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In the late 1990s, the Teletubbies were a beloved children’s program known for their colorful appearances and simplistic messaging. However, things took a bizarre turn when a televangelist named Jerry Falwell attacked the program, accusing the Teletubbies of promoting homosexuality and other controversial ideals. This sparked a feud that would eventually escalate into a full-blown war between Falwell and the Teletubbies, causing a media frenzy and leaving many scratching their heads in confusion. As bizarre as it sounds, this unexpected clash between a religious figure and a children’s television show highlights the power of the media and the unforeseen consequences of our words and actions.
It’s funny now, and it was funny then, but back in 1999, televangelist and right-wing political figure, Jerry Falwell, was actually worried that foreigners (and by “foreigners,” he meant Brits) were corrupting the minds of children. What was their modus operandi? A 10-foot-tall purple menace named Tinky-Winky. While Evangelical culture war battles often have deleterious effects on some of the most marginalized people in society, pugnacious Falwell deciding to make a war between his belief that Tinky-Winky of the Teletubbies would turn children gay and that the children’s show from across the pond was therefore dangerous is a rare instance where a prominent Evangelical figure was more of a joke than a serious threat to someone’s wellbeing.
According to Jerry Falwell, ‘Teletubbies’ Was Big, Colorful, and Gay
But why did the giant, purple, humanoid creature upset Falwell so much? Falwell turned his ire to dear Tiny-Winky because it is male (an assumption that people have made since it has been voiced by only men) and carries a red bag that Falwell insisted was a purse. According to Falwell, who was a driver in mobilizing Evangelicals to the political right and found himself going head-to-head with Hustler Magazine, Tinky-Winky being male and carrying the red bag Falwell deemed as a purse would confuse children, and, naturally, coerce them into being gay. In his magazine, National Liberty Journal, Falwell, the magazine’s publisher and editor, created the bedlam with the headline “Parent Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet.”
He also took issue with Tinky-Winky’s appearance. “He is purple—the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle—the gay pride symbol.” Yes, Tinky-Winky of the Teletubbies was, according to ol’ Falwell, gay and hellbent on “turning” children gay. The televangelist’s thinking goes beyond biblical interpretation to elementary school where “girl” colors were considered pink, yellow, and purple, and the rest were “boy” colors. To children, and even some adults, it’s permissible for girls to like “boy” colors, but it’s often considered reprehensible for a boy to like “girl” colors. Have we seen a pink Power Ranger that’s a guy yet?
Tinky-Winky: Unintentional Gay Icon
While Falwell’s claims that Tinky-Winky would affect children’s sexual orientations were outlandish, the gay community did rally around Tinky-Winky even before Falwell turned his bespeckled glare towards the children’s show character. The Washington Post labeled Tinky-Winky as the “gay Teletubby” in their New Years’ “IN/OUT” list. And many in the gay community enjoyed that Tinky-Winky freely wore a tutu and pranced around his verdant world. Of course, Tinky-Winky isn’t the only character from entertainment intended for children that the gay community has championed. The Little Mermaid has also been cherished by the gay community, with its villain Ursula being influenced by drag culture. But the gay community embracing something or someone from children’s entertainment still doesn’t sexualize it. And of course, Teletubbies haven’t been the only kids’ franchise that some Christians have gone after with pitchforks. They hated Pokemon, because they’re (in some Christians’ definition) “demons,” and Harry Potter was problematic because of the witchcraft.
The irony of Falwell going after the Teletubbies is that it was tame even by the standards of children’s television. The Teletubbies existence consisted of frolicking on hills, eating custard and toast, and taking turns watching each other’s TV tummies. In fact, in England, the controversy surrounding Teletubbies was that parents were concerned that the show was too simple and would intellectually dull children.
Unfortunately, These Conversations Still Exist
It’s tiring to be angry and exhausting to be hateful. Jerry Falwell went through the world preaching division and judgment all the while claiming to do it out of love. The Teletubbies, by contrast, were living their own version of heaven: food was abundant, anger was nowhere to be seen, and their most trivial problems were solved within minutes. This wouldn’t be the first time Falwell pointed fingers at the LGBT+ community, even believing they played a part in the events of 9/11. “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
Teletubbies producer Steve Rice said that Teletubbies is the, “sweetest, most innocent a place a young child can go to. And to try to fill it up with someone’s paranoia or right-wing political agenda or something else, it’s in my opinion frankly stupid.” But Falwell’s targeting of Teletubbies only led to an increase in Tinky Winky doll sales. Tinky Winky’s status as a gay icon made him beloved by many. This led to a “Tinky-Winky-friendly” salon and even having a ravioli inspired after him. While Falwell was serious in his eviscerating of Tinky-Winky, people saw it as a joke and turned the joke on Falwell.
Even though Jerry Falwell died in 2007, the Christian-right-wing agenda he created is still ever-present and seeking out new victims. Now, even though there have been major civil rights milestones like Marriage Equality, anti-gay sentiment still looms large. Recently in Florida, a teacher was put on suspension and investigation for showing her class a Disney movie that featured a gay character. She was reported by school board member Shannon Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty. She has been active in having books that she describes as “smut” and “porn” removed from school shelves. Jerry Falwell’s cruelty and paranoia still live on in people like Rodriquez. And while the war against Teletubbies might be laughable, it certainly isn’t the last of its kind. But for Tinky-Winky, he’s still living his best life. He’s able to enjoy living with his friends Dipsy, Laa laa, and Po. He’s still frolicking. He still has his red bag. He’s still fabulous.
In conclusion, the bizarre feud between a televangelist and the Teletubbies that occurred in the late 1990s serves as a reminder of how absurd and unpredictable the media can be. The controversy began with a simple accusation of promoting homosexuality, but quickly spiraled out of control as more and more people became invested in the drama. While the Teletubbies franchise ultimately emerged unscathed, the incident is a testament to the power of the internet and the ability of even the wildest conspiracy theories to gain traction. Overall, the Teletubbies controversy is a strange and fascinating footnote in pop culture history that will likely continue to puzzle and amuse for years to come.
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