The queering of Pee-wee Herman: How the gay icon redefines queer boundaries beyond sexuality

If the world around this PG hero in an R-rated world is fabulously gay, Pee-wee still hasn’t the slightest clue

Published March 27, 2016 9:30PM (EDT)

"Pee-Wee's Big Holiday"   (Netflix/Glen Wilson)
"Pee-Wee's Big Holiday" (Netflix/Glen Wilson)

“I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

These sentiments are voiced three different times in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” the Tim Burton-directed film that popularized Pee-wee Herman, the guileless manchild in the grey suit and red bowtie. Throughout the 1985 film, Pee-wee routinely rejects the advances of Dottie, a button-cute blonde played in a rare on-screen role by voice-over actress Elizabeth Daly (“Rugrats”). The joke isn’t just that Dottie is hopelessly, cluelessly in love with Pee-wee but seeing the character’s own image juxtaposed with his statement. These are the words you might hear from Johnny Depp’s meticulously coiffed greaser in John Waters’ “Cry-Baby,” not someone whose closest antecedent is Waters himself.

Pee-wee’s noted lack of interest in the fairer sex has long led to speculation about his sexuality—with the implication that he’s gay. If you’ve come into “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” with that idea in mind, the film will do little to dissuade you. The Netflix release, directed by John Lee (“Wonder Showzen”) and produced by Judd Apatow (“Freaks and Geeks”), finds Pee-wee Herman getting his bromance on with Joe Manganiello, playing a version of himself. Manganiello rides up to the diner where Pee-wee works on a motorcycle wearing a too-tight tee, and Pee-wee nearly faints. True to form, he refers to the “True Blood” actor as “triple cool!”

The movie never plays down its potential homoerotic elements: Aside from Pee-wee’s clear overexuberance at serving Joe Manganiello a milkshake, the character develops something of a crush on the hunky actor (and who could blame him?). He expresses his desires for “friendship” with Manganiello in fantasies where the two joust on what appear to be giant piñatas; meanwhile, fireworks explode in the background. It’s about as subtle as the end credits of “Deadpool,” in which the spandexed superhero jerks off a unicorn.

The film’s overt gayness led many, like BuzzFeed’s Louis Peitzman, to declare it a “queer romance.” “[C]ategorizing Pee-wee and Joe as ‘just friends’ would be, at best, a euphemistic solution to a relationship that’s deliberately vague but undeniably queer,” he writes. “Because Pee-wee is almost entirely sexless, his age indeterminate but his interests decidedly childlike, he can never consummate anything. Instead, he and Joe share the kind of mutual crush that passes for grade-school intimacy.” Slate’s Paul H. Johnson added that the character has always been gay, even back in the days of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” He married a fruit salad in one episode, forgodsakes.

These takes are smart, well-written and accurate: There’s something that’s always been defiantly, unmistakably queer about Pee-wee Herman, but it would be a mistake to solely ascribe that to his sexuality. Pee-wee might live in a world of adult longings and eroticism, but Pee-wee does not partake. It’s not that he’s queer or even asexual, but that—by being frozen in a state of stunted adolescence—he exists in a prepubescent universe where sexuality doesn’t quite exist yet. The queerest thing about Pee-wee Herman is that he purposefully breaks with those notions by rethinking the boundaries of what “queerness” really is—an act of societal rebellion.

If Pee-wee is a PG character in an R-rated universe, that’s no accident: The persona was developed while Paul Reubens was a member of the Groundlings, the L.A.-based improvisational comedy group that also gave Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman and Melissa McCarthy their starts. Reubens’ “Pee-wee Herman Show” began as a weekly midnight show with a grown-up slant. When he appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1983, Pee-wee romped around the set like a kid in a candy store—seemingly unaware of the adult show he’s on. “Camping with Pee-wee, that’s like a headline in the Post!” Letterman jokes. Pee-wee has no idea what he’s talking about.

His own lack of awareness is central to how we understand Pee-wee Herman—and how we read his character. In Peitzman’s essay, he refers to homosexuality as the “subtext” of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” but if we’re being honest, it’s the context. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” might as well take place in a gay bar. Take the program’s holiday special, for instance: The episode boasted a queer cornucopia of guest stars, including community icons like Cher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dinah Shore and kd lang. Pee-wee goes ice-skating with Little Richard. Grace Jones even drops by to sing “The Little Drummer Boy.” If that’s not enough, a group of shirtless construction workers build a tower out of fruitcakes.

