• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Cartoons & Caricatures: Falwell on Tinky Winky and Dobson on SpongeBob

I was preparing this morning for my fourth interview on the life of Jerry Falwell when I thought I’d look into the strange case of his taking on the Teletubbies. This was a man, after all, who took on pretty big foes: Bob Guccione and Penthouse, Larry Flynt and Hustler, the liberal news media, the Democratic Party….

So what was he doing “outing” Tinky Winky?

Almost every article I looked at this week mentioned Falwell going after Tinky Winky, the purple, “magic-bag”-toting Teletubby as a covert normalization of homosexuality among the preschool set. And how risible everyone seemed to find it: Jerry Falwell attacking a cartoon character who couldn’t possibly be taken seriously as a symbol of gay pride.

–Except that Falwell was right.

I don’t know of Falwell finding a “smoking gun”: an internal memo, say, or an interview in which the producers declare their intention to promote homosexuality.

But the record shows that lots of people got the same message from Tinky Winky, and not just on the Right. CNN was among the first media to remark on Tinky Winky as a “gay icon,” having a male voice, but also sporting a red purse (the “magic bag”) with a triangle (symbol of gay pride) on his head and, indeed, coloured purple (symbol of gay pride). The Village Voice concurred, as did at least one gay newspaper.

Suspicions were heightened when, according to The Washington Post, the actor inside Tinky Winky was going to be fired for dancing in the streets wearing nothing but a balloon, and gay groups protested.

Far from “outing” Tinky Winky, then, Falwell was merely passing on to his constituency what he had gathered from other media. But who noted that fact this past week? Did any mainstream journalist allow that there was actually something to Falwell’s concern? Did anyone in the major media pause to consider the non-astounding idea that maybe Tinky Winky was indeed part of a culture-wide agenda to normalize homosexuality via benign media portraits–what I call the “Will & Grace-ing” of homosexuality?

More recently, James Dobson of Focus on the Family got into similar trouble for calling SpongeBob Squarepants a homosexual, to the loud and sustained hooting of the mainstream media, let alone the blogosphere to Dr. Dobson’s left. When he dies, you can expect SpongeBob to be derisively mentioned just as Tinky Winky was this past week.

–Except that Dobson didn’t call SpongeBob gay. What Dobson did was to note with dismay that SpongeBob was included in a film and curriculum for school children that he feared would advance the pro-homosexual agenda. And there were understandable grounds for such fear, as even the producer of the video allowed to The New York Times.

I recognize Brother Falwell and Brother Dobson as Christian kin, even though I have deep and passionate disagreements with both some of their beliefs and some of their tactics. Since they are fellow Christians, I naturally don’t want them to be caricatured.

But even if I simply hated them, as many people obviously do, I should get my facts straight, especially if I pride myself on being a good journalist.

I got these two stories straight with about 15 minutes’ worth of Googling. That’s not too high a price to pay for fact-checking, is it? Unless the stories are just too good to be not-true….