Pee-wee Herman was our first introduction to gender fluidity and social nonconformity.
With the news of Paul Reubens passing, I’ve seen several online comments from millennials and Gen Xers about the impact his famous character, Pee-wee Herman, had on their lives. This often happens when someone of note passes away, but this one seemed to hit a little different.
Maybe it’s because I’m one of those millennials.
I’ve spent the day thinking about why Pee-wee Herman had such a strong and lasting influence on my life, and I now have the years and added knowledge gained from a shifting society to help inform my conclusion.
Pee-wee was a lot of things to a lot of people.
For adults, he allowed them to be kids again.
For kids, especially ones who didn’t quite understand who they were yet, he allowed them to feel comfortable and confident in being different.
In the 80s and 90s, words such as “nonbinary” and “gender fluidity” were not commonplace. To some, Pee-wee was a “weird little man” (exact words I saw written by a Baby Boomer today), a character who confused them because he didn’t conform to gender or societal norms. They felt vindicated in their beliefs when Paul Reubens was arrested for masturbating in an adult movie theater in 1991 and the reruns of his hit TV show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, were pulled from the air.
But Pee-wee’s “weirdness,” and the fact no one could pinpoint who or what he was, is exactly why he resonated with so many kids and adults alike. For those of us who didn’t gravitate towards the binary shows and toys of the time, Pee-wee was a revelation. He was our first queer role model.
Pee-wee wasn’t interested in love (except for in Big Top Pee-wee, which is one of the reasons why the film doesn’t quite work) or sex (except for in his early stand-up shows), and he was certainly never interested in stereotypical male behavior, female behavior, or even adult behavior. He allowed his viewers to not have to think about society’s expectations of them. We could all be whomever we wanted to be because this popular movie and TV show icon was unlike anything we had ever seen.