Saturday, January 22, 2005

the great emancipator and the sponge

you should hear him sing "Happy Birthday Mr. President"

What a weird couple of weeks for sexual politics. Two public figures, one a President and one a cartoon character, have been ‘outed’ for very different reasons. Lincoln’s orientation is being debated by historians, but there’s nothing to debate about Spongebob Squarepants: Rev. Dobson and his allies are truly sick people. On one hand they push v-chips and censorship to protect children from obscenity. On the other hand, they tell little Tommy and Johnny that their favorite cartoon hero is encouraging men to have sex with other men. What kind of emotional scars must that leave in a God-fearing Christian child?

‘Gaydar’ used to be a talent only claimed by gay men, an unerring instinct for identifying closeted homosexuals across a crowded room. It has obvious value for them, both defensively and socially. Rev. Dobson makes even more extravagant claims for his, however. The Reverend’s gaydar crosses the time/space/reality continuum into that alternate universe inhabited by cartoon characters. Like Rev. Falwell before him, he is able to determine the sexual orientation of non-existent beings who appear to lack genitals. Sponges do become larger when moistened, of course, but there is no indication in Spongebob’s case that this growth is concentrated in any one area.

Reverend Dobson now states that he is not ascribing sexuality to Spongebob Squarepants, but objecting to a 'diversity' video including him and other cartoon characters popular with 6 and 7 year olds. Why? Because if you go to the diversity organization's website (which few 6 year olds will do) you will see a suggestion that people "tolerate" others, whatever their "sexual identity." What could be more un-Christian than "tolerance," after all? Yet a reporter who heard the Reverend's original remarks said that he singled out the Absorbent One for vilification, condemning him and other characters like Jimmy Neutron for participating in a "pro-homosexual video." And it turns out that, according to Reuters, Spongebob

was "outed" by the U.S. media in 2002 after reports that the TV show and its merchandise was popular with gays.

In another story, the late C. A. Tripp ascribes homosexuality to Abraham Lincoln in a recently published book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. Tripp, an associate of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, uses historical documents to make that case that Lincoln was gay – or, more accurately, that he had gay experiences during a time when the gay/straight distinction was not as binary as it is today. I have only read excerpts of the book, plus analyses both pro and con, so I can only comment in a limited way.

It’s hard for me to buy some of Tripp’s arguments, since they seem to be based on open and public statements that would have been shocking even back then if they truly had the sexual implications Tripp gives them. But we’re still learning the cultural history of Lincoln’s time, so who knows? Tripp’s motives may include a sexual/political agenda, but Lincoln is a public figure and a legitimate area of study. Tripp is doing what academics should do: challenging public assumptions and raising new theories. Dobson is doing what demagogues must do: frightening the public, polarizing society, and – sadly, in this case – traumatizing children. And why is he so sensitive about this issue?

Maybe there’s a gay bar in Toon Town, where Twinkie the Teletubbie and Spongebob Squarepants are drinking and dancing to the latest techno hit by Massive Attack, or whoever’s popular in the club scene these days. Maybe the cartoon version of a tall gaunt man in a stovepipe hat is walking in right now and sitting down at the bar, just as DJ Jimmy Neutron cues up another tune. Perhaps as he orders a Sex on the Beach another cartoon man walks in, wearing glasses and a tie. “Rev. Jim!” screams the bartender. “It’s been forever! What closet have you been hiding in?”

“No closet,” says the Reverend. “I’m just here to protect the people.” Then, turning to the long-legged man next to him, he says in a low purr, “Hey there, fellow Republican. What say we go back to that ol' log cabin of yours and play 'free the slaves'?”