Attack of the devil dolls

What do Austin Powers, Tarzan, Jar Jar and Tinky Winky have in common? They scare a nation that's already panicked about kids' sexuality.

Published June 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

America had barely recovered from the flap over Tinky Winky, the purse-carrying purple teletubby the Rev. Jerry Falwell outed as gay, when along came another doll controversy. You know the story: An Atlanta mother complained that her 11-year-old son was verbally deflowered by an Austin Powers action doll.

Young Marvin had already seen "The Spy Who Shagged Me" -- whisked past the PG police by his father -- and now he was drawn to the bushy-chested doll in Union Jack underwear who asks the saucy question "Would you fancy a shag?" But it was the query on the packaging -- "Do I make you horny, baby?" -- that pricked the boy's curiosity. When he asked his mom what "horny" meant, she was ready with an explanation: "It's sort of like goose bumps that make your hair stand up," said Tamatha Brannon, rather creatively. But she didn't stop there. She did what any good American parent faced with such a situation would do: She sued Toys 'R Us, which admitted it accidentally stocked a PG-rated version of the doll instead of the fully clothed, G-rated figure it had intended.

But the flap over the Austin Powers doll is only the best-known summer outbreak of panic over a new social concern: rampant doll sexuality. Earlier this season the nation had to deal with a similar shock-horror over the new Tarzan toy. Seems this denizen of the Disney jungle can be made to raise his right hand, which normally rests against his loincloth. All well and good. But if you rapidly push a certain button, his fisted mitt will rapidly move up and down, adding piquancy to the ape man's cry: "Aiiiyaiiiyaaah!"

What's a parent to do? Those who worship at "The 700 Club" already know that there's a vast conspiracy to violate the innocence of tykes and toddlers. Leading this crusade is Disney, the agent of Satan that permits gay days at its theme parks and hides sexual innuendo in its cartoons. (Since this company is now run by a male Jew, it is the official home of the antichrist.) No wonder Mattel promptly recalled Tarzan, and did what generations of priests and counselors told parents to do when faced with such hand-jive: They tied the doll's arm down. "What we're doing is securing the arm so it doesn't get ..." a spokesperson for Mattel haltingly explained. "So it isn't in a position ... so it doesn't have ... how can I say this gracefully? So he's not in a pose with his hand."

Why are these kiddie icons raising so much adult heat? It's the latest round in a time-honored American ritual: obsessing over the sexuality of the young. Tinky Winky-phobia was only a start. Clearly, this plush purple plaything has no sexuality -- unless it's polyester perverse -- but that didn't stop Falwell from accusing PBS of foisting a gay icon on 3-year-olds. After all, Tinky Winky is lavender, sports a triangular headdress and carries a purse. Guys have been killed for less in God's country.

The Teletubby freakout was no surprise to me. I remember turning on the TV when I was 7 or so and happening upon a fierce debate about farm animals running around in the nude. This was in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, so I was used to such panicked crusades. The creator of this one eventually admitted that it was a hoax, but not before his supporters posed the problem in stark and shocking terms. Children were seeing donkey dongs and cow udders brazenly displayed. Shouldn't these beasts wear clothes?

Such a wacky rap could only pass for real in an age when parents pondered the hidden sexual meanings in comic books. Thanks to a lurid survey called "The Seduction of the Innocents," parents in the 1950s were able to detect vaginas in the armpits of cartoon characters (something I, as a kid, had never noticed until the controversy). It didn't end until a comics code prevented any conceivable innuendo, so that Archie, Veronica and their pals had bodies as flat and featureless as, well, Teletubbies.

Young people have always been the scrim on which their parents' nightmares are projected, of course. In the '50s, it was savage, sexy teens hopped up on jungle music. No doubt the deeper anxiety was that kids were emerging as a class with its own morality and plenty of spending cash. Now these once-beleaguered boomers are in a similar panic about their own offspring.

In the wake of Littleton, a new panic is being sown in the fertile soil of fears about the young. Just as "juvenile delinquents" were a national obsession in the '50s, the specter of killer kids is now haunting America. And just as perverts were once thought to stalk the nation's schoolyards preying on the young, the culture is now imagined as a stalker of our children's souls. Meet Austin Powers, the new enemy within.

