Bill Nye, the bow-tie wearing celebrity scientist, has infuriated the right wing with his public views on human sexuality. Nye had previously infuriated the right wing with his views on human-caused climate change.
Nye’s new show, Bill Nye Saves the World, premiered on Netflix last month. Its 13 episodes delve into topics like artificial intelligence, genetically modified foods and video games. But it is the 9th episode, titled “The Sexual Spectrum” that seems to have attracted the ire of alt-right websites like Breitbart and The Federalist.
In one segment, for example, Nye mocks gay-conversion therapy—which has largely been discredited and, in some states, outlawed —with a cartoon in which a vanilla-flavored ice cream cone tries to “convert” more exciting flavors.
The vanilla ice cream cone declares, “I feel that I am the most natural of the ice creams. And therefore the rest of you should go ahead and also be vanilla.”
It must be said that this is not the most subtle attempt at humor or social criticism. Nye can be as grating, sometimes, as the anti-science wing of the Republican Party he seems to delight in skewering. Nevertheless, conversion therapy is neither effective nor safe, as the American Psychological Association has found. On that crucial point, Nye is correct.
Breitbart cited the cartoon with surprisingly restrained disapproval, describing the vanilla cone as a crude “representation of heterosexual, monogamous sex,” though in fact that cone seems to represent a kind of moralizing strain of sexual politics. The Breitbart report called the denouement of the segment an “ice cream orgy.” In fact, the cartoon seems to end with a sort of dance party.
In point of fact, ice cream is able to neither procreate nor dance.
Conservatives also took issue with a song-and-dance segment, titled “My Sex Junk,” by actress Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which she sings about the fluidity of sexual and gender identity with lyrics like “Versatile love may have some butt stuff. It’s evolution, ain’t nothing new. There’s nothing taboo about a sex stew.”
In a measured, well-considered response to that segment, as well as the ice cream cartoon, Leah Libresco Sargeant wrote for the website of Christian magazine First Things that she missed the Nye of her youth, the charming nerd who hosted Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus, which had endowed her with an appreciation for scientific inquest. "Instead of engaging in this project of curiosity, Nye’s new show is designed to rattle through settled facts, with little attention to how those facts come to be discovered. As a result, it undersells science and its opportunities for wonder,” Libresco Sargeant argued.
The Daily Caller, meanwhile, has compiled a list of the seven most offending instances from Nye’s career, including both of the aforementioned sex-related skits. It also alluded to a legal battle Nye had with a woman to whom he’d once been briefly married, though how his personal life informs his edutainment career was not made clear, other than to suggest that he is not an especially nice guy.
Meanwhile, The Federalist, another right-wing site, pointed out that a 1996 episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy has been apparently retroactively edited to remove a segment where Nye seems to argue that gender is a fixed entity: “Inside each of ourselves are these things called chromosomes, and they control whether we become a boy or a girl,” Nye says in the unearthed clip, which has been cut from the Netflix rerelease of the episode, according to assiduous reporting by The Federalist.
What those outlets roundly fail to mention is that understanding of human sexuality and gender identity continues to evolve. In particular, the transgender rights movement has given voice to Americans who were largely silent—or silenced—when Nye’s episode first aired 21 years ago. Moreover, our understanding of the psychological and physiological underpinnings of gender continues to evolve. In 2013, for example, a Spanish study found that “even before treatment, the brain structures of the trans people were more similar in some respects to the brains of their experienced gender than those of their natal gender,” according to a summary of that study in Scientific American.
The left, of course, has been enjoying the right’s dismay at Nye. Ashley Dejean, writing for Mother Jones, called Bloom’s song “pretty terrible” and “hard to watch without cringing.” Yet, she continued, “after reading all the moral panic, it's become even harder to watch without laughing.”
Nye is only the latest public intellectual to stand up for science in a frighteningly retrograde political climate. More charming than Nye is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who hosted 2014’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and has similarly earned the ire of the right wing.
Lost in the debate over Nye’s politics is a more compelling debate about his approach to science-as-entertainment. Perhaps the culture wars have taken a toll on Nye, but he seems, according to many, more strident and less winsome in his Netflix show than he had previously been.
In her disapproving, widely-cited review of Bill Nye Saves the World for Gizmodo, Maddie Stone writes that “Nye’s new show delivers so little information in such a patronizing tone it’s hard to imagine a toddler, let alone a sentient adult, enjoying it.” Aja Romano at Vox was more generous, but she noted that Nye has a tendency to condescend, and that his skits in particular can be “superimposed, unfocused, and frankly mean-spirited.”
The debate over Nye’s show comes as the administration of President Donald Trump has signaled an anti-scientific, bracingly anti-intellectual approach to the world, whether regarding climate change, environmental protections and even vaccines. In a marked shift from his predecessor, President Barack Obama, Trump has evinced little curiosity about science, technology or the broader world of ideas. He does not read books, preferring to play golf and watch cable news in his spare time.
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