If subtext by definition is furtive and secret, the queer reading of this episode couldn’t be any more overt if it were singing the Village People in gold booty shorts. The joke is that if the world around him is fabulously gay, Pee-wee hasn’t the slightest clue. The ongoing series of Pee-wee Herman films and television programs delight in placing the character in settings where his naive innocence is at odds with his surroundings, even the film he’s in: “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” finds him in a coming-of-age tale, even if Herman—by nature—doesn’t grow. “Big Holiday,” however, reimagines his hero’s journey as a romantic quest—except that the character himself finds that concept gross, like eating his peas.

This point is repeatedly reinforced throughout the series. In addition to shutting down Dottie, Pee-wee rebuffs the attentions of Emily in “Big Holiday,” a fellow resident of Fairville who hopes he will attend her book club. Pee-wee mentions that he “neglected to R.S.V.P. [his] regrets.” He continues, “I have rehearsal that night. N.A.—not available. ... L.A.T.T.I.H.T.B.G—look at the time, I have to be going.” In “Pee-wee’s Big Top,” he’s given a fiancée, Winnie, but the most he does is admire her hair. When the two snuggle on a picnic blanket, he repeatedly yanks her blond locks. Winnie later spills her egg salad sandwich all over him.

This thwarted romance might seem to break with what we know about his character, but it merely reinforces the point: Even when he does begin to feel something for someone else—in whatever way someone with the capabilities of a 5-year-old can—he ends up with actual egg on his face. In “Big Top,” he meets Gina (Valeria Golino), a bosomly trapeze artist at a carnival. He glances luxuriously at her breasts, as the camera moves in for a generous close-up, and then he faints. It’s as if even processing the very idea of sexuality is too much for his brain to handle.

In these situations, it’s clear that Pee-wee Herman represents a different version of the word “queerness”—the strange or abhorrent societal outsider. As ScreenCrush’s Erin Whitney notes, such is the framing device for “Big Holiday” in its very first scene. “Pee-wee’s otherness has always been a part of his DNA … but is most blatantly implied in "Big Holiday’s" opening dream sequence,” she writes. “In it, Pee-wee and his alien best friend, Yule, cry over having to say goodbye as Yule’s spaceship arrives to take him home. Beyond echoing the usual absurdity of the Pee-wee Herman universe, this dream reveals how Pee-wee literally feels alien to the culture he lives in.”

Pee-wee Herman is such an outsider that he’s often on the outside in his own life. A scene in “Big Holiday” underscores that idea well: Joe Manganiello, Pee-wee’s new best friend, asks him if he’s seen “Magic Mike.” Pee-wee responds, “Ha! You’d think so, but no.” While many have taken this as admission of the character’s sexuality, the statement serves the opposite purpose: Given what we think we know about Pee-wee Herman, it seems as if he might be gay (aka the type of guy who would be familiar with “Magic Mike”). But if our hero were actually attracted to other men, Pee-wee Herman would be the last person to know about it.

Many critics might write this off as “queerbaiting,” but it’s merely expanding our notions of what queerness really is—redefining the concept as more than about sexuality. As the New York Times’ Jonah Weiner argues, Pee-wee Herman defied all societal norms in “[creating] a place where desires are not policed, otherness is not demonized, gender roles are juggled and erotic energies attach where they will.” Although Whitney writes that his “feminine boyish persona…  [oscillated] between effeminate gay man and asexual man-child,” that was as much about masculinity as it was being queer. He broke with every expectation of maleness—from his ethereally pale skin to his airy prance.

There’s something that’s both deeply sad and immensely transgressive about Herman’s contradictions: He’s both an adult and a child. He’s a girly boy. He’s a dreamer who never left his hometown. He’s simultaneously incredibly gay and not gay at all. And in “Big Holiday,” the character does something arguably even greater than come out of the closet: He resolves these identity conflicts to find happiness on his own terms. At the end of the film, he and Manganiello exchange friendship bracelets in a ceremony clearly intended to symbolize their own form of a commitment.

What’s made Pee-wee Herman such a celebrated character over the years is that he belongs to everyone. Pee-wee stands in for the universal experience of being an outsider—whether you’re gay, straight or an overgrown infant who appears to be nothing and everything in between. That “f-word” he shares with Manganiello might be code for something else, but if you’ve been paying attention, it isn’t really: Pee-wee Herman doesn’t have to have actual sex with other men to be wonderfully, beautifully queer.

By Nico Lang


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

Editor's Picks Movies Netflix Pee-wee Herman Pee-wee's Big Holiday Tv