For those of you who haven’t seen the Teletubbies show yet, it basically consists of a 30-minute frolic by four fuzzy, toddler-shaped creatures named Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa, and Po. They cavort through a fairy-tale landscape called Teletubbyland, discovering things like butterflies and puddles and, occasionally, eating a baby-food-like substance known as Tubby Custard (which is, not coincidentally, the new name for mashed potatoes at our house).
However, Tinky Winky sometimes runs around carrying a plastic purse. He is also purple, and the “antenna” on his head (don’t ask me to explain) is shaped like a triangle. Putting these facts together–purple is the gay pride color, the triangle is a gay pride symbol, and the purse is, well, a purse– Falwell’s National Liberty Journal has issued a “parents alert” warning all decent people that “these subtle depictions are no doubt intentional.” Beware the promotion of homosexuality–and on taxpayer-supported public television to boot. (Kellogg’s Rice Krispies is the show’s leading commercial underwriter.) As even some conservatives have rushed to point out, Falwell’s protest is idiotic. But it’s worth explaining exactly why it’s so silly. You see, I actually would have a problem if Tinky Winky or any of the other Teletubbies were discernibly gay. This isn’t because I am intolerant of homosexuality. It is because I think any depiction of sexual behavior, gay or straight, is way over the heads of, and therefore totally inappropriate for, an audience of people under 24 months old. If Po, who is female, suddenly started kissing and groping the male Dipsy the way Monica tears into Chandler on “Friends,” I’d switch off my set in a heartbeat and go stand on the picket line with Falwell, no matter how much my kid howled.
But obviously the show’s producers are telling the truth when they say they never intended to sexualize Tinky Winky or any of the other Teletubbies. There are two reasons why I believe them. First, given their reliance on government and corporate funding, it would have been suicidal to try to bring a pro-gay message, or any other controversial sexual or political content, into the show. (I can just see the pitch meeting at Kellogg’s: “Here’s the concept: the red one is a girl, but the purple one is a homosexual– it’s `Veronica’s Closet’ meets `Sesame Street’!”) And, second, it would be ridiculous. The Teletubbies are supposed to be toddlers. Toddlers are physically, mentally, and in every other way lacking in sexuality–gay, straight, or otherwise. Sometimes a purse is just a purse.
So, as a parent interested in the perpetuation of a useful show that not only provides a way to keep our kid temporarily quiet but also has imparted lots of worthwhile information to him about words and numbers and colors, I am also reserving an itsy-bitsy measure of blame for those members of the gay commu-nity in Britain (where “Teletubbies” originally appeared on the BBC) who turned Tinky Winky into a camp icon in the first place. They were just having fun, I know. But was it really necessary to sexualize this little corner of the culture, too? Shouldn’t the fight for tolerance be staged on some more plausible battleground?
A little-noted irony of this story is the fact that “Teletubbies” has been the subject of political attacks before–from the left. Even before the first episodes aired on PBS last April, some anticapitalist types were condemning it as an exploitative scheme to market spin-off merchandise to ever-younger consumers. “`Teletubbies,’” wrote Joyce Millman in Salon, “is indoctrination, it is mind-control; it is a transparent attempt to institute brand-recognition and consumer craving in the youngest, most innocent viewers.” (So how come the Laa Laa doll Grandma bought for my boy at Toys ‘R Us is languishing, barely touched, at the bottom of his toy box?)
Others found the show educationally vapid. Or, some said, it was fascistic: the latter charge appears to be based on the show’s oddly high-tech ambiance, featuring large metal loudspeakers that occasionally rise up from the green grass and commandingly tell the Tubbies things like, “Time for Tubby bye-bye!”
The lesson of “Teletubbies” for adults, then, is clear: Let’s all quit trying to dress up our own political squabbles as ostensible battles to save the brains and souls of our children. Those brains and souls are a good deal more resilient than parents generally realize–and a good deal more porous, too. Does anyone seriously believe that, even if a two-year-old were to get fed a dose of someone’s ideology by “Teletubbies” or any other show, the lesson would still be in his consciousness by the time he turned three?
Meanwhile, my son and I are going to sit back and enjoy the show. We especially like the weird part when the Teletubbies’ bellies magically transform into movie screens, whereupon a live-action film about real kids materializes and fills the whole TV screen we are watching. Just before that happens, all four Tubbies form a circle and briefly, gently, platonically embrace–at which point my kid invariably points at them and exclaims: “They love!” If this be brainwashing, then let us make the most of it.