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Pee-wee Herman's comeback is a sign that we're slowly winning 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.

Originally posted to zagrobelny on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 04:54 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  There is no culture war (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    So don't adopt the rightwing meme.

    A "culture war" implies we on the left are actively trying to infiltrate and spread our values in subsitution for something else.

    Not true.

    We live and let live.

    Its the other side who started this war.  

    The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. --George Orwell

    by jgkojak on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 05:09:33 PM PDT

  •  When I read this I always ask the same question.. (7+ / 0-)

    How come we gay folks are only/always just associated with 'teh sex'?

    "Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while." Westley: The Princess Bride

    by BFSkinner on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 05:16:01 PM PDT

  •  No, it shows that people have short memories (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RoIn, CMikkelson, NotGeorgeWill

    ...which is neither good nor bad in itself.

    The most impressive thing about man [...] is the fact that he has invented the concept of that which does not exist--Glenn Gould

    by Rich in PA on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 05:42:33 PM PDT

  •  Hmmm. I never had a problem with him (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    petting the pope in a movie theater.  I just never found him at all funny.

    If you feel insulted by anything I've said, find out if it was intentional. I'll let you know if you ask.

    by Ezekial 23 20 on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 06:08:26 PM PDT

  •  The movie theatre incident didn't exactly . . . (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    hurt Reubens career.  He had fallen off the map at that point -- long since disappeared from the scene.  The incident got him a gig that year at the MTV music awards (a fine line "heard any good jokes lately?").  

    All acts though that enjoyed some degree of notoriety and fade away seem to find a "re-discovery" roughly a generation after their disappearance from the scene (e.g. Rick Astley being a notable recent example).  P-Funk was one of those examples in the late 1990s.  Perhaps Betty White could even be included in that category -- a couple rediscoveries at this point.  Gloria Swanson and Buster Keaton in "Sunset Blvd".

    There are a number of examples.  It's now Reubens time.  It won't last forever, but hopefully he gets a chance to enjoy it.

    Incidentally, I remember being a semi-loyal viewer of his program way back in the mid-1980s.  Caught the movie version of his persona many times on TV and perhaps a couple times in the theatre and thought it was entertaining.

    I think this is more about nostalgia than about any kind of change in the culture war.  Maybe this kind of thing would have killed a career forever 40 years ago, but those times are long since gone.  The entertainment industry is always looking to turn a profit and nostalgia is a powerful psychological force.  It sells.

  •  I couldn't help noticing that hte Assistant AG in (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Michigan--the one who targeted the gay student body president and stalked him and insulted him on the Net-- bore a disturbing resemblance to Peewee Herman. Of course Paul Rubens worst offense was jerking off in a porno theater--which hurt no one except maybe the janitor who had to mop the floors, while the liitle asshole in Michigan went batshit crazy simply because a man he didn't know got elected to head the student govt. in his alma mater.

    The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

    by irishwitch on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 09:41:08 PM PDT

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