Once upon a time, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham went on a tear over Wonder Woman. He detected a vagina in the crook of her cartoon arm, and he thought her superpowers were giving girls “the wrong idea” about women’s place in society. As for Batman’s ward, Robin, his bare legs and devotion to his guardian were planting homosexual thoughts in boys, or so Wertham believed. His crusade led to Congressional hearings and the “voluntary” censorship of comics.
That was back in the freaked-out fifties; nothing so extreme has happened recently. But at an inaugural banquet last month, right-wing moralist James Dobson lectured members of Congress on the threat posed by SpongeBob SquarePants. Unlike some, he wasn’t bothered by this deep-sea dweller holding hands with his buddy Patrick, a starfish. Nor was he troubled by the porous Mr. Pants appearing in a video promoting tolerance. Dobson’s target was the “pledge of tolerance” one of the video’s many sponsors had posted on its website. It dared to mention sexual identity among the categories that merit sensitivity. To Dobson, this was “homosexual propaganda” and another sign that cartoon characters are being “hijacked” to move the gay agenda.
It’s an old obsession of the religious right. Remember Jerry Falwell’s jihad against Tinky Winky, the purse-packing Teletubby? “He is purple–the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle–the gay-pride symbol,” Falwell fumed, adding that such “subtle depictions” of gay sexuality were being deliberately inserted into children’s entertainment. Today’s right-wing moralists are less bothered by subliminal messages than by the real issue of teaching children that homosexuals are worthy of respect. Dobson and his kind aren’t really worried about cartoons turning kids queer. Their aim is to see that homophobia is free to operate, and one way to do that is to keep children from seeing gays as part of the human community.
During the Clinton years, these puritans were preaching mostly to the choir, but now the government too is listening. In late January, the new education secretary, Margaret Spellings, criticized the PBS show Postcards From Buster because its host, a gregarious bunny, had traveled to Vermont where he encountered, among other residents, a female couple. PBS decided not to distribute that episode (though local stations still may air it).
It’s no surprise that kids’ stuff looms so large in the culture war. No form of pop culture is more prone to blunt moralizing, whether it’s the liberal ideal of inclusiveness in Postcards From Buster or the conservative critique of “political correctness” in the animated feature The Incredibles. But this struggle involves the medium as well as the message. Cartoons are powerful in a special way, and the less realistic they are the more potent they seem. Children are not the only ones deemed vulnerable to their impact. And you don’t have to be a right-winger to see evil between the lines.