The Queerness of Pee-wee Herman, From the Closet to Netflix’s ‘Big Holiday’
Pee-wee Herman has long existed in a queer space, though one only subliminally alluded to. Paul Reubens’ feminine boyish persona, oscillating between effeminate gay man and asexual man-child, has long played with ideas of gender expression that comment on an underlying queerness. From the drag queen genie Jambi in Playhouse to Pee-wee’s episodes of crossdressing, from his makeup and exaggerated feminine gestures to the fluctuating inflections of his comical voice, Pee-wee has been deconstructing gender and sexuality norms all along while disguising it as campy comedy. Yet Pee-wee never directly acknowledged the queerness of his imaginative universe and even struggled with embracing it. But after a 28-year absence from the big screen, Pee-Wee is finally coming out.
In Netflix’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, the 63-year-old Reubens reprises his iconic character for more grand misadventures, Rube Goldberg inventions and silly antics. In Big Holiday we meet a Pee-wee who’s remarkably more timid than the one of Big Adventure and Big Top. This isn’t the same guy who’d boldly call himself “a rebel,” who’d show off his bike tricks or dance in platforms in a bar full of bikers. This Pee-wee has never left his 1950s time-warped hometown of Fairville, and the one time he did attempt to leave, an accident left him with “a metal plate” in his head. The Pee-wee that remains longs to break out of old-fashioned traditions and to discover himself. As much as the Judd Apatow–produced movie is a modern rehashing of Pee-wee’s work from the ’80s, there’s something strikingly different about it: It is unabashedly, glaringly queer.
The thing that shakes Pee-wee from his melancholic stupor and helps him embark on a self-exploration quest is the sound of a motorcycle engine, followed by the emergence of actor Joe Manganiello, who plays himself. Joe is the epitome of manhood: a handsome, muscular cool dude who turns on the jukebox with a punch, has two women fight over him and is what Pee-wee calls “triple cool.” Pee-wee immediately gawks over the True Blood star like a child in a candy store, but this is much more than Pee-wee’s childlike desires kicking in. When Joe invites Pee-wee to his birthday party in New York, Pee-wee garners the courage to leave his hometown and travel across the country to visit his new friend. Finally Pee-wee has something to live for: his reunion with Joe, like finding his bike in Big Adventure or his dream of singing in Big Top. If Fairville symbolizes the patriarchal, heteronormative notions of gender and sexuality of the 1950s, then the town also represents his literal closet, hindering him from exploring the inner queerness he’s long repressed.
Pee-wee’s otherness has always been a part of his DNA as the kooky loner kid but is most blatantly implied in Big Holiday’s opening dream sequence. In it, Pee-wee and his alien best friend Yule cry over having to say goodbye as Yule’s spaceship arrives to take him home. Beyond echoing the usual absurdity of the Pee-wee Herman universe, this dream reveals how Pee-wee literally feels alien to the culture he lives in, an outsider yearning to meet another like him. When he meets Joe, a modern visitor in Fairville, the complacency of Pee-wee’s antiquated world is shattered. Not only does Joe reveal how Pee-wee’s weird idiosyncrasies can be embodied by a cool, brawny actor — from their love of miniatures to root beer barrels — but that the attraction they share is acceptable in the world Joe comes from.
The queer subtext of Big Holiday is barely subtext at all; it’s so overt the viewer can’t possibly miss it. From the homoerotic tension of Pee-wee excitedly watching Joe slurp his milkshake to their phallic jousting with giant straws in a fireworks dream, it’s clear Pee-wee and Joe share more than a bromance. Reubens even coyly acknowledged the homoeroticism of the joust scene in a recent interview with the New York Times, grinning while giving the coy response, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
"Now that Pee-wee has been brought into the present, a time of celebrated diverse sexualities and gender identities, he’s able flourish into his most queer self yet."
In an early scene Joe explains to Pee-wee how famous he is by asking, “Have you heard of Magic Mike?” Pee-wee winkingly responds, “Ha! You’d think so, but no.” (If that’s not an obvious nod to Pee-wee’s attraction to muscly men then nothing is.) Even the mere image of Joe wearing a leather jacket on a motorcycle evokes the gay fetishization of bikers à la Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Andy Warhol’s Bike Boy. Joe is blatantly an object of sexual male desire for Pee-wee, as shown in his repeated dream sequences where he fantasizes about them blowing out birthday candles and dancing together. The two also speak to each other in Spanish in the dreams, which could be read as a call-back to Pee-wee’s flirtatious relationship with Ricardo (Vic Trevino), a Spanish soccer player in Playhouse who looks a lot like a clean-shaven Manganiello. Does Reubens have a type?
