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In High Praise of Tinky Winky

In High Praise of Tinky Winky

Man in a purple polka-dotted dress holds a Tinky Winky doll in front of a bright pink wall

No TV show influenced my childhood more than Teletubbies did.

The show made its debut in 1996, the year I was born. Its premise was that there existed a grassy wonderland in an ambiguous part of the world, where the sun was also a baby, the flowers could recite poetry, and magical things, such as a floating carousel performance, an entire lake with ships on it, and a terrifying lion and bear duo appeared out of nowhere for no apparent reason. (The lion and bear sketch continues to be nightmare fuel for my adult self.)

The main inhabitants of this world were the four Teletubbies, toddler-like alien creatures with antennas on their heads and TVs on their tummies. They played around a lot, consumed tubby custard and tubby toast, and generally did trippy shit together. Once per episode, one of them would get chosen to broadcast real live children on their TV.

My sister and I ate this shit up. We weren’t just casual watchers of Teletubbies; we were superfans. We could recite the theme song backward and forward and do spot-on imitations of each Teletubby’s voice. We made Teletubby fan art and wrote Teletubby fanfiction. We accumulated a large collection of Teletubby dolls. We convinced our parents to take us to Bob Evans to eat because they had fries that looked like smiley faces, and thus resembled Tubby Toast. We were obsessed, and we owned it. You know you were close friends with one or both of us we spoke with you in Teletubby jokes and references. [1] 

My favorite of the group, was Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby and the largest of the bunch. I liked him because he was flamboyant and subversive without even trying. Upon first glance, Tinky Winky seemed to be a total idiot. He couldn’t make food for shit. He stepped right into puddles when the other tubbies knew to avoid it. He randomly fell, rolled down hills, and slipped in tubby custard.

But Tinky Winky also didn’t give a fuck. He didn’t give a fuck that he was clumsy or easily distracted or different, and he didn’t let any of it get in his way of having fun. Tinky Winky gave so few fucks that he even wore tutus and carried around bright red purse, despite the fact that he was a boy and used he/him pronouns. He was my first introduction to what gender nonconformity could look like — in fact, it was through him that I first discovered LGBTQIA+ culture, period. To this day, he remains one of my favorite unintentional queer icons.

Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, posing on a hill in a pink tutu, with an ombre sky behind him

[photo source]

Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, holding a red purse while the other Teletubbies smile at him

[photo source]

Accidental gay symbol

The fact that Tinky Winky blurred gender roles was not lost on the public. In 1999, the Southern Baptist pastor (read: ultra-conservative) Reverend Jerry Falwell declared that he was most definitely, one hundred percent a homosexual: “The character, whose voice is obviously that of a boy, has been found carrying a red purse … He is purple — the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay pride symbol.” [source] [2]

Falwell’s accusation went viral. Multiple news channels picked up on the accusation, running articles that reported, analyzed, debated, and satirized the fact that, yes, some important evangelical Christian dude really did write an opinion piece titled “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet.” 

The gay community apparently embraced the purple Teletubby as their new symbol in response: “Regular street stores got some skin in the game too – probably as a profit-making ‘morality marketing’ play, but probably also for the chance to build some social progress momentum through solidarity and be cheeky at the same time. At least one hair salon announced they were “Tinky Winky Friendly”. In Berkley, the purple dumpling was invited to lead a parade,” a recent 2019 thinkpiece revealed, some twenty years after the fact.

Although it wasn’t the creators’ intention, Tinky Winky was now irrevocably linked with the gay community and gay culture. This was where I would discover him the second time around. Read through a queer lens, he was fabulous and camp and fresh out of fucks forever. At the time, I was none of those things; in time, he would teach me to openly embrace all three qualities in both myself and others.

Second time’s the charm

In 1999, I was a toddler who didn’t know what gender roles even were, let alone what being a “homosexual” or being “in the closet” meant. I just really liked the show. I wouldn’t discover the distinctly queer side of Tinky Winky until a few years later, after all the drama had died down. Personal computers had started becoming a part of everyday life by then, and I was given free rein to roam the Internet, no supervision needed. [3]

I was probably ten or so, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bathroom with my laptop and my favorite Tinky-Winky doll. I have no idea why I was in the bathroom, or why those things were there with me, but I remember having a sudden urge to learn more about Tinky Winky. Without a second thought, I typed tinky winky purple teletubby into the search bar and pressed Enter.

