Ren and Stimpy had an ambiguously coded relationship. In the audio commentary for the uncut DVD, Kricalusi talked about one of the censorship incidents for the episode Son of Stimpy (Here). In this Christmas themed episode Stimpy “gives birth” to a sentient fart, but when his child goes missing, he becomes inconsolable. While trying to cheer up Stimpy, Ren suggestively points out the mistletoe that hangs above them, fluttering his eyelashes flirtatiously. This angers Stimpy who ends up only emphasizing the sexual undertones of the scene by saying “Gosh darn it Ren, that’s all you can think of?!”
Initially Nickelodeon asked that the mistletoe scene be removed, because of the potential gay reading, but the story goes that when they found out that cutting the scene upset a gay employee who worked for Spumco (the animation studio for Ren and Stimpy) the network had the scene added back.
In the “In the Beginning Featurette” Kricfalusi mentioned that he received letters from gay couples who identified with Ren and Stimpy’s relationship. When Kricfalusi goes on to say, “I don’t whether they’re gay or not, that’s their own business.” His statement seems a bit tongue and cheek, after all Ren and Stimpy are his creation, their business is his business.
But, what exactly Ren and Stimpy’s relationship was, has been much debated by fans and scholars alike. Jeffrey Dennis wrote in Queertoons “They reflect the Hanna-Barbera era of presenting signs without sufficient contextual markers to fix the dyads as friends, siblings, or coworkers, but with the added awareness that there was another possibility: as Provenzano (1994) states, the two are “not not gay.” But Dennis was quick to add that he saw the show as presenting same-sex desire as “perverse” and that the pair was “presenting a parody of heterosexual relationships.”
Ren and Stimpy share a home/bed together, but their relationship fluctuates. In one episode Stimpy is a masochist who loves being struck by Ren. Ren is just as likely to lovingly flirt with Stimpy under mistletoe, as to threaten to tear Stimpy’s limbs off – while Stimpy (no longer masochistic) cowers in the corner, whimpering in fear. Ren and Stimpy are as gay as an episode needs them to be. While they are coded in a relationship, situational comedy trumps character identity.
Ren and Stimpy were not openly recognized as a canon same-sex couple until the Ren & Stimpy Adult Cartoon. This new series targeting adult audiences aired on the new Spike TV. The press release at the time stated: “the duo is back –this time as a gay couple” (emphasis mine).
Spike TV was careful to point out to their adult audience, that as a children’s cartoon, Ren and Stimpy were not gay. But what about Ren and Stimpy’s friendship had actually changed? What subtle nuances now marked their relationship as romantic? The main difference in their behavior towards each other was that they were now having sex (albeit be it graphic visual euphemisms for sex, like “playing baseball” and “sawing wood.)”
While the show its self was universally panned, fan reaction to the outing of the characters was mixed. Many viewers expressing shock at the characters “new” sexuality. “Because in this cartoon, Ren and Stimpy are apparently lovers,” said one reviewer. Echoing the press release, this sentiment was repeated in a multitude of reviews when describing Ren and Stimpy, “who are now apparently a gay couple.” “Ren and Stimpy are now gay, it seems,” wrote another.
Not that all the reviewers were negative, the more neutral Entertainment Weekly compared Ren and Stimpy’s relationship to that of Ignatz and Krazy Kat, writing that, “Kricfalusi indulges the weirdly asexual-yet-homosexual relationship between Ren and Stimpy.”
But the fact was, Kricfalusi had officially outed the pair six year before the Spike TV series, and five years after he was pulled from the original show on Nickelodeon. In a 1997 interview with the San Francisco Examiner he was asked if Ren and Stimpy were intended as a gay couple, and said:
“Totally. In Ren’s case, it’s not completely by choice. He’d rather have a beautiful human woman if he could get away with it. Since he can’t, Stimpy’s easy. He’s madly in love with Ren.” His description of their relationship emphasized aspects of the classic traits of the male duo but within a romantic context.
His focus on domesticity, camp humor, and a knowing wink at a modern audience in terms of a subtextual reading of classic duo comedy – not only influenced animation of the nineties, it shaped modern expectations for the male duo in cartoons. Ren & Stimpy ushered in a new decade. Animation became zany, it was allowed to cross boundaries between adults and children: campy was cool.