So, in the natural order of Sunday mornings, I’d been surfing the Web for an hour before I actually regained consciousness. I awoke to discover I was playing Find the Picture at Highlights for Children. Remember Highlights? Remember Find the Picture? Remember Find the Picture being so goddamn difficult you thought you were going to have a goddamn stroke if you didn’t find that goddamn candlestick pretty goddamn quick? No, me neither. Wow.
Highlights was my first magazine subscription. The joy I derived from getting a magazine was tempered by the fact that Highlights sucked pretty hard. Their strapline was “fun with a purpose” — rather too much purpose and not quite enough fun. Well, Find the Picture was fun. I swear it was. I don’t know what happened there. And I think maybe I got a drawing published once. Or maybe I just thought about sending them a drawing. Doing something and thinking about doing something were pretty much the same to me at seven. And at 16, 24, 37 and 46.
Highlights celebrated their sixtieth anniversary and sold their one billionth copy this year. It’s changed. Everything’s in color now, of course. The creepy wooden Timbertoes family is still in there, but that bear family got lost along the way. There’s a new advice column called Ask Arizona. Arizona is a “quirky, eleven year old girl who lives in a diverse neighborhood of San Francisco.” I think quirky means “racially indeterminate.”
They waited until August of 2006 to screw up the one genuinely educational feature in the magazine. Yeah, you know what I’m talking — Goofus and Gallant. It wasn’t educational in quite the way it was intended, of course. Like most questions posed by grownups to children, there’s the answer you know they want you to give and there’s the real answer. Real answers are much harder to work out. That’s the first lesson.
G&G was a comic contrasting the behavior of two boys. Goofus was a jerk. Gallant was a pussy. You were supposed to choose pussy.
Here’s the only strip I could find online. I seem to remember the 1960s version was drawn better. This is the 1980 version.
No getting around it, Goofus is a flaming asshole. But Gallant is a little goody-two shoes suck-up pantywaist sack of crap (is it my imagination, or has he got a Jesus thing going here? How come there’s always stuff growing near him?). When the big boys troll for lunch money, who are they going to mess with? Shoot, any normal kid would be tempted to take a swing at Gallant, he’s just so…he’s just…he’s…well, look at him. And he plays with girls.
Some of the scenarios were a lot more ambiguous. Like, “Goofus won’t try out for the football team for fear he will fail / Gallant gives it his best because he shits icecream and wild birds fly down to perch on his shoulders.” Grownups pretended the answers were easy, but they knew it wasn’t true, and you knew it wasn’t true, and you knew they knew it wasn’t true. You can’t trust grownups to give you a fair choice. That’s the second lesson.
When life presents me a “Goofus or Gallant?” predicament — as it does daily — I find myself reaching for a third way. Splitting the difference. Do the righteous thing, maybe, but not be such a wiener about it. Goofus and Gallant didn’t teach us to choose Gallant, it taught us the two extremes of coming across badly. And sometimes, indisputably, it’s just Goofus time. That’s the third lesson.
So how could Highlights mess up such a wonderful educational tool? Well, apparently, there are no assholes allowed in the Age of Aquarius. They’ve morphed Goofus from a jerk into a lovable, rumpled slacker. Check it:
Yeah, Gallant’s calling his mommy on his cellphone to see if he can have a kitty. Was there ever starker choice than the Goofus-boys-and-puppies / Gallant-girl-kitty-what-the-hell-is-that-a-lacy-pillow dichotomy here? Goofus is a likeable slouch; Gallant is a vacant-eyed Stepford boy who wandered away from his Up with People troupe.
They’ve taken a tough moral illustration and made it a one-sided no-brainer. They even have a helpful interactive story generator. Walk through one and tell me, honestly, you wouldn’t choose the Goofus Way.