For many years, I thought that Marcie, the bespectacled, book-obsessed girl in Peanuts, was Asian American. It wasn't just about how badly I wanted an Asian American in my favourite comic strip; it was about how much I identified with her. Through Marcie's various story arcs, Charles Schulz depicted the struggles of a shy person who learned her self-worth by reaching her breaking point.
Part of why I believed Marcie was Asian American was her purposefully nondescript depiction. Schulz never gave Marcie a last name, which left her ethnic background ambiguous. Her brunette hair was rendered black on the newspaper page. And her thick, opaque glasses obscured her eyes, which left their shape to my imagination. Perhaps Schulz wanted a character who readers could project themselves onto. Or perhaps it was a case of personality matching look. Marcie saw herself as unremarkable, and it extended to her appearance.
Marcie debuted in 1971, during a time of transition for Peanuts. In the 50's and 60's, most of Peanuts' daily strips were self-contained stories, with only a few arcs running a week or two long at most. But during the 70's and through the early 80's, Schulz allowed these narratives to last for three to six weeks, and the characters flourished.
The greatest recipient of these longer narratives was Peppermint Patty, a budding, second wave feminist who rebelled against gender roles. For a good stretch of the 70's, Peppermint Patty had a near equal amount of prominence as Charlie Brown. And because of that, Marcie was inevitably featured as well. She was Peppermint Patty's closest confidante and best friend, but often times, she might as well have been Peppermint Patty's shadow.
Peppermint Patty's rise to prominence with Marcie in tow gave Schulz time to develop Marcie's character. Her most defining character trait was her self-doubt. She thought little of herself and spent the majority of her time trying to placate others.
Marcie almost always appeared in the context of a planned activity, such as summer camp or school. Peppermint Patty had to knock on her door to get her involved in something, but much of the time, Marcie couldn't come out to play. She had to practice her organ. She had to study. She had to read. There was very little leisure time in Marcie's day; her parents were protective of her, and their method of keeping her safe was keeping her busy.
The effect of this disproportion on a child, of course, is that one becomes unbalanced — overdeveloped in cerebral matters, but underdeveloped in life skills and sociability. A poor self-image isn't far behind; it's difficult to imagine being desirable when socialising is so openly discouraged. Marcie resigned herself to her lack of appeal, even taking it for granted.
The act of dating someone seemed abstract, like something that happened in the far distant future, if at all.
Similarly to Marcie's parents, my first generation parents were concerned about the dangers outside the predictable structure of their home. When I was older, my parents still kept a close eye on me — I didn't date until I was in college. And having few friends and fewer social skills made me servilely loyal to my meager acquaintances. I was a desperate people pleaser, in a manner that's embarrassing in retrospect. I cringe whenever Marcie calls Peppermint Patty "sir" — I know that feeling of inadequacy, where I looked up to my friends rather than viewing them as my equals.
It took time, and a gradual building of confidence, to know that my acquaintances would respect me more, not less, for asserting myself. Marcie's storylines were often built around this discovery. Through her longer arcs she learned the value of asserting her self-worth and identity, whether by sticking up for someone else, sticking up for herself, or just by vocalizing her opinions.
Marcie always knew the right thing to do or say; it just became a matter of screwing up the courage to do or say it. Whether or not she could do so, and how she did so, depended on the individual scenario. Sometimes, she reached her breaking point and she emotionally lashed out.
Sometimes, she was able to keep her emotions in check, and she endured people's defensiveness to her truth telling.
Sometimes, she failed to assert herself, thus avoiding an uncomfortable conversation. During one multi-week storyline, Marcie sewed a skating dress — even though she did not know how to sew — because Peppermint Patty browbeat her into doing it.
This is a painful predicament for Peppermint Patty, but it's an even more painful predicament for Marcie. She's made to feel invisible; she's ignored and then berated for allowing herself to be ignored. She even knows Pattie isn't listening to her, but she does what's asked of her anyway.
Fortunately for both of them, the situation worked out in the end. Schulz had a soft spot for Peppermint Patty and Marcie, and every now and then, he cut the poor girls a break. But notice how Marcie never asserts that Peppermint Patty was wrong or selfish. Instead, she takes the blame upon herself; it's the sort of solution that someone with low self esteem might apply. Peppermint Patty and Marcie's friendship is restored, but it is still unequal. Their communication problems are bound to recur.
Sports were perhaps the place where Marcie found herself the most beaten down, but it was also where she located her strengths. In her own words, Marcie only played sports because she didn't want to "risk offending" Peppermint Patty. Again, this is the way a person with low self esteem thinks — that setting limits on her friend would damage their relationship rather than make it healthier.
And sometimes, Marcie made her displeasure known through passive aggressive behaviour. If she was going to be guilted into playing, she was going to sabotage everyone else's fun in the process.
Marcie had the hidden capacity to be a real smartass, especially in moments like these. She subtly undermined Peppermint Patty under the guise of "helping," perhaps rationalizing that if she was enough of a pain, she'd never be asked back. None of this, of course, was as good as simply saying "no" and sticking to it. Marcie, however, didn't have the confidence to challenge her friend so bluntly.
Marcie's most direct assertion occurred in the context of sports. When Thibault protested her participation on sexist grounds, Marcie showed exactly how direct she could be.
I sympathized with Marcie in this moment. Here she was, playing a game she hated playing, trying to appease a friend she didn't want to offend. And on top of that, she had to defend her right to be there? Eventually, Thibault's verbal abuse reached its tipping point, and Marcie's need to defend her humanity outweighed her need to please her friend.
That final strip was thrilling and inspiring. It was a side of Marcie that we rarely got to see, and it was good to know that it existed. There was a point to which Marcie could be pushed too far, where she would assert her self-worth instead of knuckling under.
No one handles every situation perfectly. And throughout the 70's, Marcie responds to being stepped on with a wide range of reactions, from bold to passive. It's as though she's trying on different identities before eventually settling on one.
But after this initial experimentation, Marcie found a way to make her friendship with Peppermint Patty more equal. Starting in 1984, she convinced Peppermint Patty to accompany her to classical music concerts as an apparent trade-off for her athletic participation. It was an arena where Marcie could feel in control, where her peers were at risk of making a faux pas instead of her.
Peppermint Patty enjoyed these concerts in spite of herself, and that was an unqualified victory for Marcie. For a rare moment, she could let someone into her world and feel validated for having done so. She finally engaged in a friendship on her own terms.
There is no Peanuts strip more life affirming or uplifting than this one. Friendship — real, raw friendship — can be difficult for someone who struggles with assertiveness and self-image. It's a struggle to feel like one is good enough to be treated as an equal. But it is worth it for moments like these.