International stardom has not been easy for Tinky Winky, the Teletubby recently “outed” by the Rev. Jerry Falwell as a gay role-model for children.
First there was a big flap in England, shortly after the show’s 1997 debut, over the dismissal of the actor playing Tinky Winky. Producers said he had been too rambunctious on the set. But the actor apparently endeared himself to viewers by flamboyantly waving the now-notorious red handbag, and did not go quietly. The Sun, Britain’s largest tabloid, launched a campaign to reinstate the actor, but to no avail.
Now, like other big children’s TV stars before him — Barney, Bert and Ernie and Mister Rogers — Tinky Winky this month became an irresistible target for jokes by writers, comedians and talk-show hosts.
The February issue of Falwell’s National Liberty Journal alerted parents to “subtle depictions” that make Tinky Winky a gay role model for children. Namely, his triangular antenna and purple color are symbols adopted from the gay pride movement. “The character, whose voice is that of a boy, has been found carrying a red purse in many episodes and has become a favorite character among gay groups worldwide.”
The alert, which made national network news on the eve of Toy Fair, generated big controversy, much it unfavorable to Falwell, whose now-defunct Moral Morality organization was politically active during the 1980s.
“[W]hile I’d like to laugh along with those who are encouraging concerned parents and critics to ‘lighten up’ about children’s programming in general, and the Teletubbies in particular, I find this issue far too important to the future and well-being of our children,” Falwell said Feb. 10, after the coverage had abated. “As a Christian, I believe that role-modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.”
Falwell “doesn’t have to scratch that deep to find a way to talk about his own prejudice,” said Cathy Renna, spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Anti-Defamation. The Tinky Winky episode indicates “our community will be attacked by him for any kind of minute, innocuous thing to promote his own bigotry.”
PBS and itsy bitsy Entertainment denied that the Teletubbies producers created Tinky Winky as a gay character. “The Teletubbies are make-believe characters without a sexual orientation,” said Harry Forbes, PBS spokesman. “There was absolutely no intent to make Tinky Winky gay.”
“I once said to someone, ‘If Tinky Winky was gay, his accessories would match,'” said Kenn Viselman, president of itsy bitsy Entertainment, which holds American licensing rights to the Teletubbies.
Producers created Tinky Winky to be a “big lovable character,” Viselman said. His handbag, like the various objects associated with the other Teletubbies, was intended to demonstrate concepts like object permanence.
“To pick something up and come back and play with it later is the way young children play,” Viselman said. “If that breaks stereotypes down for them, all the better.”
“Very young children do not have well-developed gender roles,” said Dan Anderson, a children’s TV expert and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “It’s not uncommon for a two- to three-year-old to dress-up willy-nilly in their father’s or mother’s clothes. A handbag is not different in their mind from the briefcase their father might carry.”
Anderson observed that the Tinky Winky flap is only the latest in a long string of criticisms directed at popular characters on children’s TV. “Many of these criticisms with sexual undertones really have nothing to do with children, but everything to do with the adults who make the criticisms.”
When the press began reporting on Tinky Winky as a gay character, Viselman said he found the coverage funny. “I never took it seriously,” he acknowledged. “But Falwell has taken it to a whole other level.”
“He used Toy Fair and the best-selling toys in America to raise his profile,” he added. “I am very, very uncomfortable now.”