I Know You Are, but What Am I?

On Pee-wee Herman

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Cait McKinney

I Know You Are, but What Am I? explores the cultural legacy of Pee-wee Herman, the cult television star of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. This children’s show—that was also for adults—ran on network TV from 1986 to 1990 and starred comedian Paul Reubens as Herman, a queer man-boy whose playhouse, the set for the show, was tricked out with a profusion of animate computational toys and technologies.

Cait McKinney shows how three defining scenes from the show inform, and even foretell and challenge, our present moment: the playhouse as an alternative precursor to networked smart homes that foregrounds caring and ethical relationships between humans and technologies; a reparative retelling of Reubens’s career-wrecking 1991 arrest for indecent exposure inside a Florida adult film theater as part of an AIDS-phobic, antigay sting operation; and worn-out, Talking Pee-wee dolls and their broken afterlives on eBay and YouTube.

McKinney looks at how queer people who were children in the 1980s remember and relate to Pee-wee now, showing that the moral panic about sexuality, gender, and children from the past can help us refute anti-trans and anti-queer political movements organized today.

Background image by Lisa Redfern from Pixabay


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    University of Minnesota Press
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    Minneapolis, MN
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    Please see the Creative Commons website for details about the restrictions associated with the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
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    I Know You Are, but What Am I? On Pee-wee Herman by Cait McKinney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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    Cait McKinney
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