that Herman and other 20th-century idealists might have hoped it would be.
The only unsettling part of this is the prevailing sentiment (seen mainly on Twitter, where Herman went viral) that the character was somehow way ahead of his time. In fact, his words are right in line with the language of those who stood up for civil rights in the mid-1960s.
“It doesn’t matter” is a clunky note to play in the era of Black Lives Matter. “It doesn’t matter” is too close to “I don’t care what you are” — the operative words being “I don’t care.”
What’s still good about Herman’s lecture was always good (try always to be a big-hearted person of strong character). And yet, if we’ve learned anything in recent days, it’s that race completely matters — always has, always will, and not always negatively. The idea that someone’s race doesn’t matter conveys a notion that we don’t really care to explore one another’s identities, cultures and histories.
Yet that is the thing we are being implored by this movement to do: listen, care and treat the experience of race like it matters.
Herman was wise, but his words are too tidy for anyone who is sincere about living in the now and facing the real monster.
An old video clip of Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster has gone viral.