I love questions about the secret sexuality of fictional characters. Unless they overtly declare their sexuality or are depicted while engaged in sex, we can’t say for certain who is gay. Are Ernie and Bert gay? Is Tinky-winky of The Teletubbies gay? Is Xena: Warrior Princess gay? Well, the last one may turn out to be lesbian or bisexual in the reboot, but there’s no telling for sure unless the characters tell us.
Hollywood trades in heteronormativity, for the most part. So there is a tendency to read characters as straight unless we’re told otherwise. But not everyone yields to such habits or fails to read between the lines. If the goal of Hollywood is, as it always has been, to make as much money as possible, then wise producers today will recognize the rewards of dropping queer hints and innuendo into otherwise straight-seeming texts. This will please LGBT viewers, it is hoped, while not alienating homophobes. And, of course, LGBT viewers can always read queerly with any text, finding pleasures in gaps and excess or just starting with the presumption that everyone is gay unless explained otherwise.
Now that Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday (2016) closes a gap of more than 25 years since we last delighted in the bow-tied man-child’s antics, with Joe Manganiello as Paul Reubens’ co-star, the question of Pee-wee’s sexual orientation arises anew. Most generally, Reubens has placed his most famous character into related scenarios that provide multiple pleasurable reading strategies for the viewer. He’s a boy in a man’s suit, for one, so we never see him directly address sexual orientation or perform sexual acts as an adult might. He seems stuck in Freud’s latency period, where girls are mostly yucky, and a clubhouse (and life) is best without them. We see this side of Pee-Wee most in his relationship with cute-girl Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), in which he mimics the only adult language he seems to know, that of the movies, telling his femme pursuer, “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.” This tradition continues in Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday through Pee-wee’s almost-friendship with cute-girl librarian Emily (Katherine VanderLinden), who gets him the newest book from his favorite series and is summarily dismissed, this time through his own brand of textspeak: “L.A.T.T.I.H.T.B.G. Look at the time, I have to be going.”
Pee-wee rejects the cute girls, 1985 and 2016
Such an answer, of course, does not fully satisfy, for it does not explain Pee-wee’s relationships with all women, especially fat women. Pee-wee has always had a more playful relationship with big girls than skinny, popular, “cute” girls. They are not ridiculed and dismissed within the films, either by Pee-wee or anyone else. On Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991), for example, Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart, whose screen time and attractiveness is reduced in Pee-Wee’s Holiday, in which she has become a snake farm owner) was deemed the most beautiful woman in Puppetland (the world), one of the few women welcomed in the Playhouse. Much larger Mrs. Steve (Shirley Stoler, Season 1) and the large and in-charge Mrs. Rene (Suzanne Kent, Seasons 2-5), were also visitors. (Reba, the slender mail woman, was the only regular female character of color in the cast. She was welcomed, but she did a lot of eye-rolling at Pee-wee’s antics and usually left right after delivering the mail.)
Miss Yvonne gives Mrs. Steve a make-over on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse
In Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, the affinity with large women continues through the subplot in which our hero ends up at a farmhouse full of eligible women who are oversized or overly gawky, in Hollywood terms. Pee-wee resists (flees) the shotgun wedding, but he does not ridicule the women for their appearance. Such affinity offers another angle through which to answer the question of Pee-wee’s sexual orientation. Gay men and large women share a status as outsiders, having been deemed excessive by mainstream society for their “appetites.” In his early “trash” films, John Waters emphasizes this connection—though to far more adult effect. Together, fat women and gay men create a mutually beneficial pairing that Roseanne referenced in her first stand-up special, The Roseanne Barr Show (1990), when she said, “If it wasn’t for gay men, us fat women would have no one to dance with.”
