It’s pay back time in the afternoon wastelands of American TV. By mid-January, during one of democracy’s raciest first weeks in office, the Bush Administration’s newest faces swiftly began to stake their claim on US children’s televisual headspaces. Bush’s newly appointed Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings, had spent exactly two days in her office before threatening PBS, the nation’s only non-profit broadcast network with funding cuts if it aired a contentious six-minute episode from Post Cards From Buster, a program aimed at three to seven year olds.
In the “Sugartime” segment, the asthmatic, animated, video-camera toting rabbit Buster visits a family in Vermont to learn about making maple syrup. According to PBS’s Kids Online site Buster is a curious youngster raised by divorced parents who “models the language young English learners need in order to find their way around, make new friends, learn more about other people's lives, interests, and cultures, and share information about themselves”.
Previously, Buster has visited Muslims, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and Pentecostal Christians. And although his “Sugartime” report on modern farming does not include any references to the sexual orientation of his host family of two lesbian mums and their respective kids, nonetheless Spellings’ spelled out her objections to Buster’s covert de-sensitising of US kids about same sex families. “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode”, Spellings wrote in her letter to Pat Mitchell, CEO of PBS.
Unsurprisingly, PBS pulled “Sugartime” from its 350 plus stations’ national program schedule although Buster’s producers WGBH Boston - funded by Congress’ Ready To Learn Program - later made the show available to up to 20 station affiliates. When questioned about the changes a PBS spokesperson admitted cautiously, “The debate surrounding this might cause parents to be concerned about PBS as a safe harbour”.
Only a fortnight earlier the controversy was preceded by the latest misadventures of SpongeBob SquarePants. Although American children have survived decades of Disney’s unemployed non-denominational mice, rabbits, cats, coyotes, beagles and other mixed breed canines all beating each other to smithereens in front of their young eyes, not to mention the long standing cross species love interest between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, the Christian Right want to shelter this generation of children from the creep of contemporary, cartoon-driven ideologies.
The anti-cartoon campaign is symptomatic of further blistering tensions in US society as the fundamentalist agenda gains traction in the American schoolroom. Under intense pressure the study of evolution has all but disappeared from children’s learning experiences. These days many teachers are so scared of raising the issue, that while evolution is still published in school textbooks, it’s rarely taught out loud in the American classroom.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that SpongeBob SquarePants would also emerge on US Christian Right’s moral offense radar. Last summer, in cities from Portland to Newark, gay and straight Americans with time on their hands and humour to burn, defiantly reconfigured SpongeBob’s plot line in response to their personal identification with his lifestyle. Now SpongeBob’s in a tsumani load of trouble, for his unwitting double life as a part-time gay icon after being spotted on screen holding hands with a starfish!
That’s right, Patrick, a modest unemployed five limbed marine creature dressed in a pair of loud floral board-shorts, could be engaged in an unconventional “friendship” with a mouthy block of foam! His creators at Nickelodeon claim the cartoon is totally asexual. But according to pro-family conservatives, drawing his flag wedged between Patrick’s buttocks in one of the duo’s many escapes from demonic fast food forces, not to mention their drunken stupor after too many ice cream sundaes at The Goofy Goober in SpongeBob SquarePants The Movie, is proof he’s hell bent on brainwashing kids.
He’s dangerous according to Forum of the Family’s spiritual leader the Reverend James Dodson who believes SpongeBob’s biggest sin is endorsing a “tolerance pledge” on the We Are Family Foundation’s website.The pledge button links to the www.tolerance.org site containing references to offensive “lifestyles” which should immediately be removed, according to Forum for the Family spokespeople.
Until recently, the WAF Foundation’s kid orientated tolerance booster was considered a healthy contribution to First Lady Laura Bush’s No Child Left Behind nationwide educational initiative. To celebrate a National “We Are Family” Day on March 6, the WAF Foundation has released an educational video cartoon featuring 100 of the world’s best-loved animated identities singing the hit song in rousing harmonies. Joining SpongeBob in We Are Family’s high profile choral line- up are Big Bird, Lionel and Leona from Between the Lions, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Barney the Dinosaur, Pooh Bear, Madeline, Dora the Explorer, Jimmy Neutron, Rugrats, Lilo and Stitch, the Muppets and other well known Sesame Street stars.
Mark Barondess, lawyer for the WAF Foundation told US media that anyone who sees harm in the benign video’s child friendly content “needs medication”.
Indeed the We Are Family DVD, distributed throughout 61,000 US primary schools by co-sponsor Federal Express, is a unique event, according to producers who spent three long years organising dozens of cartoon’s busy schedules for the recording sessions. “Co-operation and unity are among the most important things we can teach children”, says WAF Foundation’s founder, pop hit songwriter Nile Rodgers possibly reflecting on his experience of rounding up the wicked drawings.