The Sexual Identities of Cartoon Sponges

Exactly how tolerant should a cartoon sponge be of those who possess a different “sexual identity” from his? What may appear to some of us to be an absurd exercise in animated existentialism is driving others to send hundreds of form emails to media outlets demanding satisfaction. In the past few days, the email Inboxes of The New York Times columnist Mauren Dowd, MSNBC's Keith Oberman, NBC's Matt Lauer, CNN's James Carville and freelance writer Michael Ventre have been filled with email forms sent out by users of the Focus on the Family Web site.

The battle lines are being drawn, though it now appears that the media, and not the producers of the video in question, are the new targets of the battle over how much inclusion we should allow in our inclusiveness videos.

The video was created by the We Are Family Project as a part of the national healing process following the events of September 11th. Eleven days after the attack, 200 celebrities were gathered together by songwriter Nile Rogers and Tommy Boy Music president, Tom to record a new rendition of Nile's famous song "We Are Family." Shortly thereafter, the organization produced a children's version of the recording that included more than 100 popular cartoon and children's television characters. The children's video aired on PBS, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel on March 11, 2002 (the six-month anniversary of the attack) and again on September 11, 2002.

This coming March 11, which the We Are Family Foundation is proposing be designated “National We Are Family Day,” the foundation plans to send copies of the music video to elementary schools across the nation.

According to the Focus on the Family Web site, neither Dobson nor the organization have criticism of the music video itself or the characters who appear in it. Their opposition to the video's distribution is based on a close reading of foundation's Web site that yields a “tolerance pledge” stating:

“Tolerance is a personal decision that comes from a belief that every person is a treasure. I believe that America's diversity is its strength. I also recognize that ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry can turn that diversity into a source of prejudice and discrimination.

To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.”

Eighty-one words promoting tolerance and acceptance, and only two of them that send up red flags for Dobson: “sexual identity.” These words, according to the Focus on the Family's Web site are the two words that indicate the pledge “crosses a moral line.”

Not satisfied with assurances that the offending words do not appear in the video that children will be seeing, Focus on the Family claims the video would leave elementary students “with the impression that their teachers are offering their endorsement of the values and agenda associated with the video's sponsor.”

It would be interesting to meet the elementary student who connects the video to its nonprofit distributor and actually logs in to read the tolerance pledge. Such a child would not appear to have much need of the primary education he or she is receiving and should be advanced to more daunting academic challenges.

But would even a child savvy enough to identify the distributor from the video, Google search the organization's Web site and navigate to page containing the tolerance pledge be able to understand the implications the phrase “sexual identity”?

And what about he rest of us? As each new outrageous statement is made in this controversy, one begins to wonder if adults are faring much better than this hypothetical youngster.

“Sexual identity.” It's not a phrase one tends to use in everyday conversations.

Has anyone considered the possibility that there is simply a huge communication issue at the heart of this controversy? That the "sexual identity" We Are Family refuses to discriminate against may not necessarily be a direct equivalent of the "sexual orientation" that so terrifies Dobson?

The category of "sexual identity" could potentially include physical gender (like "man" or "woman"), recognized behavioral patterns (such as "adulterer" or "faithful husband") or even serve to describe functional roles in the home (consider "he's a girly man" or "she wears the pants in that family").

To be sure, “sexual identity” can include sexual orientation and preference, as evidenced by the many books listed on that use this language to talk about the identity politics associated with homosexuality. But to assume that the broad categorical term "sexual identity" must be reduced to one single variable ("sexual orientation") is a rather narrow assumption. We Are Family's tolerance pledge does not include gender among its inclusionary variables. Perhaps this opens the possibility that the organization would see listing “gender” next to “sexual identity” as redundant?

In any event, it seems those on the right and left of our political spectrum may once again be unable to agree on their terminology and rhetoric. And that's why those motivated by this controversy over how an invertebrate considers those different from him is more yelling that talking. Perhaps it's a function of their respective “lingual identities,” neither of which in the end seem to promote much tolerance.