Big family, big meal in Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday
What about Pee-wee himself, however? He is childish and anachronistic, although he exists mostly in a retrofitted 1950s utopia. The setting is equally mythical whether it is his Playhouse, his home (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure), the circus (1988’s Big Top Pee-Wee), or the mythical town of Fairview (Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday), where he is more like Spongebob Squarepants than an actual fry cook. His character is in some moments playful and puckish, in others prissy and persnickety. He brings to mind the early twentieth-century Hollywood pansy figure (think Edward Everett Horton), but with savvy. For Paul H. Johnson, writing for Slate, Pee-wee’s “persona actively celebrates camp, particularly the kind of camp that elevates the language and style of the 1950s, when gay love was addressed evasively, if at all.” Camp is a sensibility that celebrates artifice over realism, style over content, as well as irony, playfulness, and exaggeration. A camp attitude was distinctive in pre-Stonewall gay communities, originating from the link between gayness and effeminacy.
And this brings us to Pee-wee’s relationships with men. The character has had multiple male-male (homosocial) relationships from his Pee-Wee’s Playhouse buddies and (campy) symbols of Hollywood-style masculinity Cowboy Curtis (Lawrence Fishburne) and Tito the Lifeguard (Roland Rodriguez) to magic shop owner Mario (Monte Landis) in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The only kind of man Pee-wee does not get along with seems to be one like himself, a man-child, exemplified by his enmity with Big Adventure’s Francis Buxton (Mark Holten).
Campy Cowboy Curtis
Finally, we come to the most significant relationships in Pee-wee’s onscreen life to date: his encounter with Bella, nicknamed Pee-wee (Alia Shawkat), one of the trio of 1960s sexploitation-style female criminals, and his bond with Joe Manganiello (as Joe Manganiello). These interactions show a Pee-wee emerging from his long, long latency period into a tween pre-adolescence. He’s not quite a randy teen, but he seems headed in that direction. And this means we get closer to being able to answer questions about his sexuality.
Bella and Pee-wee bond over their shared nickname. They do kiss—on the lips!—before they part company, enabling viewers to read their interaction as a sign of developing sexual needs for our hero. But is he developing into a straight man? I’d argue not, at least in part because the shared nickname makes it seem more narcissistic than a true embrace of other-directed desire. At best, he’s testing the waters.
Of course, it is Joe Manganiello that is the true object of Pee-wee’s affections, and this is made clear from the moment the two meet and begin not only finishing each other’s sentences but saying the same thing at the same time. If we need a bigger hint at Pee-wee’s orientation than his worshipful affection and the shared bonding over root beer barrels, Manganiello assists by being baffled that Pee-wee doesn’t know who he is and asking the world’s best chocolate milkshake maker if he’s ever seen Magic Mike (2012). Pee-wee’s response is more than telling: “You’d think so, but no.” Here Reubens speaks through and about his character and only those uninterested in the question will fail to note its resonances.
Boys on a bike
The entire adventure—or holiday—is about reaching Joe’s New York penthouse for Joe’s birthday party. And Joe wants it as badly as Pee-wee, so to speak. When Pee-wee (who has fallen into a well) does not arrive, Joe is despondent, petulantly hiding in his bed from his hundreds of partying well-wishers and eating potato chips. We have seen such scenes in many a melodrama and romantic comedy alike. There is no question that it is played for humor, but there is also no question that this is about a mutual crush. As Johnson concludes, “Pee-wee dreams of jousting with Manganiello using rainbow colored lances, and they exchange friendship bands at the end of the movie while squeezed together in Manganiello’s treehouse. This is what love looks like in Pee-wee’s delicate, but deliberate, mode. And that’s what love looked like to many gay kids like me. We didn’t have any idea what sex was, but we clearly knew we wanted to share a treehouse with that hunky special someone.”
As with all such comic, campy presentations, there are multiple interpretive positions for viewers of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday. Maybe they’re gay. Maybe they’re BFFs. Maybe the film is about First Loves, and who cares what gender they are? Maybe it’s queer fan service. Or maybe it’s about being childlike and naïve about all this sexual orientation stuff: Pee-wee is just channeling our childhood absurdities and excesses in sympathetic, utopian fashion.
Nah, he’s gay.