Now that the world has been pop-culturized, the yep-I’m-gay-ness of real people is old news. So move over celebrities, athletes and politicians. The hot new subjects in the art of outing are cartoon characters.

It started a few years ago with Jerry Falwell speculating on the sexual orientation of a Teletubby – the purse-carrying, purple-hued Tinky Winky. True, he’s not a cartoon character, but a big, fuzzy, baby-talking doll with a TV screen on his tummy comes pretty close. Last month, the news media was abuzz with reports that another conservative Christian leader, James Dobson, had pointed the gay-cartoon finger at SpongeBob SquarePants.

In the midst of all this animated outing comes “The Simpsons” episode that has generated months of gossip and odds-making among fans and online. Tonight’s show, airing at 8 p.m., reveals that one of the characters in television’s longest-running animated series is gay.

Directing the gay/not-gay question at cartoon characters has the simplest of entertainment appeals: It’s fun. And once you start, it’s hard to stop. Forget SpongeBob, the happy little yellow fellow, and his pink starfish buddy, Patrick – what’s up with his neighbor Squidward? Single adult male, loves to paint and take long bubble baths, plays the clarinet – do I even need to ask? Consider “Futurama,” the other show from “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. Seriously, is there anyone on that show, including the perpetually confused Philip and the guy in the lobster suit, who isn’t gay?

Meanwhile, speculating on which “Simpsons” character is coming out has become its own kind of cartoon Kentucky Derby. Online wagering sites that typically focus on the sporting world, such as www.betus.com, have set the odds and are taking bets. Going into Sunday night’s broadcast, Marge’s sister, Patty, is a 4-to-5 favorite, with Mr. Burns’ loving lackey, Waylon Smithers, in second at 4-to-1.

For even more fun, set your cartoon gaydar on animation’s past, all those boomer icons from our blissfully naive childhoods. Just how many times does “Bugs Bunny” have to put on a dress and kiss Elmer Fudd? And then there’s “Jonny Quest” – Dr. Quest and his longtime companion, Race Bannon, not to mention Jonny and his, um, “friend” Hadji. Tom and Jerry? Gay. Fred and Barney? Ditto. Don’t forget Peppermint Patty from Peanuts. We could go on and on.

But before we do, here’s a little reminder: These are cartoons we are talking about. They aren’t real. They are imaginary characters living in sex-free worlds designed to entertain kids.

Not that everyone is buying the gay cartoon suggestions. The latest SpongeBob sensation prompted some “get real” letters to the editor from young fans. At Nickelodeon, spokesman Dan Martinson said “SpongeBob SquarePants” creator Stephen Hillenburg “has said over and over that SpongeBob is just an innocent kid.”

Concern about the messages pop culture brings children remains a hot topic – the most recent flap being protests about a Vermont-themed episode of the PBS cartoon “Postcards From Buster,” which included a real-life lesbian couple.

And yet here we are, breathlessly waiting to find out who shot Mr. Burns, I mean, which “Simpsons” character is gay. The show’s producers have been so besieged with media queries and interview requests that no one connected with the show is willing to talk about it. As one associate put it, “All I can say is, I’ll be glad when this week is over.”

Things have definitely taken a turn for the weird when speculation about a cartoon’s sexual orientation becomes a hot news story. In these post-Tinky Winky days, cartoon outing is becoming an established public relations strategy.

“It’s perfect because cartoon characters can’t fight back – they don’t have lawyers, they don’t have publicists. And the media can’t resist,” says Richard Laermer, a Los Angeles-based public-relations veteran and author of Trendspotting.

“Let’s face it, more and more, the news media is all about news that isn’t really news. Look at the attention Prince Charles’ marriage to Camilla is getting. I think all the stories about SpongeBob being gay are about news outlets wanting to be hip and fun – there’s a sense that if you don’t give the public what it wants, they just won’t watch you or read you.”

Cartoon outing reminds us that not every issue divides along a red-state/blue-state or conservative/liberal line. In this case, it’s more like a split between those who get the joke and those who don’t.

“These stories always break down between people who take the cartoons ironically and those who react to them literally,” says Tim Burke, cultural anthropologist and co-author of “Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up with Cartoon Culture.”

“People have always applied all kinds of interpretations to pop culture such as cartoons. The problem is when somebody else just takes that interpretation as the intended reality of the cartoon.”

In the case of Tinky Winky, it turned out that Jerry Falwell’s comments were based on a satirical column that appeared in the gay publication, The Advocate. In the days after all the stories about Dobson calling SpongeBob gay, it turned out that wasn’t exactly what he had said. His criticism was directed at what he perceived to be the pro-homosexual agenda of the group that produced an educational video that used cartoon characters such as SpongeBob.

But the first rule of pop culture is never let facts get in the way of fun.

So it seems certain we’ll be hearing more about the secret sex lives of cartoons. It’s enough to make you long for simpler times when cartoon characters were just silly and innocent and carefree. You know, what people used to describe as gay.



(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News.

Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-02-18-05 1016EST



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