Tuned In

Sex and the Kiddies

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Never let it be said that PBS is not a proactive organization: they’ve started censoring themselves before the government does it for them. Recently, the network announced a policy of digitally blurring out the mouths of people using foul language on video, as well as bleeping the audio. (Because really, why should lip readers have all the fun?) And this week, the PBS Kids Sprout Network fired a kids’ show host, Melanie Martinez, for making dirty jokes on video—seven years ago.

Martinez, who hosted The Good Night Show, was discovered to have made a set of spoof public-service announcements advising teenage girls to preserve their "technical virginity," through such handy techniques as anal sex. She was fired after the comedy spots showed up online. Sandy Wax, the network’s president, said that "the dialogue in this video is inappropriate for her role as a preschool program host and may undermine her character’s credibility with our audience."

Um, that would be the 2-to-5-year-old audience? The 2-to-5-year-old audience that’s regularly doing Google Video searches for "anal sex"? Martinez’s actual viewers are not going to know, understand or care about the controversy. No, as with so many other decisions that are made "for the children," this one has nothing to do with protecting children at all. It has to do with protecting parents, and protecting their blissful fantasies of childhood.

It’s also, of course, about protecting PBS, which does not need one more kids-and-sex scandal after the trumped-up dust-up over the Postcards from Buster "two mommies" episode. (That controversy, as ridiculous and close-minded as it was, at least had the virtue of being about the actual content that kids would see, rather than an old video adults would have to scour the Internet for.) PBS has been a political punching bag for a while now, so it’s hard to blame them for not volunteering to go 15 rounds over this issue.

It doesn’t make the firing less ridiculous, though. Martinez’s previous career doesn’t make The Good Night Show dirty, try though you might to go back and hunt for hidden phallic symbols. The fact is, grown-ups—parents, teachers, day care workers—are sexual beings. Kids come into the world through a sex act. (Granted, not the one Martinez was talking about.) Parents tell dirty jokes too—horrible, filthy ones. If we are lucky enough, we even keep having sex after the stork drops off the little darlings—horrible, filthy sex. But God help the nanny or the kindergarten teacher if we should find out they talk or practice sex like any consenting adult might. We need them to be smiling, desexualized servants, clergypeople crossed with Barney.

We apply this same sort of hypocrisy to the people entertain our kids. But though we may not be comfortable with it now, there has not always been such a divide between children’s and adult entertainment: take circuses, for instance, where clowns and elephants perform along with trapeze artists in skin-tight, revealing costumes. Even in the most neutered of children’s programs, you can’t suppress sex entirely. Just ask any of the thousands of toddlers’ moms who’ve fantasized about a host of Blue’s Clues. (I’m a Steve man myself, but hey, to each her own.)

It’s sadly fitting that Martinez should get canned (so to speak) just as Adult Swim has started rerunning Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the brilliant children’s show that itself disappeared after an unfortunate incident with star Paul Reubens and an adult (emphasis on adult) movie theater. Grown men who entertain children are half perverts to begin with in some people’s eyes, and some viewers had always had their suspicions about Playhouse anyway. With good reason: the show, hosted by man-child Pee-Wee Herman, originated as a more risque stage show meant for grown-ups. Turned into a kid’s show, it was subversive—not in any overtly filthy way (OK, there were some Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne innuendoes that sailed way over kids’ heads), but it was playfully irreverent about gender roles and other grown-up rules. And it was one of the best, funniest, most outrageously creative TV shows ever created, for kids or adults.

Well, Melanie, meet Pee-Wee. Pee-Wee, meet Melanie. Let’s hope the job of cleaning up the world of children’s entertainment continues apace. Pat the Bunny, indeed: I can see right through that filth.