Tongues wagged when PBS President Pat Mitchell announced she would resign her high perch at the end of her contract in June 2006. The buzz was that she had been ruined by the cartoon character Buster the Bunny -- or more specifically, the episode of the PBS kids show "Travels with Buster" featuring two Vermont lesbian moms making maple sugar. "I've got a long time to get past Buster," she told USA Today.
Faced with embarrassment when new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wrote a letter making the reasonable point that many parents would find this episode of political correctness inappropriate for their preschool kids, Mitchell said that PBS would not distribute that show on the PBS national feed. Predictably, the makers of the show at PBS mega-station WGBH in Boston declared they would have no qualms with insulting the taxpayers who fund their work and declared they would distribute the episode themselves. Rebellious PBS stations in more than half the country have taught toddlers about maple sugar as well as the need to accept the lifestyle of "Mom and Gillian."
Any time cartoons favored by young children enter the culture wars, there is an automatic assumption that someone is suffering from "parent-noia" -- followed by guffaws that some cartoon is ruining the moral fiber of our youth and turning them all over to Satan. Comedians joke and giggle. (Yes, those are the same live-and-let-live types who go into outrage mode at the idea that cartoons in commercials brainwash our impressionable youth to eat Twinkies instead of celery sticks.)
If we took a poll, most parents would unite around this opinion: Let young children have innocent cartoon entertainment without everyone ruining it with adult political agendas. We can understand that PBS's lesbian moms didn't kiss on screen or explicitly tout gay marriage. We know it wasn't anything like "Tongues Untied," the wild gay documentary many PBS stations aired in 1991, complete with very explicit sex talk and F-words. But PBS stations promise in nearly every pledge drive and every appearance before Congress that their daytime programming is a safe haven for parents to use with their preschool children. That's not the case when some PBS activists are actively trying to indoctrinate 4-year-olds.
The PBS political-correctness brigades at least feel they are idealistic. In this sweeps month of February, all the other networks are pumping up the lesbian themes for much more cynical ratings-grabbing reasons, with hormone-bursting teens as one target audience.
The most glaring example is Fox's "The O.C.," a hot primetime soap with a big youth following. The Feb. 10 episode featured a lesbian kiss on the beach between two beautiful characters, Marissa and Alex. But not to worry. The actress playing Alex insists that the multi-episode same-sex fling is not a "Girls Gone Wild" video. Instead, "it's healthy, showing it as a mature and natural progression of a relationship," she told USA Today.
This ratings trick is getting so old that TV Guide carried an online article on Valentine's Day on TV's "Top Twenty Same-Sex Kisses."
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is, naturally, thrilled. GLAAD boss Joan Garry loved the Alex character: "To see a strong, confident, well-adjusted bisexual young woman -- particularly one who's navigating the rocky terrain of relationships -- on a show like 'The O.C.' can be a lifeline for teens and young adults who are asking the same questions and dealing with the same issues."
The Feb. 10 "ER" on NBC had a more political and anti-religious flavor. Their lesbian doctor character, Kerry Weaver, meets her birth mother, who gave her up at 15. NBC explained "their budding relationship withers when Weaver confesses to her mother -- an evangelical Christian -- that she is gay."
The repressed-Christian storyline also comes through in reality shows. The Feb. 9 "Wife Swap" on ABC broadened the definition of "wife" a bit, exchanging a lesbian "stepmom" with a materialistic, conservative Christian mom to watch the fur-flying catfights. At the end of the "swap," the Christian mom makes the lesbian cry by saying, "I think you are, according to the word of God, depraved, and I don't want anyone depraved near my kids." That leaves everyone in the audience thinking, correctly: then maybe you shouldn't have volunteered to go on "Wife Swap," dummy.
The Feb. 9 "Law and Order" on NBC carried a lesbian murder plot. A conservative talk show host is murdered. Detectives discover the man was the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit (ripping from the Bill O'Reilly headlines), but the killer is a lesbian involved with the conservative's wife.
Sweeps month is always the time to ramp up the "edgy" factor, which is the perpetual problem. How far will the networks have to go to locate the frontier of "edgy" for the next sweeps period? Primetime TV is no walk through the maple-sugar factory.