More than an Overstuffed Purple Space Alien
Tuesday, March 2 1999, 8:11 PM
When the Reverend Jerry Falwell launched his attack on the TV show Teletubbies several weeks ago, the American mass media was filled with people making fun of him. The declarations of newspaper columnists, late-night talk show hosts, and even many of his fellow conservatives indicated that this time he had gone too far. In a word, he was "overreading" a program intended for one-year-olds. To look for evidence of pro-homosexual propaganda in a TV sitcom for twenty-somethings or an NEA-funded museum show was one thing, but to look for it in a show where the protagonists are four overstuffed space aliens with TV screens in their bellies was quite another. Shortly after Falwell announced his discovery that one of these aliens, Tinky-Winky, was meant to signify a gay character because of his purple coloring and triangle-shaped antenna, Phillip Vaught of the Christian Action Network proposed that American TV programs be labelled with warnings, not only for sex and violence, but the presence of "homosexual content." Asked whether this "HC" designation should be used for Teletubbies, however, Vaught refused to support Falwell's crusade: "I don't think that would be necessary because he's not a gay character. At least not the way I look at it." The ridicule of Falwell's way of looking at Teleteubbies was complete.
It would be easy for those of us on the left to revel in Falwell's humiliation. In the days following Falwell's announcement I heard many people make the point that the reason some right-wing Christians detect homosexual content everywhere they look is because it is a way for them to articulate their own homosexual desires in a safely displaced form. And this may well be true. But it's not a good idea to dismiss Falwell's point for this reason. As several friends of mine with connections to the gay community noted, all of the ridicule levied at Falwell masks the fact that he is probably right, not in the larger sense of his politics, but in terms of the show itself.
Like most of the children's television programs that have aired on public television over the years, Teletubbies goes out of its way to depict a multicultural society. The middle of each half-hour show is devoted to a video segment — repeated twice for pedagogic reasons — featuring children between the ages of two and eight engaged in various everyday activities. In the small number of episodes I have seen, these segments have included everything from Anglo-Indian children dressing up in saris to blond, blue-eyed youths visiting their grandfather's orange groves, with lots of mixed-race playtime in between. It is hardly a stretch to assume that the fact that the four Teletubbies all have different colors, sizes, and antennae is meant to reinforce the idea that diversity is a normal part of everyday life. They even appear to depict different racial backgrounds: two of their faces are white, one a yellowish tan, and another the color of chocolate milk. (A few months ago, some of the stores in the largely white and Asian suburbs near me were out of every Teletubby doll except Dipsy, indicating that people may recognize him as the "black" one.) So is it really so strange to believe that the makers of this British TV show — who come from a place where left-wing politics are better represented in the mass media than they are in the United States — might have wanted to include some "homosexual content" in Teletubbyland?
If leftists who spend their days discovering the sexist, racist, and imperialist subtexts of mainstream narratives want to be taken seriously, they need to recognize the connections between their interpretive strategies — their "hermeneutic" — and those which right-wing conservatives deploy. That doesn't mean that we have to reach the same conclusions as the Jerry Falwells of this world — I think it's wonderful that my four-month old daughter's unconscious is being colonized by "homosexual content" — but that we should think twice before clambering aboard the bandwagon with those who make fun of "overreading." To the extent that leftists ally themselves with the mainstream media, they promote the idea that it is acceptable for people to "underread" their world, to ignore the connections with which they could make sense of its problems. If we truly believe that culture matters, that it provides the social cement that stabilizes a society, we need to admit the possibility that nothing, not even an overstuffed purple space alien, is only what it seems to be.
Charlie Bertsch is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.