After watching Big Holiday, one could easily conclude it reveals Pee-wee as gay, something queer theorists have discussed since the beginning of Playhouse. It seems especially so after an early scene in which Pee-wee recoils from a girl’s advance with an “Eww,” much like he did with Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) in Big Adventure. But labeling Pee-wee as a gay character and Big Holiday as a gay romance does the film an injustice by ignoring its fluid approach to queer identity. The movie doesn’t depict Pee-wee as explicitly homosexual against a heterosexual backdrop, but uses various presentations of gender expression and romantic attraction to dismantle heterocentrist concepts of gender and sexuality. Essentially, if we remove the events of Big Holiday from a heteronormative context, as much of Pee-wee’s works seems to strive for, then we no longer have to read, or read into, its queerness as subtext — it simply just is. Joe and Pee-wee’s bromance could be a friendship between two men regardless of their sexual preferences, or it could even be a friendship in addition to a romance. The possibilities are endless and seem purposefully open-ended. By not defining Pee-wee’s relationship with Joe as strictly sexual, Big Holiday instead allows his relationships with others — from a group of flamboyant black hairstylists to a fervent Katherine Hepburn type — to become paths of discovering his own queerness.
The second side of Pee-wee’s queerness is evoked in a trio of female criminals, referencing the 1960s sexualized women of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. Alia Shawkat’s bank robber is named Pee-wee, thus in the most obvious sense she’s his female double. A highly feminized woman embracing her feminine sexuality to challenge gender norms, Shawkat is brave, confident and rebellious in ways Pee-wee isn’t. (It’s worth noting the trio could be read as misogynist presentations of overly sexed women, but they may also simply be parodies of those in Meyer’s film.) This type of woman is far from new in the Pee-wee universe, though. As Alexander Doty described in a Camera Obscura essay “The Sissy Boy, the Fat Ladies and the Dykes: Queerness and/as Gender in Pee-wee’s World,” the many “lesbian-butch and lesbian-femme” characters from various Pee-wee TV shows and specials were “used as counterparts to Pee-wee’s/Reubens’ feminine gay personality.”
Those characters, like Shawkat’s gang, Diane Salinger’s waitress Simone in Big Adventure, and Salinger’s Hepburn-esque Penny King in Big Holiday, embody an androgyny and a femininity that allows them to “operate in the space of lesbian reconceptualizating of masculinity.” These women represent the woman destabilizing binary male gender norms, while those who read as lesbian embrace their sexuality outside of heterosexual culture. Though Shawkat’s Pee-wee may not be portrayed as a lesbian, her existence is as much a plea for diverse gender presentation as Pee-wee’s constant undercutting of masculinity; she’s his feminized Tyler Durden in an alternate universe. But in addition to their friendship, Pee-wee and Shawkat also share a brief moment of romance when they later kiss, further alluding the the fluid nature of his queerness.
As much as Big Holiday presents stereotyped illustrations of femininity and masculinity, it also subverts them to show how a person can embody both, like Pee-wee. While Joe appears to embody the characteristics of a macho male, by the end of the movie his feminine sensitivities prove otherwise. “Ten minutes ago I was bawling my eyes out,” Joe tells Pee-wee, “Because I thought you weren’t coming to my party.” Joe becomes the antithesis of the heteronormative male sexuality and gender expression he was first introduced as by proudly revealing his emotional feminine side. Although Joe embodies clichéd, binary traits of femininity (i.e. crying) and masculinity (i.e. motorcycles), on the most elementary level his character manages to convey that there are many ways to be a man. Pee-wee has always been a boy stuck in a man’s body, or perhaps a “part-time boy” and “part-time girl,” as Ian Balfour wrote in a 1988 Camera Obscura essay, but now that he’s left Fairville, he’s finally able to embrace and explore what it means for his identity.
In Big Holiday, Pee-wee is no longer the feminine gay closeted by the 1950s, nor the curiously queer one winked at in the post-Stonewall ’80s. Now that Pee-wee has been brought into the present, a time of celebrated diverse sexualities and gender identities, he’s able flourish into his most queer self yet. Doty ends his 1991 essay suggesting that even though Pee-wee’s queerness was minimized to connotations, the queer subtext around him helped to acknowledge his identity. But by existing in 2016 Pee-wee’s coming out is actively encouraged, and Reubens no longer has to rely on symbolism and camp. At the end of Big Holiday, Pee-wee is trapped in a well after falling down a Manhattan manhole, his last hurdle before coming out. But Pee-wee isn’t alone; all of his friends watching the live newscast eagerly cheer for Pee-wee to literally “get out.” Eventually Joe saves Pee-wee, continuing to be the symbol of queer acceptance he’s needed, and the two ride off into the distance on a motorcycle, a big queer cherry to top it all off.
Whether Big Holiday reveals Pee-wee as gay, bisexual, pansexual or perhaps genderqueer remains unknown, but in presenting those possibilities Pee-wee has become a champion for queer fluidity. With his lipstick-red lips and plaid grey suit, Reubens’ character has long existed as an outlet for repressed desires. He created a fantastical space where kids and adults could embrace their inner weirdos and enact their silliest fantasies, and now one where love and identity can have various definitions outside of gay or straight, masculine or feminine. It might have taken him 39 years, but Pee-wee Herman has finally become the queer hero we always needed.