ADHD, And Tango Makes Three, banalization of homosexuality, Bisexuality, Bridge to Terabithia, Bulls On Parade, censorship, child developement, children's fiction, Dav Pilkey, free speech, Freedom, GOP, Grouchy Old People, Harold and George, he Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, heteronormativity, Homosexuality, Literature, Politics, Rage Against the Machine, Reading, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, The Attack of the Talking Toilets, The Gay Agenda, The Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space( and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds), The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, The Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, Twenty One Balloons
I’ve written this before, but when I was young I was not much of a reader. I aspired to read, and I liked “the idea” of reading, but the actual practice left me too dissatisfied. I mean I had Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros to beat and they weren’t going to play themselves after all. The Picture of Dorian Grey could wait and so many of the books on my shelf sat and collected dust, apart of course for my Calvin and Hobbes books, and, of course, my Captain Underpants collection. I’d bought, my parents bought let’s be honest here, the first book at the school book fair because the man on the cover was wearing nothing but underwear, and when I opened the pages and saw the book had pictures and a comic book inside I insisted that I buy, that my parents buy me the book. Had it not been for Captain Underpants I might not have sustained any real desire to read in which case I could have focused on science and eventually cured canc…okay I couldn’t even finish that sentence, but you arrive at the general idea.
Much like Family Guy and Calvin and Hobbes, I gravitated to Captain Underpants because it was silly. The humor matched a lot of what I considered to be funny and so once I finished the first, aptly named by the author, epic novel, I bought, had my parents buy me, the second book The Attack of the Talking Toilets. Captain Underpants saved me from third grade which was a particularly hellish experience because it became clear after the first month that my teacher really didn’t like anyone in the class. Being sensitive as fucking fuck I apparently spent most of the semester scared and crying and looking back, in all seriousness, I don’t actually remember my year of the third grade at all. I do remember my grade school coach and one of the administrators chewing me out for using the word “Hell” in a sentence to the point that I was crying and apologizing, but I don’t like to remember this much. This experience may be one of the many early instances that taught to me respect yet always distrust authority figures. To this day as I see police officers walking towards me there’s a general discomfort and I treat my professors with the utmost respect while always terrified that I’ve done something to offend or disappoint them.
Despite this pleasant experience Captain Underpants is a recurring image during this period and after the Talking Toilets I read The Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space( and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds) and The Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, and the last book of the series I read as a young man was The Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman. Pilkey continued writing and publishing books, but by the time Wedgie Woman was published I had reached the fifth grade and new books were making appearances. Twenty One Balloons and Bridge to Terabithia required more effort and dedication and so Captain Underpants, didn’t disappear, but steadily faded into the white noise of childhood. However unlike Bing Bong from Inside Out (Quite possibly the most soul wrenching tragic figure since Othello) Captain Underpants did not fade into oblivion.
While I discovered boobs and the joys of writing novels that nobody but myself would ever read, Captain Underpants continued a journey of silliness and toilet humor that would spark moral outrage from the bored imaginations of parents who forgot that kids need something to laugh at. Captain Underpants has become the most banned book in the United States and when you remember the plot involves two kids hypnotizing their school principle into thinking he’s a superhero who wears nothing but underwear, that fact assumes a depressing morbidity.
Americans like to talk a great deal about greatness, that greatness being first and foremost out personal freedoms, yet despite this celebration there is a subtext much in the vein of Orwell. All freedoms are equal, but some freedoms are more equal than others. The right to freedom of speech promises individual expression, but when an individual’s expression’s challenges authority that voice is subversive or treasonous. It’s better to allow only certain types of speeches in certain places, while displaying and carrying guns should not be hindered in anyway, unless you’re a twelve year old black boy in a public park. This snark however is cheap and only serves to avoid the real problem in American culture which is that Americans are overly-concerned/obsessed with the idea of purity, or at the very least with comfort in their world view which leads me to the GOP, a.k.a The Grouchy Old People.
