By Dale Peck
An ex post facto revelation, but one that speaks to the core of what we saw when we looked at Pee-wee: on the one hand, a paragon/parody of '50s childhood, mischievous but harmless, middle-class but gifted, with toys that 'all the money in the world' couldn't buy; on the other, a 30-something actor sublimating the last shreds of the cult of the child into a surreal, quasi-masturbatory fantasy. Howdy Doody, in other words, a wooden puppet whose smile was permanently painted on his face, but also Buffalo Bob Smith, a grown man who always had his hand up a little boy's pants. It was this tension that made Pee-wee so compelling: We all knew the repressed sexual tension was going to burst out eventually. To say it burst out of Reubens is to miss the point, namely, that it burst out of America as well. Lest we forget: Pee-wee came to fame at the same time as a series of child sex scandals swept across the country, from Kern County, Calif., to Dade County, Fla., from Wee Care Nursery School to Little Rascals Day Care, and of course the McMartin Preschool affair, which started with one boy's painful bowel movement and ended in the longest and costliest trial in U.S. history. America's children, once protected by two parents (of different genders, natch), wide tracts of green lawn, and the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, were suddenly under threat by forces that were already inside the country, inside the school, inside the home.
With the veil stripped from our eyes, we saw Reubens for what he'd always been: a grown man in a little boy's body, not just metaphorically but literally. But where this once generated giggles it now produced sniggers and nervous laughter. Sex had seemed conspicuously absent in Big Adventure. Now it was everywhere present, from Dottie's desire to go to the drive-in to Pee-wee's turn in drag when he helps Mickey evade the police to the transformation of Pee-wee and Dottie into James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild in the big-screen 'adaptation' of Pee-wee's life. The same pedophiliac subtext was equally pervasive in the real world: from child beauty pageants to Howard Stern's Olsen twins countdown to the recent revelation that one in four girls contract an STD before they graduate high school. Britney Spears dressed up as a Catholic schoolgirl for ''Baby One More Time' (suggesting she'd done it before); American Apparel rejects sweatshops but has nothing against a little kiddie porn chic. It wasn't Reubens who couldn't keep it in his pants, in other words. It was us. To twist his catchphrase: We always knew what he was, but we still haven't acknowledged the truth about ourselves.