Monday, February 21, 2005
A postcard from the edge
A friend sent me an email. Her local PBS station (WEDU-Tampa) has decided to air the "Sugartime" episode of "Postcards from Buster." Among other matters the episode reveals that some children have Lesbian moms. The problem is, the cartoon will not be shown in the normally scheduled slot. Instead it will air at 9 pm accompanied by a panel discussion. WEDU says "If they so choose, parents may record the episode and watch it with their children at another time."
My friend asked my thoughts on this, so for what it's worth, let's look at WEDU's notice—
POSTCARDS FROM BUSTER:
PARENTAL REVIEW SPECIAL
WEDU Presents an hour-long special opportunity for parents to preview the "Sugartime" episode and get input from a diverse panel discussion
WEDU will air the controversial "Sugartime" episode of the PBS children's program POSTCARDS FROM BUSTER on Thursday, February 24 at 9 p.m., followed by a panel discussion. The episode has received much national and local attention due to its controversial content of a Vermont lesbian couple and their children.
"Sugartime" is in keeping with the other episodes of the program, whose primary focus is on regional and cultural traditions throughout the United States and in which local families are used as a backdrop to the stories. The "Sugartime" episode focuses on maple sugaring in Vermont, and uses a local two- mother family as part of the setting.
WEDU has chosen the 9 p.m. air time of "Sugartime" as a courtesy to parents. If they so choose, parents may record the episode and watch it with their children at another time. Like PBS, WEDU wants the introduction of this sensitive material to be the parents' choice. PBS did not distribute this episode to stations, and no Department of Education funds will be applied toward it. PBS provided an additional episode to replace "Sugartime." Of the over 300 PBS stations nationwide, 47 have decided to air the episode.
In addition to the primetime airing, WEDU has assembled a panel, hosted by Geoff Simon, to discuss the episode. Panelists include: Carol Greenwald, Executive Producer of Postcards from Buster from producing station WGBH; David Caton, Executive Director of the Florida Family Association; Tracy Harris, one of the two mothers featured in the program; and another panelist (unconfirmed as yet).
"While we often address controversial issues in our primetime schedule, we believe the children's programming block is a more sensitive area. By airing the episode at 9 p.m., out of the children's hours, we are leaving it up to the parents to decide if and when they want to introduce these issues to their children," said Paul Grove, WEDU Vice President of Programming and Production.
First, about the decision by WEDU to show the program at all—I can only conclude that in this God-benighted country and in a State that has introduced the first "faith-based" prison, someone at the station has some courage. According to WEDU, as reported by the St. Pete Times, of 349 PBS stations only 47 have shown the episode. And the right is undoubtedly preparing a list of them for further harrassment.
That said, and notwithstanding that the CEO of WEDU says "that producers at the Boston PBS station that produces the show approved of the way WEDU is handling it," there is a great deal to be regretted both in the manner they've chosen to present the program and in their online notice.
The idea of adults watching a children's cartoon during primetime, to be followed by a panel discussion, is simply grotesque. But grotesque is what we Americans have become.
This is no longer a children's show. According to the PBS-sponsored "PBS Parents" website, "Postcards from Buster" is specifically designed for children ages 6-8. But I have to wonder how many children of that age will see it in the Tampa Bay area. And I also have to wonder if, given the context (panel discussion and all), it's even a good idea.
What is at issue here is whether gays should be acknowledged to exist. This is not an issue for debate by children, and it shouldn't be an issue for debate by adults—but it is. And that is the context into which this episode has been placed.
I would not want my child to view such a program, because I wouldn't want to suggest to a child that these people—this family—are so beyond the pale that even the adults don't know what to think of them, which is precisely what WEDU is doing.
Their parental notice is loaded with phrases such as "controversial 'Sugartime' episode," "controversial content," "sensitive material," "controversial issues" and "sensitive area." These are the sorts of descriptions you see on the box of a porno film, placed there to avoid litigation and to encourage viewing. No doubt there will be more of this sort of talk during the panel discussion.
