'Peanuts': How Peppermint Patty was 'groundbreaking' for female athletes, a 'comfort' for LGBTQ folks

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There's never been a character quite like Peppermint Patty.

When the fiercely outspoken and athletic young girl was introduced in Charles M. Schulz's "Peanuts" comics in August 1966, she was an anomaly: She came from a single-parent home, was bad at school, good at sports and didn't wear dresses. The origins of Peppermint Patty – and the rest of the Peanuts gang – are explored in a new Apple TV+ documentary, "Who Are You, Charlie Brown?" (now streaming).

"If you think about how female cartoon characters were portrayed on the comics page when Peppermint Patty came on the scene, they were usually the foils for their husbands, like 'Blondie' or 'Beetle Bailey,' " says cartoonist Paige Braddock, who serves as chief creative officer at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates. "So along comes this young female character who's kind of a tomboy and charting her own path. That was very groundbreaking and opened the door for other (comics) creators to do more unique female characters."

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Schulz, who died in 2000 at 77, named Peppermint Patty after the candy bar and his cousin, Patricia Swanson. But the documentary also reveals how the character was modeled after trailblazing tennis champ Billie Jean King, whom Schulz greatly admired and befriended in the early '70s.

"I don't think Peppermint Patty was directly inspired initially by Billie Jean King," Braddock says. "But certainly his friendship with her informed a lot of the sports stuff that Peppermint Patty was into and her tenacity about doing well in sports."

Peppermint Patty was always the best athlete of the "Peanuts" strip, and once answered a teacher's question by saying the four seasons of the year are "baseball, football, basketball and hockey." Through the character, Schulz sparked an important dialogue about women in sports and gender equality on the field. He served on the board of directors of King's Women's Sports Foundation and incorporated a multiday "Peanuts" storyline in 1979 about Title IX, which prevented gender discrimination in schools.

"He was a very fair-minded person when it came to women having equal pay for sports and equal access," Braddock says. And in comics, "he was a real game changer. Before him, every comic on the college page was either gag-driven, humor-driven, or an adventure comic. Here's this guy all of a sudden doing a comic about kids being really honest about their feelings," in addition to social issues.

In the nearly 55 years since Peppermint Patty joined the Peanuts crew, much has been written about the character as a queer icon. Despite Patty's secret crush on Charlie Brown (or "Chuck," as she calls him), many people have joked and speculated that she and Marcie, her bookish sidekick, are romantically involved.

"For all of us who were tomboys as kids, who didn't necessarily want to play by the gender rules, Peppermint Patty and Marcie are standouts," Braddock says. "I don't think there was any intentional messaging from Schultz about that because he's of a different era and I don't think he would have even thought about that. But that doesn't mean that people in the gay community don't find comfort in those characters or see themselves reflected back in those characters."

As for why Marcie calls Peppermint Patty "Sir"? There's no clear explanation.

"I asked Schultz one time because, to me, that's just super funny," Braddock says. "He jokingly turned to me and said, 'I have no idea. Marcie's a very strange little girl.' "

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Apple TV+ 'Charlie Brown' doc traces origins of Peppermint Patty, more