Goofus and Gallant: I must embrace my inner Goofus

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Anyone familiar with the kids’ magazine Highlights for Children will remember Goofus and Gallant, two fictitious boys brought to life in side-by-side drawings to illustrate bad and good. “Goofus cuts in line,” reads the caption under the picture of Goofus barging ahead of his innocent schoolmates. The second panel shows Goofus’s well-groomed counterpart, Gallant, a promising lad at peace with his schoolmates and the rules.“Gallant waits his turn.” It was too heavy-handed to take seriously. Even my mother despised the goody-two-shoes Gallant and sympathized with the plight of poor, neglected Goofus. In high school, my friends and I made up satirical captions for Goofus and Gallant, and my friend John delivered the all-time winner: “Goofus laughs at a funeral. Gallant pretends to cry.” – Jacob Schlicter

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Goofus and Gallant made their debut in Highlights for Children magazine in 1948. The feature, created by child psychologist and editor Garry Cleveland Myers, stars the ill-mannered Goofus and the prissy do-gooder Gallant. (The very first strips depicted G and G as pointy-eared elves. Before long they had morphed into regular human kids.) Each cartoon shows how each boy would respond to the same situation. Goofus invariably chooses a selfish or irresponsible path, while Gallant always responds with kindness and generosity. The aim of the strip is to teach young children positive social interaction skills.

Don Markstein’s Toonopedia site sums it up nicely:

Goofus was the jerk, as the young reader could easily see from his sour facial expressions and his messy hair. His behavior was always rude, selfish, and counter-productive. Gallant, always smiling and perfectly groomed, was the one kids were supposed to emulate. He was polite and considerate at all times. Their little episodes didn’t rise to the level of morality plays because that would require a story with a minimum, at least, of complexity – but it was clear who was the good guy and who the kids weren’t supposed to act like… Children could easily see they were being manipulated. They read “Goofus and Gallant” not because it was capable of holding their interest and keeping them entertained for an appreciable amount of time, but because it was so short and its lesson so obvious that they could instantly absorb it and get on to stuff that was more fun. Their feature became a metaphor for preachy adults telling them what to do. But it did so in tiny snippets, and if it was barely even sugar-coated, that was okay because it didn’t last long.

Goofus and Gallant became the moral arbiters of the baby-boom generation. Everyone knew at least one Gallant, and multiple Goofuses. Every kid knew which one they were most of the time. For me, and for many others, they became icons of the ideal and the real. I aspired to be a Gallant, but I suspected that deep down inside I was no more than a Goofus.

“Dial B for Blog” featured this insight:

“Goofus and Gallant” never offers direct lessons or shows consequences. “It simply shows a wrong way and a right way of doing things, that’s all,” said Highlights CEO Garry Cleveland Myers III. (Myers, a grandson of the magazine’s founders, denies the family legend that he was the inspiration for Gallant.)

“We couldn’t have Gallant without Goofus,” said Highlights Editor Kent Brown, “Without Goofus, Gallant would be bland and no one would pay attention. But kids see parts of themselves in both characters. No one is as good as Gallant, and no one is as bad as Goofus. But being more like Gallant is something to strive for.” (Brown, also a grandson of the founders, claims he was the inspiration for Goofus.)

And “Notes from the Grillo Pad” has this to say:

Even as a kid I mocked the cartoon, and mistrusted both Goofus and Gallant for their extremist points of view. But as I got older I began to see the value of the cartoon, for the way the characters clearly (and bluntly) demonstrated for a young audience the basics in how to play nice – and how not to – on a crowded planet.

I’ve come to figure this out. Believe it or not, everyone is capable of being Goofus or Gallant in different situations. The most Goofus of us has some Gallant within, and every Gallant has a little inner voice encouraging them to “go Goofus.” Gallant does what you should do; Goofus does what you want to do. So I guess the takeaway is to strive to be Gallant but not beat yourself up for occasionally being Goofus. Gallant wouldn’t do that to Goofus. Goofus, however, might tee off on Gallant for being such a Gallant all the time. See, I’m doing it again.

Update: See Frank Miller’s “Goofus And Gallant: The Movie.”

5 Comments on “Goofus and Gallant: I must embrace my inner Goofus”

  1. fourcrickets says:

    Wow, thank you for including Notes from the Grillo Pad in your excellent blog. It’s the Gallant thing to do!

  2. fourcrickets says:

    Hey, thanks for referring to my goofy Goofus and Gallant rant. Enjoying your blog!

  3. fourcrickets says:

    I keep coming back here, too (the Frank Miller treatment is obviously a must-see). Next week, I might revisit the Timbertoes!

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