What does it mean to be subversive? Culture writers rely heavily upon the word. As critic Carl Wilson notes in his classic re-evaluation of Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, they use it almost exclusively as a term of approval. To say that Barbie “may be the most subversive blockbuster of the 21st Century” is more or less a long winded way of saying it’s good, or at least that it has good politics, which means basically the same thing to most culture writers in 2023. But what exactly does Barbie subvert?
Subversion is, per Wilson, “transgression, satire, idiosyncrasy, radicalism, asserting minority identity, throwing noise into the signal, upending convention, generally mitigating for change.” Barbie is a movie made by Warner Bros. and the Mattel Corporation to sell dolls and, by extension, the mixed messages contained within those dolls—a movie about the irreconcilable societal demands on women that is itself a gordian knot of similarly conflicting demands: to promote the Mattel corporation while decrying the corporatization of feminism; to cast actors of almost superhuman fitness while also adhering to modern body-positive orthodoxy (an imbalance the filmmakers try to correct with Lizzo); to satirize the meaninglessness of progress via consumer products while also delivering a sincere, heartfelt message about progress via consumer products; to make fun of the fictional Kens without alienating the real Mens; to subvert the Barbie doll and everything it represents, but not too much.
If there’s anything subversive about Barbie (I’m not sure there is), it’s how many jokes the movie devotes to the impossibility of this kind of commercial product ever being truly subversive. There’s a big emotional scene when the crying Barbie—played by Margot Robbie, a woman of virtually flawless, impossible beauty—says she feels ugly, and the narrator (Helen Mirren) intrudes to note that, for the scene to be effective, the producers might’ve cast another actress. It’s a funny little moment, but it’s also Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach admitting that some of the messages contained within the film might ring a little hollow, given the context. They can only bite Mattel’s hand so many times before it stops feeding them. Subversiveness just ain’t what it used to be.
Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman, died this week at 70. Google his name plus “subversive” and you’ll find any number of obits that use the word but don’t necessarily identify the qualities that actually made him subversive. Reubens was subversive, but not in the same way that a person might say Barbie is subversive. He wasn’t interested in inserting politics into his art or making any kind of grand statements. His work was unapologetically light and silly, not really dangerous by any measure, not striving for some greater meaning. Rather than subversion by means of transgression or radicalism, Reubens was content just to be weird, to subvert the conventions of a given vehicle (the feature film, the kids show, the Christmas special), usually so stealthily that most people never noticed.
Unlike Barbie, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure masters the form it seeks to subvert. The script (co-written by Reubens, Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol) is the kind that should be held up as an example in screenwriting courses. The same way a painter or illustrator must learn realism before attempting abstraction, on some level Reubens and his co-writers understood that to subvert the Hollywood comedy, you have to first meet the basic requirements of a Hollywood comedy—a three-act structure, a clear conflict, a well-developed plot, a satisfying conclusion—before making it weird. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure works as both a perfect studio comedy and the perfect satire of a studio comedy, whose irreverence crescendos in the ridiculous James Brolin-starring film-within-the-film, the kind of metatextual gag that many subsequent comedies would imitate (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Austin Powers in Goldmember, and more recently, the finale of Barry).
The success of Pee Wee allowed Reubens to build a whole universe around the character, explored in the popular kids’ show Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Like everything subversive, Pee Wee was branded and commercialized. There were Pee Wee lunchboxes, dolls, pajamas, bedding, trading cards, temporary tattoos, stickers, and an aborted sugar-free Pee Wee cereal from Purina called Pee Wee Chow. My mom still talks about her regret over accidentally giving away my old Pee Wee Playhouse action figure set, which I don’t really remember playing with but was apparently a favorite when I was young. I thought about it while watching Barbie. The same way Barbie disrupted the notion of what girls’ dolls could be, the Pee Wee Playhouse subverted the idea of the boy’s action figure. The Playhouse was basically a foldable dollhouse for boys, and it included Pee Wee, Cowboy Curtis, Chairry, Captain Carl, the King of Cartoons, and Mrs. Yvonne. The action of these figures was never violent. To make them fight Batman or GI Joe would feel wrong. These were silly toys for silly boys. (Or girls—Pee Wee was nothing if not inclusive.)
There’s a common online joke where people say, “So-and-so made me weird.” It’s funny because it’s usually normal journo professionals tweeting it when someone like David Bowie or Robin Williams dies. A typical parody would read something like “Madeleine Albright made me weird.” I’m skeptical of the idea that any celebrity or artist “made me weird,” whatever that means, and inclined to think our idiosyncrasies materialize in more subtle ways than that. But it’s safe to say that Pee Wee triggered something early in my brain that never left: the willingness to look stupid for laughter, to embrace absurdity for absurdity’s sake, to pursue joy in ways that are self-evidently dumb and refuse to feel sorry for it.
Pee Wee was a hero to boys who didn’t feel traditionally masculine, a weird little fruity guy in a suit who everyone thought was cool. No one hated Pee Wee—how could you? Whenever Reubens popped up in movies or TV shows, like Mystery Men or Tom Goes to the Mayor or 30 Rock, his presence was singular, always channeling his sui generis inner strangeness and exposing those odd corners of the psyche that most people just leave be. That he was a genuine oddball who sometimes liked to masturbate in porn theaters only added to his mysterious aura of eccentricity, his mad genius.
I’m saddened by Reubens’ death. But it’s difficult to be sad for too long without thinking of his face, that goofy eye roll and shake of the head he’d do. I’m smiling now just thinking about it. Who knows if Pee Wee made me weird? All I know is that he made me laugh, and sometimes that’s subversive enough.