Never mind that adolescents are making wiser decisions about sex than their parents ever did, as demonstrated by the declining teen pregnancy rate. Never mind that violence is a far greater threat to kids today than sex could ever be. Puritans will always see opportunity in the primal parental fear of losing control over their children. But this time, there's a modern edge to the panic. Because it's not just precocious sexuality that's being beamed through the TV, the movies and the toy store. These devil dolls are also sissyfying our sons.

Clerical pundits like Dennis Prager have taken full advantage of this anxiety, loosing op-ed jeremiads about a feminist-led "war on boys' natures" in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard. The underlying fear is that kids are learning to identify with a persona that breaks the macho mold. Of course, what's really happening has less to do with feminizing boys than with liberating all children from the tyranny of gender roles. But traditional parents may well worry at the sight of their daughter waving a light saber around the house, while their son contemplates carrying a purse like Tinky Winky.

But it's not just Tinky Winky; consider the buzz about Jar Jar Binks, the alien sidekick in the new "Star Wars" movie. Of course, Jar Jar is most frequently maligned for alleged racial stereotyping in the creation of his faux-Rasta character. But now, more than a dozen newspapers and magazines, from the National Enquirer to USA Today, have weighed in on whether Jar Jar is gay. From the fury in cyberspace, you'd think George Lucas had set a drag queen loose in the Sistine Chapel. Clearly, this oversized amphibian has never sung in the choir, but he does utter words no real man would ever tell a Jedi warrior: "I wuv you." No wonder it's been necessary for the actor who plays him, Ahmet Best, to assure the world that Jar Jar is "swinging straight."

Notice that for all the tumult over whether the Internet, video games and violent movies might whet a kid's appetite for mayhem, no one is panicking over action figures from the wrestling realm or the ever more pumped-up G.I. Joe. These toys remain acceptable because they affirm traditional ideas about masculinity. But Tinky Winky and Jar Jar are signs that the culture is evolving before our eyes, teaching little boys that manhood isn't measured by power and dominance, but by the ability to nurture and love.

And so, in the modern version, Tarzan is no longer king of the jungle, but a deeply troubled boy torn between doubts about his ape identity and foreboding about his human nature. The conflict is resolved by his emergence as the caretaker of an inter-species family. Here is the brave new world writ small. We can't let him model self-love, too.

And as for Austin Powers: He may be shagadelic, but he sure isn't butch. Indeed, the great jape in this movie is that the randy nerd in the flouncy outfits -- who is indeed polymorphously perverse -- will always beat out his demonic double, the tight-assed Dr. Evil, especially when it comes to getting women. (And note to Jerry Falwell: Austin began to look like a switch-hitter in the final scene of "The Spy Who Shagged Me", when he got into bed with his look-alike clone and the lovely Felicity Shagwell.)

Now it looks like cracking down on the PG Powers doll won't be enough. Even though few kids who haven't been to Britain know the meaning of the word "shag," a movement has started to remove it from the title of "Austin Powers 2." Such is life in the land of promiscuous puritans, where wild shifts between freedom and repression are the norm. Children will always be caught on the horns of that dilemma -- and they will always find ways to escape.

By Richard Goldstein

Richard Goldstein was the first widely read rock critic, with a column called "Pop Eye" that ran in the Village Voice from 1966 to 1968. The column allowed me to meet most of the major rock stars of the 1960s, and to know some of them quite well, including Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. I also knew and hung out with Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, and other cultural figures of the time. After the end of the '60s I began to write about feminism, sexual liberation, and identity politics, tracing the connections between these areas and social and political trends in a series of features and columns for the Voice. I also wrote for The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Vogue, among other venues. In the 1980s I became an activist for lgbt rights, and I won a GLAAD award as Columnist of the Year. I have written recently for The Nation, The Guardian, Harpers, The Atlantic (online), the London Spectator, and other publications.

MORE FROM Richard Goldstein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------