Screen Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s TV, everywhere kids see it.
Jerry Falwell made his living finding gay people where they didn’t belong. “Remember … homosexuals do not reproduce,” the televangelist and activist warned his followers in 1981. “They recruit!” He claimed to have confronted President Carter about why he employed “practicing homosexuals” in the White House in 1980. When Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom character came out of the closet in 1997, he called her “Ellen Degenerate.”
So when Falwell claimed in 1999 to have discovered that one of the Teletubbies was gay, it seemed like yet another example of his proprietary blend of viciousness and absurdity. Teletubbies, a British import for preschoolers that aired on PBS between 1998 and 2008, was so harmless it was almost a parody of children’s television. It featured four rotund creatures who lived in a stylized English countryside where they spent their time eating toast and custard, rolling around in meadows, and babbling in high-pitched baby talk. To modern sensibilities, the most offensive thing about them is that they all had television screens embedded in their bellies.
But Falwell saw something off about Tinky Winky, the largest pal in Teletubbyland. “He is purple—the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle—the gay pride symbol,” Falwell wrote in an issue of his own magazine. The character had a boy’s voice, he continued, but he often carried a red purse—ahem. The article was titled “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet.” Falwell doubled down in an appearance on the Today show. To have “little boys running around with purses and acting effeminate and leaving the idea that the masculine male, the feminine female is out, and gay is OK” is something “Christians do not agree with,” he told Katie Couric.
The accusation blew up immediately, a perfect artifact of neo-Puritan insanity landing just as President Clinton was being acquitted of impeachment charges by the Senate. “If you thought the sex police were at their most vindictive in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, you haven’t heard about the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s attack on Tinky Winky,” one typical editorial began. The show’s American distributor, Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, held an emergency press conference in New York to declare that the Teletubbies’ rolling hills were an G-rated safe space. “It is the sweetest, most innocent place a child can go,” a spokesman told the assembled reporters. “There is simply nothing sexual in our show.” The Teletubbies didn’t even have genitals. How could they be gay?
Falwell’s many critics took turns being appalled and amused. One newspaper columnist joked that Elmer Fudd would be next: “Aging queen’s second life exposed!” On Saturday Night Live, “Falwell” (Darrell Hammond) held up a Tinky Winky doll that said things like “Do you like watching figure skating on TV?” and “I want to be Donna Summer!” When Falwell died in 2007, Tinky Winky was mentioned in almost all of his obituaries.
The incident is now remembered as a kind of dumb climax to the ’90s culture wars: the reductio ad absurdum of religious-right paranoia and the epitome of pre-9/11 unseriousness. But here’s the awkward thing about Falwell’s take on Tinky Winky: He wasn’t totally wrong. In the years preceding his supposed exposé, many publications had written about the gay community’s adoption of Tinky Winky as one of their own. When the show debuted in England in 1997, its hypnotic, winking weirdness had almost immediately become popular with club kids and the gay community. “Tinky Winky is the first queer role model for toddlers,” a British media studies lecturer wrote that summer. The Independent referred to his “camp, handbag-carrying antics,” and the Guardian called him a “gay icon” who “prances around.”
When the show was exported to the United States, Tinky Winky’s reputation came with it. Prominent gay gossip columnist Michael Musto told Entertainment Weekly (“only half tongue-in-cheek”) that the character offered a great message: “not only that it’s okay to be gay, but the importance of being well-accessorized.” The Advocate, which referred to him approvingly as a “big, fabulous fag,” read a similar lesson in his gender-bending: “that it’s OK to take an interest in the accoutrements of the opposite gender.” All of this was before Falwell published his supposedly absurd “alert.”
At the time, many enlightened mainstream critics took the attitude that Falwell and the gay press were equally perverse for foisting sexual preferences on bunch of preverbal stuffed animals. “To think we would be putting sexual innuendo in a children’s show is kind of outlandish,” a spokesman for the show’s American licenser told the BBC back then. Eighteen years later, I don’t think it’s outlandish at all. For one thing, to call Tinky Winky “gay” does not mean that Tinky Winky has sex, and the mere presence of queer characters is not in itself “sexual innuendo.” It is now much more widely understood than it was in the ’90s that sexuality and gender expression emerge long before sexual maturity. And we now live in a time in which the idea that the “masculine male is out,” as Falwell put it, seems more appealing than ever (if not yet true).
Falwell was wrong about Tinky Winky’s supposed harm to children. But he wasn’t wrong that children’s television—and culture in general—was becoming much more comfortable with queerness. As Jacob Weisberg pointed out in Slate in response to the Falwell kerfuffle, many children’s characters look subtly queer now in ways straight audiences would not have picked up on: Batman and Robin, Peppermint Patty and Marcie, Bert and Ernie, Timon and Pumbaa, Frog and Toad. “It isn’t absurd for anyone, including Falwell, to notice these hints, inferences, and references,” Weisberg wrote. In the years since then, subtext has become text, and children’s television producers have gone from winking at their characters’ private lives to creating openly gay adult and kid characters. Today, the backlash that is taken seriously by most culture producers comes not from dinosaurs like Falwell but from the LGBTQ community demanding richer representation. Tinky Winky would be right at home.