Pee-wee’s Big Holiday may not be completely funny, necessary, or, simply, good. But some have asserted that, if nothing else, it is completely queer.
Forbes published a piece titled “Pee-wee’s Big Subversion,” while even more straightforwardly, BuzzFeed‘s assessment was that “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday Is Actually a Queer Love Story.” It’s a bit of a stretch trying to reconcile these Pee-wee-as-queer hero pieces — both of which claim the film’s Joe Manganiello infatuated subplot as proof of their thesis — with, say, this piece in Queerty criticizing the man behind the Pee-wee, Paul Reubens, for his continued sexual opacity. (This article asks that he a) come out and b) have Pee-wee follow suit, lifting “the curtain to send a stronger message to teens who might be struggling with their identities” now that the world has evolved.)
To me, the one remaining point of interest in an otherwise uninspired return is Pee-wee’s unfaltering sexual ambiguity — that is, the ambiguity over whether he’s asexual or pansexual, heightened in this iteration by the gap between Reubens’ age (63) and the curious infantility of his character. Pee-wee’s world of exuberant and unsettling alterity might crumble without sexual confusion and bodily anachronism. In order to be uncanny, as opposed to purely creepy, in the character’s bridging of ages, it may be best if Pee-wee rests within a somewhat less affirmative discursive space: I hesitate to see Pee-wee — and the Pee-wee movie clearly hesitates to see itself — as a groundbreaking queer romance for kids and adults alike. I would love to see those; I just don’t know if I want Pee-wee to be the definitive subject of any #important adult love story…cause, well, he’s not entirely an adult.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday simply doesn’t work unadulteratedly as a “queer love story” by virtue of the fact that it both courts and deliberately eludes it. When Joe Manganiello wanders into Pee-wee’s diner at the beginning of the movie, embodying beefy desirability as he commandingly spoons and gulps Pee-wee’s chocolate milkshake, the homoerotic subtext is hardly subtextual, though it’s played with earnestness. (And there’s certainly no gay panic element to it.) But while in, say, a superhero movie, this subtext might tantalize queer desire, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday acknowledges this cinematic tendency while pairing it with a dizzying array of mixed meanings. This is, after all, a sexagenarian man (whose skin’s been tugged by awe-inducingly tenacious tape), dressed as a child dressed as a sexagenarian man, forming a sexually ambiguous infatuation with a sex symbol celebrity who’s much younger but acts older, but is also ambiguously infatuated. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is able to make a joke of this (and to justify it within its own world) by harnessing the character’s trademark age-ambiguous innocence and naiveté and juxtaposing it with Joe Manganiello’s auto-homoeroticizing body.
Hero/sidekick relationships are also often imbued — on the part of audiences — with homoeroticism because uncoded homosexuality is so scarce in mainstream cinema, outside of LGBT Issues Movies. The audience can inject as much subtext and explicit backstory as they see fit to these narratives… until the inevitable heteronormative love interest comes along. So it should be noted that despite the overarching narrative about Pee-wee trying to find his way to Manganiello, the one gesture he shares that physically signifies romance (as opposed to suggestion, as when he rides the back of Manganiello’s motorcycle) is with Alia Shawkat’s retro-thief character, who kisses him twice on the cheek before they share a peck on the lips. Like Pee-wee’s Playhouse‘s buxom Miss Yvone, Shawkat’s campy character is played with a drag-like coupling of exaggerated earnestness and remove — and their kiss is the type of kiss you may have stolen on the playground with another five-year-old when you, yourself, were five.
This certainly doesn’t read as traditionally “hetero,” but the fact that Pee-wee shares a kiss with her — as opposed to sharing glances, root-beer candies, and ineffable senses of longing — with Manganiello expresses the movie’s desire to tease and elude a pop-activistic reading of the character. Because Pee-wee and Manganiello’s plot reads as far more sweepingly romantic, it’s tempered by this lack of something as direct as a kiss. Rather, it’s an undeniably sweet and undeniably ambiguous relationship that deepens Herman’s weird senior-infant status by emphasizing the congruent aspects of childhood friendship and adult romance.
It seems more interested in drawing humor (though, oddly, also pathos) in an exaggeration of the forced, sustained wink that is queerbaiting, while never quite breaking the structure of queerbaiting. This is used to deepen Pee-wee’s unclassifiability as man or child, human or impeccably pickled cultural… thing. As a decades-long mainstream-embraced, er, art project, one of Pee-wee’s most notable traits is embodying an uncomfortable confluence of earnestness and irony, legitimate sweetness and creepiness through his age conflation. (It’s hard to assume that the star’s backstory with arrests over morally grey sex-related issues doesn’t further instill innuendo and even a tinge of unease in anyone’s perception of his work).
When Paul Reubens appeared in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, it made utter sense: both Reubens’ and Solondzs’ work are replete with implications of sexualized childhood, both thematically and in their exuberant color schemes and characters who speak in innuendo (or in Solondz’s movies, sometimes act upon the more insidious aspects of the innuendos). This mode of implicit discomfort has maintained Pee-wee as a camp-surrealist cultural phenomenon, a perpetual curiosity and cipher for discussion in the vein of Lana Del Rey. I totally enjoy this, but it also makes me hesitate to see it doing the work of a cultural role-model (or on the flip side, as problematically queerbaiting).
It goes without saying that Pee-wee’s Playhouse looked like something John Waters cooked up to show the kids he never had, and it goes without saying that there have always been queer overtones in the expansive Pee-wee oeuvre. But I don’t think the real question Pee-wee begs is “Is Pee-wee sometimes into dudes?” so much as “is Pee-wee into no one or everyone?” — and that this question begs to never be truly answered. The latter is the balance Pee-wee’s always established, and sustains to an even weirder extent now that the man behind the Pee-wee is 63-wee.