For Christmas this year I received a hardback copy of the latest Captain Underpants books The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot from my parents, and let the record reflect that I did NOT ask my parents to buy it for me. I had seen the book before and read a passage when I was having coffee with my mother, and her being the woman that she was, she knew I needed to have it for Christmas. I sat down and read the book in less than an hour, they used to last longer for some reason, and I was rather shocked to discover that Captain Underpants had become rather political since my last reading.
Take these two pages if you don’t believe me:
I was used to Pilkey’s style of making slapstick humor and cheap poop jokes, it was part of the initial appeal of the series, and this new soft political humor seemed a little out of place at first….at first. Pilkey’s latest novel will most likely never be found on the bookshelves of a conservative household, and it’s a wonder that with this not-very-well-hidden-attack on the Republican party that the book wasn’t the focus of a day long Pilkey assault on FOX News, which was also a target if you read. Pilkey in recent times hasn’t been shy about the fact that he sees hypocrisy in the banning of his books, in fact his entire career has been seemingly dedicated to the dismantling of authority figures. The attack in these passage against the GOP, Grouchy Old People, may be his liberal bias infecting the work, but speaking as a lifelong reader of the series as well as a detached critic, it’s clear Pilkey really isn’t doing anything he hasn’t done before, namely, providing young readers with an outlet for their frustrations with the larger figures of authority that usually make their life a living hell. Which brings me to ADHD.
Pilkey suffered from ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and he takes the time to not only explain the disorder, but also to feature it as the defining strength of his heroes George and Harold. Not only that, but the central villain of the novel, the boys’ gym teacher Mr. Meaner who becomes brilliant after eating a shard of Zygo-Gogozizzle 24 (a fragment of an alien planet named Smart Earth) creates a suit that sprays a chemical that effectively contains the disorder making the children compliant and eager to obey authority figures. Meaner’s motivations are brilliantly described by Pilkey who says:
Unlike most megalomaniacs, Mr. Meaner had no interest in taking over the planet. He was smarter than that. He knew that the real money and power was in pharmaceuticals. Mr. Meaner had created a formula that transformed children into highly attentive, obedient slaves. All he needed to do was mass market his creation, and he would become the most powerful entity on earth. (59)
Meaner’s plan works and the boys recognize that in order to properly fight him they will need to rely on the only two adults they can trust: themselves.
This is where the book, and the universe of Captain Underpants permanently changed and I knew I would have to review this book. George and Harold find their older selves and explain their situation. The reader may wonder what is so spectacular about that. Well in fact there is nothing so fantastic in the act, so much as in a crucial detail that was revealed in the narration.:
An interracial couple in a children’s book is surely the most shocking element that I, okay, fine, I can’t fake it.
I was surprised to discover that Harold, the short white kid with the crazy hair, was gay and that Pilkey presented that fact so matter-of-factly without any commentary. Before the reader says, “Is it really that surprising?” it was for me. For all of the education I’ve had, for all of the events and organizations I’ve participated in that dealt with LGBT rights, and for all the gay men and women and in-between people I have encountered, worked with, and occasionally gotten drunk with, there is still a lingering heteronormativity that was shocked and said “Wow, Harold never seemed gay to me.” This sensation though, I am proud to say, fizzled out quickly as I continued to read, and once the book was finished I was able to really consider the implication of this.
The immediate concern is clarifying the issue of Harold’s identity. Many are automatically assuming that Harold is gay, myself included, not taking into account that the man could be bisexual or pansexual. Obviously it’s not going to matter to many kids, they’re going to recognize the same-sex relationship while the parents scream it out at PTA meetings, but much of the hubbub around this coupling is that this represents a push for the most dreaded ideology since Civil Rights or Communism combined: The GAY AGENDA (Que dramatic organ music followed by a single lightning strike).
