- Moral panics, like the ones today over bisexual Superman and a lesbian kiss in Pixar's Lightyear, have a long history.
- In the 1990s and 2000s, culture war battles took place over whether Tinky Winky and Bert and Ernie were gay and whether Harry Potter and Pokémon were spreading satanism.
- Treating kids’ entertainment as a Trojan horse is an old trope that manipulates parental anxiety and maternal instincts.
The last 12 months has witnessed a bit of a frenzy surrounding kids’ entertainment, from bisexual Superman to the first gay dads in Sesame Street to a brief kiss from a lesbian couple in Pixar’s new animated feature Lightyear. In response, reactionaries are rehashing moral panics from previous decades, based around the idea that homosexuality is the result of nurture rather than nature, a “corruption” brought about by a gay “ideology” pushed by the left.
While this might feel like moralistic madness unique to a social media-fueled culture war, it really isn’t. The last 100 years are littered with similar spasms of reactionary panic directed at adolescent entertainment, usually with an emphasis on sexuality.
The culture war
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw its own culture war battle over kids’ entertainment. Teletubbies — specifically, Tinky Winky, who was male but liked to wear dresses and carried a handbag — drew the ire of preacher Jerry Falwell. His war on this supposed agent of the gay agenda led to headlines and news reports across the country.
In an article by Fallwell titled “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out Of The Closet,” he cited damning evidence: “He is purple — the gay-pride color — and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay-pride symbol.”
Bert and Ernie of Sesame Street were accused of being a gay couple around the same time, as well as SpongeBob of SpongeBob SquarePants, which first aired in 1999. In more recent years, the creator of Sesame Street has admitted that Bert and Ernie were in fact modeled on his same-sex relationship, and Nickelodeon implied SpongeBob was part of the LGBTQ community.
Harry Potter and the Order of Satan Worshipers
While Pokémon, another popular franchise at the time, was not accused of being part of the “gay agenda,” it was accused of being demonic and satanic by preacher Phil Arms in a sermon that would go viral more than once online. His book, released around the same time, Pokemon & Harry Potter: A Fatal Attraction, also accused Harry Potter of promoting satanism.
Eventually, however, both franchises would be accused of promoting homosexuality. In 2007, J.K. Rowling announced Dumbledore was gay — riling some existing critics of the series — and in 2015, Pokémon was blamed by another preacher for a rise in homosexuality among Millennials.
Where DC Comics today features a bisexual Superman, as recently as 1989, the company specifically prohibited any reference to homosexuality. Why? Because it broke the rules of the “Comics Code Authority” by which it agreed to adhere in the 1950s. The guidelines were created in the aftermath of the infamous comic book moral panic, which mirrors what we see today. This episode was triggered and led by Fredric Wertham, a psychologist, after he published his book Seduction of the Innocent.
The book would lead to Senate hearings, where Wertham would make an appearance and comic book industry executives would be grilled. One of his arguments contained within: Batman and Robin were clearly a gay couple, and Catwoman a lesbian with a penchant for S&M.
The book claimed:
“One young homosexual during psychotherapy brought us a copy of Detective Comics, with a Batman story. He pointed out a picture of “The Home of Bruce and Dick” a house beautifully landscaped, warmly lighted and showing the devoted pair side by side, looking out a picture window.”
This had apparently infected the boy with a serious case of gayness.
Before cartoons, it was teddy bears
Going back even further, to the first decade of the 1900s, it was teddy bears that were supposedly warping the sexuality of future adults. It was posited, by Reverend F.G. Esper, that replacing baby dolls with bears would mean young girls growing up without any maternal desire. (This topic was explored in more depth here for Big Think.)
While these concerns were not homophobic in nature, they managed to be explicitly sexist (by treating young girls as having a single purpose) and racist (by positing that suppressing maternal instincts would accelerate “race suicide,” what today is referred to as “The Great Replacement” theory).
Manipulating parental anxiety
Treating kids’ entertainment as a Trojan horse is an old trope that manipulates parental anxiety and maternal instincts. Often, the arguments are so silly that socially liberal media amplifies it, accidentally giving it legitimacy and reach. Like a needy child, whining and crying for attention, the best thing to do is ignore it.