In November 2001, Los Angeles police officers raided actor Paul Reubens's Hollywood hills home, seizing what they alleged to be stacks and stacks of obscene material and what Reubens called his "vintage art collection." They confiscated his computers, his PalmPilot, his address book. Suddenly, the man who as Pee-wee Herman was the most popular children's television star of the late '80s was in the spotlight, accused by the city of Los Angeles of possessing child porn.
Reubens fought back for more than two years, but on March 19--facing prosecutors determined to make an example of him in what they called their stand against the "sexual exploitation of children"--he agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge, pay a $100 fine, and register with the police for three years. There would be no show trial for Pee-wee Herman, but the damage was done.
The big chill had come to Hollywood. Reubens declined to speak to The Advocate, citing his busy schedule, but in interviews with Dateline NBC and Entertainment Weekly he stressed that he possessed no child pornography, and he revealed the kind of images that had offended the Los Angeles Police Department: old physique photographs such as those on the cover of this magazine and featured in writer-director Thorn Fitzgerald's 1999 film Beefcake. "There were nude pictures," the actor told EW. "It's a collection of vintage photography, and a lot of it is erotic or sexual. But I don't view my collection as dirty in any way. I view it as art.... They seized magazines that were 40, 50, 60 years old--stuff that was legally produced and legal to possess at the time."
Back then, models were often photographed nude, but artists painted clothing on the images before the magazines were sold on newsstands, Fitzgerald says. The original photographs, classically posed, were seen as an important addition to art collections. "The images [of that time] were nude but rarely pornographic," he says. "I think it's important that there are law enforcers pursuing child abusers; however, I can think of several examples where that pursuit has gone terribly awry."
Physique poses. Old art photos. Vintage nudist magazines. Images that any curious gay man might pick up at a flea market without thinking twice. "People should ask themselves, 'What do I have in my house?'" Reubens warned EW readers. "'What would I do if the police came with no warning?'" If Reubens is a sex offender, does that mean every gay man in America should fear the government combing through his hard drive or searching under his mattress?
In 2004 in the United States of America the definition of "obscene" is suddenly broadening to encompass all kinds of adult serf-expression, including Reubens's art collection, Janet Jackson's PG-13 Super Bowl stunt, and Howard Stern's familiar radio antics. Cross the line with the LAPD or the FCC and the hammer of censorship may come down on you. You could lose your reputation, your voice, your broadcast license, and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"There is so much weird stuff going on today--the idea that everyone should conform," Reubens told EW. "One of the points of my TV show [Pee-wee's Playhouse] was that it was OK to be weird. Fourteen years after the show went off [the air] conformity is even more encouraged."
Indeed, conformity to the new, narrow definition of what is acceptable is being harshly enforced. On April 8, Stern's talk show was dropped by Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest chain of radio stations, after the Federal Communications Commission proposed a $495,000 fine for broadcasting Stern's "indecent" material.
Think what you like of Stern, but to much of the country--and to regulators--his sexually explicit vulgarity is little different from, say, portrayals of same-sex affection on ER or It's All Relative. With so much money at stake, Hollywood insiders say, the current atmosphere in television and film production can best be described as "chilled. …