The Battle for Kids' TV: After the Buster and SpongeBob Controversies, Is There a Place for Queer Lives on Children's TV?

Article excerpt

When Focus on the Family founder James Dobson raised a ruckus in January about SpongeBob Square-Pants's appearance in what he dubbed a "pro-homosexual video" designed to promote diversity to schoolchildren, it was so widely (and erroneously) assumed that Dobson had said SpongeBob himself was gay that the cartoon hero's creator, Stephen Hillenburg, felt compelled to explain to the press that the character was, in fact, "asexual."

Gay people, an increasingly common sight within mainstream pop culture, are still personae non gram within the multibillion-dollar children's programming industry, and Dobson's reaction to even a passing association between a beloved kids' TV icon and the so-called gay agenda seems to be just a sign of things to come--especially when it comes to portrayals of families with gay parents.

"When [my kids] were a little bit younger, I had a lot of trouble finding books or videos or things that I could use to help them understand that they were as valid as any other children of any other family structure in the country," says Karen Pike, 42, who with her partner, Gillian Pieper, raises three children in Vermont. "There's nothing there. It's as if we do not exist."

Pike knows of what she speaks. Just last month, her family found themselves at the center of a very public battle between three of the biggest voices in educational programming: PBS, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and Boston public television station WGBH. Last year Pike, Pieper, and their three children, Emma, David, and James, were filmed for the "Sugartime!" episode of WGBH's Postcards From Buster, a series designed to showcase the broad spectrum of different families in the United States.

In January, after one day on the job, Secretary Spellings made public a letter she sent to PBS CEO Pat Mitchell strongly criticizing the network for producing the episode, explaining that "many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode." (Two thirds of the show's budget is from a federal Ready to Learn grant administered by the Department of Education.) PBS, meanwhile, insists it had already decided to pull the episode from distribution a few hours before receiving Spellings's letter, which prompted a defiant WGBH to send the episode directly to at least 45 PBS affiliates who wished to broadcast it.

"We need to give children a lot of credit," says WGBH vice president of communications Jeanne Hopkins. "Kids can handle this--if they even notice. There will be some kids who watch it who won't even recognize that there are two rooms here and that that means anything."

That's exactly the problem, according to PBS senior programming vice president John Wilson, who argues that the episode was treating a giant pink elephant like it was just part of the scenery. It featured Pike and Pieper along with another lesbian couple for a total of about six minutes, and only briefly touched on the gay parent angle--after Emma shows off her mothers' family portrait, we hear cartoon narrator Buster exclaim, "Boy, that's a lot of morns! …