Friday, October 29, 2010

Pee-wee Herman and the Culture Wars

When I read yesterday's New York Times article about the "redemption" of Paul Reubens, the creator and embodiment of Pee-wee Herman, I couldn't help but think that it was, in some small way, a sign that we were winning the culture wars. That seems crazy when the Teabaggers are about to gain control of the House of Representatives by reigniting a lot of those culture war conflicts that we've discovered never went away in the first place. But I think, if we can keep those idiots from dragging us back into fascism or the Pleistocene, we can keep winning.

At this point, Reubens' comeback has been longer than the time he was at the pinnacle of his creative and popular success. Following Tim Burton's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the movie that gave me the lifelong goal to visit San Antonio and find the basement of the Alamo, was the Saturday morning television show Pee-wee's Playhouse. Unfortunately, I scorned the show (and most other children's programming) because, at the time, kids abandoned cartoons and comics and other things that seemed too childlike for budding adults. Today, with prime time cartoons and superhero movies, kids carry those things into adulthood and the diving line has been erased. For those kids younger than me or not foolish enough to rush into some facade of adulthood, they were blessed with a wonderfully surreal television show that had a huge budget, little creative interference, an amazing cast, and, of course, the imagination of Paul Reubens.

For five seasons, anyway. The show had wrapped up (Reubens was weary of the character and the grind) but reruns were still airing on CBS. But in July 1991, Reubens was arrested for masturbating in a porno theater in Sarasota, Florida. In a stunning waste of time and police and legal resources, cops would prowl porn theaters looking to enforce morality and rack up easy arrests. Of course, public wanking should be illegal, but it also shouldn't be a police priority. How much money and manhours were wasted on this case? One article puts a cost of $2000 just on police protection for Reubens' courtroom appearance.

There was another cost as well, a cultural cost. Reubens went into seclusion and his evidence of his work immediately started disappearing. CBS stopped rerunning his show and toy stores around the country stripped Playhouse merchandise from their shelves. I remember reading about this in my local newspaper and went back to a newspaper database today to verify my memory of this: a local toystore, like stores in most in the country, removed all their Pee-wee merchandise, but accidentally overlooked two lunch boxes, probably because lunch boxes would have been in a different aisle. An "indignant" customer found them the next day complained about their presence, saying they "shouldn't be displayed for children because he was sick and perverted.'' It's helpful to look at the timeline of this. Reubens was arrested on a Friday night and a reporter noticed his arrest record the next day. The beginning of the next week that particular toy store chain ordered their stores to remove Pee-wee merchandise, and that store did so on Tuesday night. The outraged customer was at the store on Wednesday.

I remembered this incident for 19 years because to me it became emblematic of the culture wars. I exaggerated it slightly in my mind, but not by much. I imagined a permanently-clenched evangelical rooting behind boxes the next morning trying to find the last, misplaced Pee-wee Herman doll so he could harangue the poor manager, spit flecking from his open mouth while he screamed about "sick perverts" because all trace of Paul Reubens hadn't disappeared fast enough for his liking. This happened a thousand different ways over a thousand different things during the 80s and 90s.

It was tempting to think that in the 21st century this had gone away, but it hasn't. Things like the George Tiller killing and the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction proved that the culture wars hadn't left us even before the Teabaggers went full retard. Even Paul Reubens had another culture war incident in 2002 when he was arrested over a handful of objectionable items in his 70,000 piece pornography collection. (The charges were dropped in 2004.) Cops may have stopped raiding adult theaters - which largely died out anyway due to home video and the internet - but they are still busting people for owning porn despite its ubiquity on the internet. But this served to be merely a speedbump on his long comeback trail, nothing like the consequences of his 1991 arrest. Sure, moralizing culture warriors are still with us and people see pedophiles under every rock thanks to Dateline, but in the age of Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears, masturbating to porn seems decidedly tame. The culture warriors would say we've degraded as a society, but are Lindsey Lohan's antics so much worse than Clara Bow's or Tallulah Bankhead's?

The difference is that I think we've become a lot freer and more open about things than we were in 1991. Technology has helped. The same internet that I used to find that old newspaper article preserves the memory of Pee-wee Herman through video clips, Wikipedia articles, fawning blog and message board posts, and a thousand other ways. We can't stuff Paul Reubens down the memory hole for masturbating because the internet will remember him, and we're all wanking to things we find on the internet anyway so we're not going to ostracize someone else for it. We can't be outraged about Janet Jackson's nipple when we've seen 2 Girls 1 Cup. We can keep the memory of George Tiller alive through internet activism. More and more homosexuals are stepping out of the closet at younger and younger ages, and the internet (most recently with Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project) is helping them. Popular support for DADT and prohibiting gay marriage is collapsing. The pace might be slow, but we are winning the culture war.

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