Spring 2005, Vol. 8, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2005

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
What's In a Name?

Getting Right with the Pope

Why Moral Values Did Count

What Athens Has To Do With Jerusalem

Evangelicals Discover the Culture of Life

Sin and Redemption in Atlanta

The Faith-Based Initiative Re-ups

Same-Sex Toons



Same-Sex Toons
by Christine McCarthy McMorris

It was a celebratory scene at the pre-Inauguration dinner hosted January 18 by three institutional pillars of Christian Right—the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and American Values. Not only was George W. Bush reelected but there had been a clean sweep against same-sex marriage in all 11 states where the issue was on the ballot.

The celebration was brought up short, however, by a question from the podium.

“Does anyone here know SpongeBob?”

As reported by David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times two days later, the query came from Dr. James C. Dobson, the child psychologist who, as head of Focus on the Family, is arguably the most powerful figure in the Christian Right today. According to him, SpongeBob SquarePants, the eponymous hero of Nickelodeon’s most-watched program, had made an appearance in a “pro-homosexual video.”

To be precise, SpongeBob appeared for three seconds in a kid-friendly cartoon remake of the 1979 disco hit “We Are Family” that, Dobson warned, was about to be distributed to thousands of public elementary schools across the nation. For reaction from the other side, Kirkpatrick quoted Mark Barondess, a lawyer for the We Are Family foundation, to the effect that Dobson and his supporters might “need to see their doctors and increase their medication.”

In David Crary’s June 21 story for AP, the video’s producer, Nile Rodgers, said that he had re-recorded his famous hit the week after 9/11 in hopes of promoting “multiculturalism and unity.” With respect to the charge that the video “beneath the surface, celebrated homosexuality” (according, now, to Ed Vitagliano of the American Family Association), Rodgers said, “The only response is, ‘Wow.’”

Harking back to Rev. Jerry Falwell’s much-ridiculed 1999 outing of the purse-carrying Teletubby Tinky Winky, the new assault on a kid TV icon proved to be catnip to pundits, comedians, and editorialists of all political persuasions. For SpongeBob, the giddily optimistic fry cook whose only aspiration is to be employee-of-the-month, every month, it was Culture Wars Showtime.

“So SpongeBob is gay,” snickered a January 21 Los Angeles Times’ editorial, noting that the yellow sponge’s hero worship of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy was “[e]vidence enough, to Dobson at any rate, that the guy’s a menace.”

“How can a sponge or a bear or a purple dinosaur have any sort of sexual proclivity?” queried the Tulsa World January 23. “Oh, thuffering thucatash!”

Anyone damning SpongeBob for “being chummy” with Patrick, a clueless pink starfish, declared the Chicago Sun-Times January 21, should “get down on their knees to do penance for preposterous thoughts.”

SpongeBob is denying he is gay, and so is his longtime companion, Kitchen Sponge Toby,” joked Jay Leno. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart claimed to have contacted the sponge himself, whom he quoted as saying, “I’m here! I live in a pineapple under the sea! Get used to it!”

Even Fox TV’s Bill O’Reilly took it upon himself to tweak conservative “culture warriors” on The Factor: “SpongeBob is a sponge. He’s not cruising the bars in West Hollywood.”

The only problem was, almost every one of the chatterers was mistaken. Kirkpatrick’s original story in the Times never claimed that Dobson had called SpongeBob gay, only that his “creators had enlisted him in a ‘pro-homosexual video.’”

Dobson himself was quick to smell a rat. Appearing January 21 on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes (which he said he chose over “hundreds of requests for interviews around the world”), he grumbled that he was the latest victim of “media spin.” Host Sean Hannity agreed: “Dr. Dobson, what a shock—the liberal media totally got a story wrong!”

Dobson next dedicated his widely read online newsletter at to what was now being called “Toongate.” His concern, Dobson protested, was never about “SpongeBob or Big Bird or any of their other cartoon friends.” Instead, it was the following scenario: “Imagine a classroom full of wide-eyed five-year-olds…hearing incomprehensible references to adult perverse sexuality. And the rationale for this instruction is ‘tolerance and diversity.’”

Both Dobson and the American Family Association objected to a tolerance pledge that children seeing the video would, they claimed, be asked to take. The January issue of AFA’s Journal ( ) stated that the video had a “cunning and unprecedented plan” to get children to pledge to “respect people whose sexual identity is different from my own.”

Not exactly. The short video (found on the website) contains nary a whisper about sexual identity, and no mention of any kind of pledge, even in the associated teachers’ packet of materials.

The most that can be said is that the website, which is not touted in the video, includes a link to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Tolerance Pledge, which includes the following: “I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.”

In any event, even as it was sinking in that his original remarks had been mischaracterized, dozens of editorials and columns kept Dobson on the hot seat for being hostile to tolerance itself.

“Is brotherhood no longer a Christian value?” asked the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23. “Tolerance of and respect for those differences is not what will destroy our families or our strength as a nation. Intolerance might do the job,” wrote Tacoma New Tribune columnist Kathleen Merryman  January 24. “When did Christianity preach intolerance?” asked editorial page editor of the Passaic (N.J.) Herald News editorial page editor Alfred P. Doblin the same day.

Meanwhile, on January 22, 48 hours after the SpongeBob story broke, another toon landed in trouble on the sexual orientation front. Two days into her term as U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings whipped off a letter to Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of PBS, strongly criticizing an upcoming episode of “Postcards from Buster.”

