|Move Over Tinky-Winky; It's SpongeBob's Turn to Sweat
Among my fondest memories of childhood are the countless Saturday mornings spent watching cartoon shows on television. Mighty Mouse was my favorite character, and I loved it when the tiny caped crusader soared through the sky belting out his anthem in an operatic tenor: "Here I Come to Save the Day..." Always heroic, Mighty was my kind of mouse; I respected him a lot more than that silly little rodent Mickey though I was captivated by Mickey's pal Goofy.
Actually, it was all great fun. My sister and I would be transfixed for hours by our animated friendsTom & Jerry, Roadrunner, Elmer Fudd and Mr. Magoo, to name but a few. And we were fortunate that, even though it was the conservative 1950s, our parents weren't bombarded with dire warnings from politicos disparaging the content of our beloved shows. Our mother kept an eye on what we were viewing, and she did sometimes worry that the paranormal aspects of Casper the Friendly Ghost might give us nightmares. But that never happened. In fact, Casper spread a wonderfully upbeat message about the nature of friendshipand the importance of not turning away from those who are different than us. Today, he'd probably get in trouble for espousing such a point of view.
Cartoons, especially those with a social subtext, have been on my mind a lot lately. For one thing, there's a new kid in our family. Benjamin Arthur Novotny, nicknamed "Ben Jammin" because he sleeps all day and parties all night, is the first newborn we've had to gloat over in nearly three decades. He is my niece Kerry's son, and at four weeks old, he already squints at the glowing TV screen as if he's expecting it to deliver some kind of enlightenment. (Ben's parents have tried to help, tuning to the Discovery Channel, but much of its programming is about bikers. And the Learning Channel is full of hotrods and casinos.)
If Ben is anything like his great uncle (or most kids), he will soon start acquiring a good deal of information from the bunnies, bears, and other curious denizens of television's animated kingdom. I wonder what characters and programs will become his favorites. But it troubles me that, if some rightwing zealots have their way, Ben will be denied the opportunity to experience some of the better children's programming being created today.
The conservatives' campaign against cartoon creatures began five years ago with the attempted "outing" of Teletubby Tinky-Winky, who was denigrated for strutting around in a purple jumpsuit and carrying a red handbag. (Word is that he went on to become a founding member of the Red Hat Society.)
At the time, a lot of us laughed off the attacks against Tinky as ludicrous chatter from the lunatic fringe. But in the current political climate, the rabid right has been emboldened. In recent weeks, it has intensified its attacks on animation, including characters old and new. Among them, veteran "Peanuts" tribe member Peppermint Patty, Nickelodeon's phenomenally popular SpongeBob SquarePants and rising PBS star Buster the bunny. All of the characters are being decried for advancing the "gay agenda"though I have never been able to figure out where I can get my copy of that schema.
Poor SpongeBob is absorbing the self-righteous wrath of the Focus on the Family lobby. As an underwater invertebrate with a porous, fibrous skeleton, Bob is not likely to have much of a sex life, but FOF founder James Dobson finds it unconscionable that he holds hands with his sidekick Patrick and enjoys watching a pretend TV show called The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.
If that's not enough to square the pants off you, Dobson claims that there's an even bigger problem: SpongeBob has been recruited for a "pro-homosexual video" in which he sings the song We Are Family with such other cartoon notables as Barney the dinosaur, Clifford the Big Red Dog and Jimmy Neutron. (Quick, let's dig up J. Edgar Hoover and start a list.)
No one can deny that "We Are Family" has been an anthem of the gay community for the last two decades. But, following the attacks of Sept. 11, the song's writer, Niles Rodgers, decided that its message of inclusion would be appropriate for teaching youngsters about multiculturalism. The resulting video, which is scheduled to be shown at schools, makes no reference whatsoever to any form of sexuality, gay, straight or otherwise.
Not one to be swayed by facts, Dobson has continued his smear campaign, citing a "tolerance pledge" that appears on the "We Are Family" website (but not the video). Created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the pledge includes sexual orientation as one of many reasons not to be mean to someone. That's enough of a link for Focus on Family fluky Paul Batura to decry the video as a "insidious" and "a classic bait and switch.... The [We Are Family] organization is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids."
So, there you have it: SpongeBob and his coconspirators are soaking the brains of children with open-mindednessa behavior the FOF simply cannot abide. There's nothing like tolerance to make a reactionary intolerant.
But Bob isn't the only one in hot water. Also accused of advancing the agenda is an animated rabbit who hops around the country dropping in on real-life human beings from various walks of life in the PBS series Postcards from Buster. The show offers youngsters a look at the diverse ways people work and liveunless the people depicted are too diverse for the Bush administration. When new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings caught wind of a segment featuring a maple-syrup producing lesbian couple and their three children in Vermont, she objected. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyle" depicted, she said.
She must be talking about syrup-making, because the program's content includes no discussion of or references to homosexuality. However, the mere fact that it shows a gay family (without criticism) as a part of the fabric of our society has sent Spellings reeling. She has "strongly" recommended that PBS reimburse the Department of Education for all public money spent to produce the episode. Meanwhile, our one-and-only public-television network has delayed the scheduled broadcast in order to give each member station a chance to preview and, if they so wish, ban it.
Clearly, the forces of intolerance are doing everything within their growing power to make sure that no positive images of gay people reach the airwavesand that children in particular are denied all access to evidence that we even exist.
Fortunately for my great-nephew, his mom and dad are as infuriated as I am about the political attacks on animated artistry and lessons in diversity. But at least Ben will grow up with the advantage of knowing his openly gay aunt (on his dad's side) and his openly gay uncle (me)as well as our respective life partners. And when we all get together, we'll have a laugh watching the videotape collection I intend to compile for him featuring SpongeBob, Barney, Tinky-Winky, Buster the bunny and good old Peppermint Patty. Not to mention a little Mighty Mouse, whose services may once again be required to save the day.
Bill Sievert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 1February 11, 2005