Of course, I am referring to the point of view as presented to children living in straight households. The effect upon a child living in a gay household is nothing less than unthinkably cruel. Melanie McFarland, TV critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, expresses this well—
The saddest thing about the morality war's targeting of the "Postcards From Buster" episode "Sugartime!" isn't the way it throws mud on a nice, kindhearted cartoon bunny beloved by children everywhere. Or the way it has turned a typical half-hour of children's programming into "the lesbian episode" because a pair of lesbian couples, who appear onscreen for less than a minute, head the two Vermont families Buster visits.
It's not even in the contradictory message being sent by Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who threatened to withdraw funding from PBS's Ready-to-Learn initiative if PBS distributed the program, which it did not. The initiative is a partnership between the Department of Education and PBS that comes under a grant that, among other things, requires diversity be incorporated into the fabric of the series, "to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society."
In Spellings' definition, it's fine to teach children about tolerance when it comes to race, class, culture and religion, but not sexual orientation. Quite a crime, but still, not the biggest heartbreaker.
To me, the most significant tragedy hits upon watching what should be an uncontroversial and heartwarming display of a child's unconditional love. As Buster accompanies his new friend Emma through her home, she stops to show off the family photographs, including one of Emma's mother, Karen, cheek to cheek with her partner, Gillian.
"That's a nice picture," Buster says.
"This is one of my favorite pictures," Emma replies, leading Buster to ask, "How come?"
"Because it has my mom and Gillian, the people I love a lot, and they mean a lot to me."
But when PBS shied away from distributing "Sugartime!", when Spellings went on a subsequent rampage against Boston's WGBH (which produces the program), when she disinvited executive producer Carol Greenwald from speaking at a children's television conference last week, it all delivered a stinging rebuke to everything Emma's heart treasures.
It tells her and all the other children with gay parents that their family lives and loves don't count. And it implies that something's wrong with the mission of "Buster," a show that depicts the wide variety of regional, cultural and religious lifestyles and family situations across America. It says appreciating the way other Americans live their lives is fine, up to a point.
See, Buster can visit Mormons and Pentecostal Christians, skip around with a black cowgirl and enjoy sushi in Seattle. But sharing cheesecake with lesbian families in Vermont threatens to crumble our entire moral structure.
A playpen for adults and a forum for a bigot
So WEDU has provide a pen in which the adults may play, probably not too nicely. David Caton of the Florida Family Association is a piece of work. According to their website, Caton is a hit with religious broadcasters.
David Caton has shared his testimony, ministry, and advocacy for family values on the following programs:
Dr. James Dobson's Focus On The Family radio broadcast
Pat Robertson's 700 Club
Sheila Walshes' Heart to Heart
Dr. D. James Kennedy's Truths That Transform and Coral Ridge Hour
Marlin Maddox's Point of View
Bob D'Andrea's The Good Life
Arthelene Rippyy’s Homekeepers
Herman Bailey's Action Sixties
To give you a little of the flavor of his offerings, I quote from Gay Today,
David Caton, a man whose faith in Jesus saved him from a life of addiction to pornography that had become a $300 monthly habit, and who has since emerged as a major opponent of gay and lesbian rights in Florida, plans, he says, to lead a Central Florida charge from his Tampa headquarters on Dade County in South Florida, which includes Miami and Miami Beach.
Caton's organization seeks, he says, to rescind Dade's 1998 ordinance—passed by the Miami-Dade Commission and which protects gay males and lesbians from discrimination. The Miami Herald, now under a new editorial chief who was formerly with the New York Times, spoke out vehemently against David Caton's plans.
Oh, and the children...
My guess is that most children will either see this program during its 9 pm airing or not at all. And for those who do watch it, there will probably be as many children older than the age range of the program as not. The idea that a significant number of politically correct parents are going to record this episode for later viewing by their children strikes me as improbable as Bush sending a man to Mars.
One thing's for sure. Talk of "Postcards for Buster" will be going around the primary school playgrounds, not because the children watched the show but because some kid from a family of right-wing bigots is sure to be talking about it, and not in favorable terms. And so begins the long process of acculturation into bigotry to which the children are subjected.
I still remember the joke I heard on my first day at school. And when you're older maybe I'll tell it to you.