Tinky Winky and sex

| Hiska Bakker

I’m cycling from Enschede towards campus through the Pinetum. One of my all-time favourite places: a rolling landscape with a collection of conifers from all continents and a winding bike path that leads from the busy Hengelosestraat to the university’s almost car-free grounds. A powerful spring sun colours the grass bright green. And suddenly, Po, Laa-laa, Dipsy and Tinky Winky come to mind. The Teletubbies.

Four puppets in a green field that bears a strong resemblance to the Pinetum. Dutch television began broadcasting this BBC series in 1998, right around the time when I had young children. When I was tired from feeding them, reading them books or taking them for a swing on the playground, I would put my daughters in front of the TV screen and plop myself down on the sofa. There was nothing better than watching a rather dull programme in which the four Teletubbies were just frolicking around. They produced unintelligible, soothing sounds. Every now and then, a video would play on a screen on their bellies, rabbits nibbled on a blade of grass, and the sun was a smiling baby face. All in all, everything was zen. The programme was aimed at toddlers and pre-schoolers, up to the age of three or so. But it was also an easy watch for exhausted parents.

Soon after the series was first broadcast, it was met with criticism from right-wing Christians. A US television evangelist painted Tinky Winky in a suspicious light. The puppet was allegedly homosexual. He was said to lead young children down the wrong path of male love through his purple colour and red handbag. Those ideas were adopted by others, including Dutch and Polish conspiracy theorists. The puppets may seem innocent enough, but they incite immorality. Such theories about alleged conspiracies are of all times. A few examples: Rome, the beginning of our era. The city goes up in flames. The Christians were accused of setting the fire. Unsubstantiated, but a persistent view. Or take, for example, the Medieval notion that certain women were witches, ate the flesh of children and transported themselves on a flying broomstick. Only when reduced to ashes at the stake, were they proven innocent. A more recent example: COVID-19 was invented by a secret elite intent on seizing power by means of the pandemic.

Back to Tinky Winky. To me, the puppets were gender-neutral beings. Not men, not women, not anything. No genitalia, breasts or nipples could be discerned either. An innocent puppet show in an ever-sunny world. But conspiracy theorists marred this innocence. No longer a character with certain characteristics, Tinky Winky is now defined by a sexual orientation. Pigeon-holed. I find that problematic about the current gender discourse. Are you LGBTQIA+ or something else? To me, you’re a fellow human being. And your sexual orientation is an important aspect of that, even part of your identity; but aren’t you more than just that? I would like to know what you’re passionate about or irritated by, what you find beautiful or ugly, what your ideas are about life, about science, what your backstory is and how you envision your future, who you love and who you don’t care about. In short, who are you?

Stay tuned

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.