Each week on the show, Buster, an animated, asthmatic bunny, travels the country to spend time with different families, including religious ones like Mormons and Pentecostals and Orthodox Jews. “Sugartime!,” the episode in question, found him on a Vermont maple sugar farm run by two lesbian couples and their children.

In the letter, which Mitchell released to the press, Spellings wrote, “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode,” and warned that “strong and very serious concerns” led her to ask PBS to consider refunding money spent on the episode from a grant supporting the series provided under the Department of Education’s Ready-to-Learn program.

Which, to most journalists, was the reason that PBS scratched “Sugartime!” from the national lineup the day it received the letter. To be sure, PBS’s vice president of media relations, Lea Sloan, denied that Spelling’s letter had anything to do with the decision, telling the AP’s Ben Feller January 25, “Ultimately, our decision was based on the fact that we recognize this is a sensitive issue.” Boston’s WGBH, which produces Postcards From Buster, ended up distributing “Sugartime!” on its own to the approximately 50 local stations (out of 340) interested in airing the program.

Although the punditry was, once again, quick to appear, this time it conformed much more closely to culture-wars stereotypes. On January 28, the dependably liberal Boston Globe said PBS should have had the “backbone to distribute the episode” and let individual stations decide whether to air it. “There is nothing wrong with teaching children that human worth and human equality should not come with a list of exceptions.”

On the other side, Bill O’Reilly now argued in his February 26 syndicated column that children living with lesbian parents was an “inappropriate topic for small children.” George Will, in his March 3 column, used the flap to reiterate his longstanding opposition to government underwriting of PBS: “Would it [PBS] vanish without the 15 percent of its revenues it gets from government? Let’s find out.”

When PBS President Pat Mitchell announced February 16 that she was stepping down at the end of her contract, Christian conservatives proclaimed victory. By February 18, Gary Bauer was telling Keith Peters (identified as “Washington correspondent” on the Focus on the Family website), “This has all the appearance of somebody who made a very bad decision initially to allow this programming, and now because of that decision needs to move on.”

True to the form of these things, Mitchell told Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post February 18 that her decision had “absolutely nothing to do with Buster.” But most journalists were skeptical. As Seattle Times TV critic Kay Mcfadden put it the same day, “A cartoon cataclysm had helped topple a PBS president.”

Thus did Toongate enliven the opening of the second Bush administration. The question was: Who, like many a hapless guest on Nickolodeon, came out of it slimed?

•   the mainstream media, for getting the central facts of the story wrong in a large number of easily tossed-off editorials, news articles, and columns—and for then having to print corrections like this from the February 10 Los Angeles Times: “An editorial Saturday about children’s literature and cartoons erroneously stated that James Dobson of Focus on the Family declared that SpongeBob SquarePants is a homosexual sponge. Instead, in a speech last month, Dobson criticized as pro-homosexual a tolerance video featuring SpongeBob, Big Bird and others.”

•   the We Are Family Foundation, for failing to get a large number of public schools to screen its video as a result of suspicions like those of school officials in South Carolina, who, according to the March 13 Charleston Post and Courier, warned that the video “would have to meet state ‘abstinence’ sex education standards and be approved by district health advisory committees comprised of health, ministerial and other officials.”

 •  Margaret Spellings, who managed to become a lightning rod for controversy even before her official swearing-in ceremony as the new Secretary of Education.

•   PBS, for what Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Television, called “the strategic error” of putting the kibosh on Buster in Vermont. “Now,” Thompson told the Los Angeles Times February 17, “you have a good chunk of the population that thinks they shouldn’t exist, another part that is furious with them.” 

But the slime didn’t seem to affect Dr. Dobson, who spent the spring regularly quoted in the press as an authoritative conservative voice on issues ranging from Terry Schiavo to the fight over filibustering judicial nominees. Indeed, in a January 28 column, St. Petersburg Times editorial writer Eric Deggans surmised that Dobson had “convinced enough Americans that tolerance and diversity are simply code for gay rights, that he’s won a war on the language battlefield.” Such “calculated” smearing of SpongeBob would, Deggans predicted, “pay off in future campaigns against media indecency and gay rights.”

Yet, for his part, Mr. SquarePants still reigns as the most watched cartoon (by children of all ages) on television—which has allowed Nickelodeon to laugh off the complaints in a way that PBS could not. Venturing into toon history, the New York Times’ John Leland on January 23 wrote that SpongeBob’s unassailable popularity—like that of the sexpot Betty Boop and the cross-dressing Bugs Bunny—springs from what Dobson sensed and what so many journalists played down: “Cartoons are perverse and insidious—that’s why children (and adults) love them.”

It makes you wonder what Dobson, who has compared gay marriage to Pearl Harbor, would have said at the pre-Inauguration dinner had he been thinking about “Rock-A-Bye Bivalve,” an episode in which SpongeBob and Patrick find an orphaned baby scallop adrift in Bikini Bottom:

 SpongeBob: You know Patrick, since this scallop doesn’t have parents, we should raise it ourselves.

 Patrick: Yeah, at least ’til it’s old enough to be on its own. Oh! I want to be the mom!

 SpongeBob: I don’t think you can be the mom, Patrick, because you never wear a shirt.

 Patrick: You’re right. If I was a mom (camera zooms out, showing Patrick’s extremely large stomach covered with hair, and a tattoo of an anchor on his shoulder) this would be kind of shocking. Just call me daddy!


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