Anyone who has discussed this issue with actual gay people will know that this ideology is the first rule of gay fight club and not to be talked about, the second rule of gay fight club is, you do not…anyway the point is Harold being listed as purely gay demonstrates the larger problems of lack of understanding of what it means to be gay, bisexual, and everything in between. I recognize however that getting bogged down in a bracket of sexuality types will spin this essay in a different direction, so for the time being I’ll refer to Harold’s sexuality as gay. If you take offense to this please draw an illustration of me and videotape yourself burning it, you’ll feel better and I won’t hate you…I’ll hate you a little.
Looking at lists of banned books over the last ten years, it becomes clear that the books that are frequently being censored are not the novels written by adults for adults, but rather children’s books. In the last ten years one of the most banned books was And Tango Makes Three, a story about two male penguins raising an abandoned chick together. Correct. The children’s book about homosexual penguins was banned because there were fears that children reading such a book would encourage or condone homosexuality and challenge the traditional model of the “family.”
The reader should remember that often appeals to “the family,” that great force of moral purity that is so lacking in resiliency and strength against corruption yet is somehow vulnerable to the scourge of homosexuality, is the appeal most often from “concerned parties” in conversations dealing with what constitutes real art. “The family” is an idea, but more often a rhetorical strategy to distract the common listener from the real issue of censorship. When something threatens “the family” it by extension means a corruption of children and parents leading to drug use, violence, civil disobedience, social deviancy, and culminating finally in the overthrow of the republic as we know it. The reader has mst likely witnessed or observed this appeal, and I’m reminded of Rage Against The Machine’s song Bulls On Parade:
I walk tha corner to tha rubble that used to be a library
Line up to tha mind cemetary now
What we don’t know keeps tha contracts alive an movin’
They don’t gotta burn tha books they just remove ’em
While arms warehouses fill as quick as tha cells
Rally round tha family, pockets full of shells.
Now The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot did not produce much of a public outrage, no more so than the other books in the past,* and the issue of homosexuality in a book designed for kids actually leads me to a cautious optimism. Pilkey’s novel offers a glimpse of what is most likely the future: the banalization of homosexuality (fancy pants way of saying people treating homosexuality as commonplace rather than exceptional or odd). Harold being gay does nothing to change to plot, in fact the boys don’t even notice it, Harold doesn’t discuss it, and nobody bothers to sit down and explain how two men could be attracted to one another. The only disruption from the novel was on my own part. Like Harry Potter, Harold and George were kids when I was a kid myself and seeing them grown up allowed for an opportunity for reflection.
I am almost thirty, bisexual, married, and about to start teaching full time. The boy who read every Captain Underpants book as soon as it came out is part of who I was, and I hope to pass these books along to my own children when I have them, and when they read Sir Stinks-a-Lot I hope they don’t have the reaction that I do. With any luck, and if I’m worth any salt as a parent, the fact that Harold’s gay will only be a minor detail in the story, rather than a bold and careful statement by an artist who has meant so much in my own life.
The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot promises hope for more than older readers like myself who read the series now mostly for nostalgia. Young homosexual boys and girls trying to understand their thoughts and feelings will find this series, and when they discover that Harold is gay they will able to see that their understanding of their sexuality is not an isolated eccentricity or vice. Gay parents will have an example of how monogamous homosexual married people pose no real threat, as if they ever did, to the institution of marriage and that dreaded fragile membranous tissue, “the family.” The novel writes gay parents into the discourse of children’s fiction and that alone makes this novel worth your time…that, and the reference to Jim Belushi and Jeff Goldblum that you’ll have to find for yourself.
Captain Underpants and the Saga of Sir Stinks-a-lot is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and wherever books are sold.
There have been some instances of book fairs pulling the book out of “concern for parents” who wish to discuss issues like sexuality to their children before their children buy without their knowing. There are also some reviews online by parents wishing they “had been warned” about the matter-of-fact same-sex relationships. The best reactions though are the one star reviews the reader can find on Amazon. The most priceless one being of course: Don’t let you precious children read this book!
Here below are several websites relating to the banning of Captain Underpants, the reaction to Harold’s sexuality, and a few interviews and essays with and by Dav Pilkey himself. Hope you enjoy.