No TV show influenced my childhood more than Teletubbies.
The show made its debut in 1996, the year I was born. The premise? There exists a grassy wonderland in an ambiguous part of the world, where the sun is also a baby, the flowers can 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 appear out of nowhere for no apparent reason. The main inhabitants of this world are the Teletubbies, four toddler-like alien creatures with antennas on their heads and TVs on their tummies. They play around, consume tubby custard and tubby toast, and generally do a lot of trippy shit together.
My sister and I ate this shit up. We weren’t just casual watchers of Teletubbies; 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.
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 queer culture, period. To this day, he remains one of my favorite unintentional queer icons.
The fact that Tinky Winky blurred gender roles was not lost on the public. In 1999, the Southern Baptist pastor Reverend Jerry Falwell declared that the largest Teletubby 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]
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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 don’t like it, well … that’s their problem.
“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 can’t agree with more. ♚