The Cartoon Closet

Culture and technology.
Feb. 21 1999 3:30 AM

The Cartoon Closet

Jerry Falwell doesn't know the half of it.

Tinky Winky

The reaction to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's outing of Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, was widespread scorn and hilarity. Comedians and column writers mercilessly ridiculed Falwell for his paranoia in seeing gays under the crib.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Three comments in defense of Falwell: First, he didn't write the article in question, which appeared unsigned in National Liberty Journal, a magazine he publishes. When asked about the charge, Falwell said he had never seen Teletubbies and didn't know whether Tinky Winky was homosexual or not. The notion of Falwell attacking a cartoon character is too appealing to liberal prejudices to be easily abandoned.

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Second, if you've ever watched Teletubbies, you might well suspect some kind of subliminal messaging. The four tubbies have aerials coming out of their spacesuit hoods, which receive programming that's broadcast on TV screens in their tummies. As they prance out of their bunker and around the strange, apocalyptic landscape where they live, periscope speakers pop out of the ground and feed them orders. It's both cute and creepy.

Third, the folks at Liberty College apparently got their idea about Tinky Winky not from watching the program but from reading such publications as the Washington Post and People. On Jan. 1, the Post included "TINKY WINKY, THE GAY TELETUBBY" in its annual list of what's "in" for the New Year. No one got excited. The press, including the Post, then mocked Falwell as a reactionary hick obsessed with the sexuality of puppets. Seems like a bit of a trap.

Is Tinky Winky gay? He is not the first cartoon character to be outed. More often than not it is homosexuals who claim a character as one of their own--which also puts the Falwell fuss in perspective. At the level of the creators' stated intentions, the Teletubbies have no sexual orientation. The program tries to recreate the world of toddlers, which does not involve any level of sexual understanding. But TV programs are group products, and it's not impossible that references--Tinky Winky's handbag, his purple triangle antenna, and the tutu he sometimes wears--are bits of code included for the benefit of adults. If Tinky Winky has a bit more spring in his step than Dipsy, the other male tubby, it may be because the actor who originally inhabited his costume added that dimension. Gays in Britain love Tinky Winky, and some protested outside the BBC when the actor who played him was fired.

Batman & Robin

Sexual signals can be received without being consciously sent. The first cartoon characters to be accused of aberrant sexual practices were Batman and Robin. In a 1954 book titled Seduction of the Innocent, a psychologist named Fred Wertham attacked the sadistic violence and sexual deviance portrayed in comic books. Batman and Robin, he noted, were two men living together who liked to wear capes and tights. Back home at stately Wayne Manor, they lounged about in dressing gowns. Wertham was a student of Freud who discovered a message that Bob Kane, Batman's creator, probably never consciously intended. But that doesn't mean it wasn't there.

Wertham's book led to the adoption of a code of standards by the comic book industry, which included, among other things, an admonition that "sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden." After this history, the Batman TV series, which was made in the mid-to-late 1960s, couldn't plead the same innocence. Post-Wertham, the producers were well aware of the gay take on Batman and Robin. Rather than resist it, they gave a camp tenor to the whole series. In the 1960s, even most adult viewers interpreted the program as broad parody. But once the idea of a gay subtext has been planted, Louie the Lilac (as played by Milton Berle) isn't just a villain who likes to wear purple.

Bugs Bunny

In a curious way, gays, their friends, and their enemies have all collaborated in destroying the sexual innocence of cartoon characters by making an issue out of it. When trying to elude Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny is liable to dress up as a woman, vamp around, or imitate Katharine Hepburn. Is this meant to indicate that he likes other boy bunnies? Many of these antics were borrowed from vaudeville comedy, where a man dressing up as a woman didn't necessarily imply homosexuality (although the same questions arise in retrospect). The Warner Bros. studio, where these cartoons were created in the 1940s and '50s, was an aggressively heterosexual milieu. Chuck Jones and other illustrators were mocking stereotyped homosexual behavior, not winking at homosexuals in a friendly way. But while a man dressing up as a woman may not have "meant" anything in the 1940s, it does mean something in the late 1990s. What has sexualized these cartoon characters is the change in the culture, which in the last few decades has become not just aware of homosexuality but increasingly open about and tolerant of it.

Ernie and Bert

Ernie and Bert are another good example of this process. When Sesame Street was created in the early 1970s, no one meant for them to be taken as lovers. But consider two men living together, sleeping in the same room, and taking great interest in each other's baths. Predictably, the "urban legend" that Ernie and Bert were gay began to spread. In 1994, a Southern preacher named Joseph Chambers tried to get them banned under an old North Carolina anti-sodomy law. (He said they had "blatantly effeminate characteristics.") The Children's Television Workshop eventually had to deny the rumors, which have included an impending same-sex union. But the gay read on Ernie and Bert isn't wrong because the creators don't endorse it. The same goes for the Peanuts characters Peppermint Patty and her tomboy friend Marcie, who always refers to her as "Sir." When Charles M. Schulz created the strip, he never imagined that Patty and Marcie would be claimed as protolesbians.

In recent years, children's entertainment has contained an increasing number of apparently intentional or even obviously intentional gay references. In The Lion King, Simba leaves home and is more or less adopted by Timon and Pumbaa, a male meerkat and a male warthog who live together as a couple in the jungle. In the 1994 Disney film, the actor Nathan Lane supplied the voice of Timon in much the same style as his flamboyantly gay character in The Birdcage. When I saw the Broadway version of the musical, the audience roared at Timon's even more exaggerated gay mannerisms.

Pee-wee Herman

Or consider Pee-wee's Playhouse. Pee-wee Herman minces about and becomes obviously infatuated with other male characters who conform to gay archetypes. While parents may pick up this gay semaphore, kids aren't likely to. To them, Timon, Pumbaa, and Pee-wee are just goofy characters.

Elsewhere, the implicit has become explicit. On The Simpsons, Smithers, the bow tie wearing toady who trails around after Mr. Burns, has become increasingly gay. According to Larry Doyle, who writes for the show, Smithers was originally just a sycophant in love with the boss. But lately he has taken to cruising college campuses in his Miata, looking for "recruits." In last week's episode, Apu, the Indian convenience store owner, goes down to the docks to donate porno magazines to sailors. The sea captain calls out to thank him: "Thank you for the Jugs magazines. They'll keep my men from resorting to homosexuality ... for about 10 minutes!" The sailors all laugh, and one calls out, "Look who's talking!"

It isn't absurd for anyone, including Falwell, to notice these hints, inferences, and references. But it is ridiculous to object to them. There's no scientific or psychological basis for believing that children are affected in their sexual development or eventual sexual orientation by exposure to homosexuality--on television or in real life. If the creators of cartoons are intentionally or unintentionally giving children the idea that gay people are part of the big, happy human family, that's a good thing, not a bad one. (If it weren't for gay people, there would be no Lion King--or much else on the all-American cultural front.) The conservative paranoia about recruiting, which leads them to think that gay school teachers and Boy Scout leaders present a hazard to the young is pure prejudice.

Anyway, for the religious right, this battle is pointless because the war is already lost. Gay themes are everywhere. Pee-wee's Playhouse runs every day on the Fox Family Channel, the cable network Pat Robertson recently sold to Rupert Murdoch. It's just a couple of hours ahead of The 700 Club.

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