Updated: Aug 2
The timing of the passing of Sinead O'Connor and Paul Reubens moved me in a certain way.
I was a 12-year-old who became enthralled by Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and would, forever after that, be an adoring fan of Paul Reubens. I have a clear memory of my Mother walking past the living room and commenting, “Why do you watch such weird stuff? What is going on there?” as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse played loud and proud on the family TV. My internal monologue at the moment said something like, “hell yeah because I AM A WEIRDO!” If a weirdo like Pee Wee could get his own TV show for kids, no less, then maybe I was ok. Maybe my strange, awkward, bullied little self might just be ok.
The fact that Reubens would be vilified and have his career attacked throughout his life did not surprise me and certainly did not shake my faith in his genius. I would watch every piece of art he created and revel in his brand of absurd and weird because I got him, and it seemed he got me. The older I became, the more I understood him and, most importantly, why I connected so deeply. He was in an important class of artists in the eighties who gave me permission to be weird and embrace and celebrate it.
And then came that day as for many of us Americans, we were introduced to Sinead O’Connor with the close-up shot of her beautiful face, with her beautiful shaved head singing “Nothing Compares” on MTV. I, like most, I assume, became entranced. Her appearance was rebellious in the time of big hair and how women were held to dizzying beauty standards, fashion, and femininity. Those women that stood against the conventional beauty standards in the mainstream were saying something to seventeen year old girls like me. She wasn’t the first, of course, and she wouldn’t be the last; it happened at the right time and the wrong time.
There was a whisper, a message, a signal she was sending to those of us who needed to hear it. Only a few years later would I don a rebelliously shaved head and combat boots as I embraced my anger and learned how to express my utter disgust of injustice. I was nineteen when O’Connor ripped up the photo of the Pope on live television, and it changed me. It awakened something in me. Not growing up as a Catholic and without access to the internet in 1992, I went straight to the library and read everything I could get my hands on in the press about the church, the Pope, Northern Ireland, and her accusations. Of course, she was right.
The way O’Connor was treated by men publicly, the way her name came out of their mouths, the burn in their lips for her name to pass through them. When she was booed off stage at, of all things, a Bob Dylan concert. Slowly many of my friends, once her biggest fans, were now her harshest critics. I began to learn tough lessons about feminism and realized so many women in my life would absolutely sell me out for their comfort.
If Sinead O’Connor can withstand, so can I. Later, as I matured, I would understand the toll that these things take on the rebels and the weirdos.
Paul Reubens' absolute refusal to disappear and succumb to the conservative backlash and blacklisting was also an essential lesson in rebelling. The rebels and the weirdos are one and the same. And I was both.
My closest friends know that for a while, in my late twenties and thirties, one of the vetting questions I would ask on dates was how perspective suitors felt about Pee Wee Herman. This one question could tell me so much about a person, especially men of my generation.
Reuebens helped me love drag before I understood drag and find joy in my weirdness and celebrate the bizzarity of who I was. O’Connor inspired me to fight and use my voice, to look for injustice and stand against it.
To the young weirdos and rebels, you're so lucky to have acceptance of many things I did not when I was in my youth. You are also so misfortunate to be fighting some of the same battles I waged in my youth. The world has always burned, and it won’t stop now. Whoever your Pee Wee Herman and Sinead O’Connor are, never give up on them, take their inspiration, and kick the shit out of life. Inspire to be the weirdos and the rebels that ignite a passion in the next generation.