Pee Wee’s Panopticon

Pee Wee

Michel Foucault, in his work “Discipline and Punish,” speaks of the Big-Brotherish, invisible surveillance looming over our heads in order to maintain power over us. If we think we are being watched, even if we aren’t sure if we actually are or not, we are going to act differently than we would in privacy. In this way, the people watching us, what Foucault likes to call “the discipline,” have power over our actions, and we become objects that can be manipulated and controlled by the threat of being punished if we stray too far off of the grid by defying social norms. Disciplinary power, according to Foucault, “is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility.” (Rabinow, 199). The media often times acts as a panopticon in our society, caging fallen celebrities in a world of paranoia of being watched everywhere they go.

When the media spots an effeminate, grown man who is not the typical, masculine hero hanging around children, there is always an underlying suspicion of the man being a pervert, since he does not fit into the masculine norm. He is seen as the “Other,” he doesn’t fit into our society’s grid, he doesn’t adhere to our gender norms. So eventually, the media blows a rumor or a simple mistake on the part of the “Other” out of proportion, and forces him off of the grid completely, either by simply having his TV show pulled off of the air or, at the extreme, by having him institutionalized. Pee Wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens, and Michael Jackson are two effeminate men who have been a victim of being forced into a media panopticon.

Michael Jackson loved children and hung around them all of the time. Since Michael was perceived as a weird dude and definitely didn’t fit the stereotypical male image, or any stereotype for that matter, the media was itching to find a way to slap some kind of label on him. The second someone accused him of child sexual abuse, the media jumped on dubbing him, “pervert.” Whether he actually had relations with any children that could be deemed inappropriate may never be determined, because he was never found guilty and never went to jail, but the media went ahead and institutionalized him in a different way. Michael had to retreat to his ranch, constantly hiding from the media’s surveillance over him, and felt he needed to protect his children from the vicious media by having them wear masks wherever they went. For many years, he was forced off of the grid and had been locked away in an invisible panopticon, powered by media surveillance, and only just recently had he begun to emerge out of hiding for a comeback, when he succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 50.

Pee Wee was, hands down, the queerest children’s show host of the 80’s. Pee Wee’s Playhouse was a race queer, class queer, life-affirming space of play where even the objects around the house got the opportunity to speak their mind. However, Pee Wee and his space of play were a little too queer and outside of the norm for those in power (again, the media). As soon as Pee Wee Herman made one move deemed “wrong,” both the media and the law jumped all over it, pulling his syndicated show off of the air for good, and arresting him. He was yanked clean off of the grid, and institutionalized immediately. His “wrong” move: masturbating in an ADULT theater. Like that’s never happened before! There are designated employees at these places whose whole job is mopping the floors because so many people masturbate in there. So, Paul Reubens got busted for being an adult in an adult place doing adult things, and that didn’t jive with his children’s show persona. He was out of character, deviating from the role automatically ascribed to him as a children’s show host, and so he had to be disciplined and punished for it. By the time this media story hit my 10 year old ears in 1991, my favorite children’s show host Pee Wee Herman was apparently a perverted old man who jerked off in public theaters (a lot of us missed the part about it being an ADULT theater because our parents didn’t want to have to explain what an adult theater was, so all we heard was “theater”). For years, like Michael Jackson, Paul Reubens went on a hiatus, being censored inside of the invisible panopticon the media (and in his case, the law) held him captive in. Eventually, Paul Reubens began to slowly reemerge, taking on small television and movie roles. But it was as if the invisible voice of the looming panopticon he was trying to escape from suddenly shouted in a booming voice, “Not so fast, Pee Wee. We are still watching you, and if you make one false move, one misstep, you WILL be punished.”


In 2001, Paul Reubens was busted for having child pornography after his house was searched by detectives looking into a complaint made about him and a friend by a teenager. Now, when I hear “child pornography,” I think of XXX-rated, down and dirty, completely nude images of small children to be drooled over by old pedophiles. However, apparently Paul Reubens “child pornography” collection consisted mostly of gay vintage erotica – especially “pre-XXX physique magazines” from the post-war decades (Goldstein 1). Paul Reubens, in an interview with Stone Phillips for Dateline NBC, explains what police are considering as pornography in his case: “One photograph for example has a young man with his hand on his thigh. It is close to his genitals, but not even that close. That’s what they’re calling somebody getting ready to perform a sex act” (Phillips 1). And when Stone Phillips asks Reubens point blank asks whether his photographs contained young boys “masturbating” and sexually “performing,” Reubens replies, “No. Absolutely not. One hundred percent not” (Phillips 1). Although the child pornography charges against Reubens were dropped, the media embraced this opportunity to exert its power over him once again, to put him back into his place, to neatly file him in the “pervert” section of society.

Queer archivists who have in their possession vintage homosexual erotica from the 1950s and 1960s are now in fear of being charged with having child pornography, since minors were allowed to model for erotic magazines back then. Since then, the laws have changed to where any material containing images of minors modeling in a provocative way, even if they are fully clothed, is considered child pornography (Goldstein 1). This incident has created a larger-scale panopticon affecting anyone who may be holding these vintage materials. Now, these materials have to be hidden, despite the fact that the whole point of collecting this memorabilia is to be able to proudly show the history of homosexuality in the last century and how far we’ve (supposedly) come. This is an example of how the harassment of one individual, such as Paul Reubens, can affect people on a larger scale, such as with the holders of these forbidden artifacts of queer history, and the rest of the queer community that doesn’t get to view these artifacts because the owners are too afraid to come out with them.

Forces of power such as the media and the law acting as the invisible overseers and discipliners can be a danger to people’s creativity, because anyone who steps outside of the box and acts in a way that draws attention to themselves as a deviation from the social norm is threatened with punishment if they make one wrong move. They are vulnerable and out in the open, being watched (or not being watched, but they wouldn’t know the difference because they THINK they are being watched). If people conform to society’s cookie-cutter grid structure, they can hide themselves better and draw less attention to themselves. They could go to an adult theater and get caught jerking off, and their whole life wouldn’t fall apart as the result of media exploitation. But then these people, instead of being creative and exploring, would be stuck replicating common sense, because it is safer than being locked up in a panopticon. Pee Wee and Michael Jackson, in the end, chose creativity over conformity. Michael was in the middle of a comeback tour when he passed away, and Pee Wee is coming back with “The Pee Wee Herman Show” in January. These two have emerged from the panopticon scarred, but determined to keep up their creative work, which in effect renders the panopticon powerless over them.

Goldstein, Richard. Persecuting Pee Wee: A Child-Porn Case That Threatens Us All. The Village Voice, 14 Jan. 2003. Web. 6 Dec. 2009.

Phillips, Stone. Pee Wee Herman Creator Speaks Out. Dateline NBC. 5 Apr. 2004. Web. 6 Dec. 2009.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucalt Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

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