That day, I found out what “being gay” really meant outside of its early-2000s playground-insult context, what “coming out of the closet” was, and the sparkly purple legacy that Tinky Winky had unwittingly left in pop culture. I was floored and fascinated, and immediately felt a deep connection to the purple Teletubby as he was portrayed in those articles. I, too, flouted gender roles, though I did it in a much more subtle way. I, too, liked tutus, even though it seemed like I shouldn’t because they were too “girly.”

I consumed all of the Tinky Winky thinkpieces as fast as my brain could digest them. Many articles would touch upon a subject I didn’t know about, so I’d search that topic up too, and before I knew it, I was looking through the blogs and personal websites of gay people and people who dressed in gender-variant ways, all of whom stoked that sense of familiarity in me that I couldn’t quite place. [4]

“As a Christian I feel that role modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children,” Falwell had also written in his article. I laughed and laughed at that. He’d meant it as a cautionary warning, but for preteen me, who had never before been exposed to “the gay lifestyle,” finding queered-up Tinky Winky finally made me feel like I wasn’t alone, like these weird thoughts I’d been having about gender and boys wearing tutus were somehow okay.

The Tinky Winky articles also introduced me to online thinkpieces, which obviously remain my favorite content to both read and write.

We still gotta learn that gender expression =/= sexual orientation

I don’t think that Tinky Winky was “gay”, per se — the usage of the term “gay” to describe a boy with feminine looks/behaviors belies society’s conflation of gender expression and sexual orientation. The Teletubbies didn’t even have sexual organs, so they couldn’t have had sexual orientations, period. Plus, effeminacy does not a gay make. I believe that it was Tinky Winky’s lack of conformity to male gender roles that led Jerry Falwell to declare him as a bad influence on children.

As a child who adored the purple Teletubby, who later turned out to be both transgender and pansexual, I would argue that Tinky Winky was a great influence who provided gender variant representation right as I was starting to question the role that gender played in my life. 

These days, a large plush Tinky Winky doll with a DIY double-pierced right ear holds court in my bedroom/home office. I call him “Twinky” for short. Every time I look at him, I’m reminded of how I found my way to queer culture and online opinion articles.

For that alone, I regard him with high praise. I love Tinky Winky with all of my heart. He taught me that boys could wear tutus, too, and if other people didn’t like it, well … that was their problem. 

Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, frolicking on a hill in a pink tutu

/dab [photo source]

Are you a boy? Do you think you might be one? Don’t worry, you can wear a tutu too, and I think you look amazing in it, Tinky Winky seems to say. Think you’re a bad dancer? Who gives a fuck? Put your tutu on your head and put yourself out there anyway, because life is too short to not express yourself.

It’s a statement that I couldn’t agree with more. ♚

A cartoon of Tinky Winky and Bamse skipping in pink tutus, with the quote "Don't ever let them tell you what you can or can't wear!"

[photo source]


[1] If I can come out as trans in a blog post, why not come out as a Teletubbies fanboy in one, too? Here’s how much clout the Tubbies continued to have in my world — I went to an alternative college that encouraged us to wear costumes that “expressed our personalities” in lieu of a cap and gown during graduation, and received my diploma dressed as Po, the red Teletubby, who was to me the ultimate symbol of intelligence, ingenuity, and efficient problem-solving.

[2] Unfortunately, I was unable to find the original article online, but the quote in question was repeated verbatim in all the articles I read, both for the first time as a ten-year-old and now. 

[3] At the time, my dad was always working and my mom didn’t understand English too well, so it wasn’t like my parents could have stopped me from being quote-unquote “raised by the Internet” if they’d tried. 

[4] I would sadly continue to deny being queer at all until much later, but I’m glad I found some semblance of representation at that age.

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