James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, accused SpongeBob SquarePants of promoting homosexuality a few weeks ago, which had less to with an educational video produced by Nickelodeon in which SpongeBob holds hands with his sea-dwelling buddy Patrick and more to do with a message of tolerance one of the video’s sponsors included on its website that made mention of sexual identity. We’re living in sad times when people like Dobson, whose cronies can be found on websites like Free Republic (where “Defending Our Constitution” is preached but dissent is condemned on the site’s message boards), choose to believe only the worst of people and consider “tolerance” a bad word (“sissy” and “savages” are okay though). In a recent article for the Nation, Richard Goldstein eloquently summed up the problem with conservative nutbags like Dobson: “Their aim is to see that homophobia is free to operate, and one way to do that is to keep children from seeing gays as part of the human community.”
You may ask: What could this possibly have to do with Pooh’s Heffalump Movie? Well, plenty actually. When the denizens of the Hundred Acre Woods learn that Heffalumps are closer than they thought, Rabbit launches a pre-emptive hunting expedition to capture the elephants and, in essence, put them in their place. When Roo is excluded from the mission, the young kangaroo sets out on his own (not unlike Bryce Dallas Howard’s character does in The Village) to catch a Heffalump, which he does, only the one he catches (cute, purple, and British—dear God, Jerry Falwell is not going to like this!) turns out to be anything but the “scary creature” Rabbit described. We also learn that Lumpy has a similar negative perception of Rabbit and his friends, stereotypes that are squelched when his behemoth-sized mother (voiced by Brenda Blethyn) comes to the rescue at a very crucial moment in the film.
Who knew Pooh had it in him to ease blue-state-red-state tensions? The subtext here could be: Not all conservatives are dickwads and not all gays want to rape America’s children. It’s dangerous to dismiss cartoons as being “just cartoons”—many of them do reflect real-life biases and rituals of abuse and healing, and some of them can be teaching your children the wrong messages. A paranoid Falwell isn’t nutty for thinking Tinky Winky was queer (he may very well have been on to something when he honed in on the Teletubby’s purple color and triangle-shaped antenna), but he is nuts for thinking that subliminal codes like these are somehow being used by cartoonists to indoctrinate children into the gay lifestyle, which not only assumes that children recognize purple as the gay-pride color (it is?) and the triangle as the gay-pride symbol (whatever happened to the rainbow?) and that the mere sight of them can turn your son into a cocksucker. Like Dobson, Falwell simply resents cartoons that might turn children into good people.
When gays took a liking to SpongeBob several years ago, the media heralded the arrival of a new gay icon. Gays weren’t responding to the character’s sexuality (I can’t think of a less sexual cartoon in the history of television), but his subversiveness: SpongeBob is a bitch! If Dobson is familiar with the gay community’s affection for SpongeBob, he’s turned it into something ugly; if he’s unfamiliar with SpongeBob’s appeal within the community then he doesn’t know irony when it hits him in the face. When SpongeBob charges down the street holding Patrick’s hand, the gesture is critical yet light-hearted. This is something Dobson doesn’t understand. In Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, the neuroticism and passive aggressiveness of the film’s characters reflect social biases, and just as the makers of the SpongeBob video use humor to expose the message of intolerance Dobson preaches every day, the Heffalump’s giddy behavior shatters the lies people preach about other people’s communities.
Pooh’s Heffalump Movie is not a great film. Like The Tigger Movie and Piglet’s Big Movie, it’s really just two episodes of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh glued together, with the action intermittingly set to bad Carly Simon songs. This isn’t Spirited Away, and while critics are bound to call the film innocuous (it is, I suppose), this is precisely what’s so endearing about it: its innocence. There are postmodern implications to the cartoons that we watch, something Goldstein points out in his Nation article, and though Pooh’s Heffalump Movie doesn’t explicitly make a pledge of tolerance that includes sexual identity, don’t be surprised if a paranoid Dobson lectures Congress in two weeks about Roo holding onto a purple elephant’s trunk and skipping through the Hundred Thousand Acre Woods, which would be ironic considering the film doesn’t actually promote tolerance as much as it grapples with the nature and silliness of people’s false perceptions. A fascist and hypocrite like Dobson—who looks to write people out of our country’s constitution—might call that propaganda, but I call it compassion.