You may be familiar with the colourful, fuzzy little oddballs the Teletubbies, whose BAFTA winning performances entertained young children since 1997. For anyone who isn’t acquainted with this ambiguously alien quartet of characters, or for those who simply enjoy looking at bright colours, this is what they look like.
“Come and play with us, forever…and ever…and ever…”
In the programme, each Teletubby had his or her own special item. For Po (the red one) it was a scooter, for Dipsy (the green one) it was a rather epic black-and-white mottled top hat. Laa Laa (the yellow one) had a massive orange ball, whilst Tinky Winky had:
“I keep a brick in here, do not cross me, bitch.”
The producers of the show refer to Tinky Winky’s bag as his magic bag, as the inside is bigger than the outside. Most people who saw it, particularly the media, immediately thought ‘handbag’. As Tinky Winky is voiced by, and recognised by the producers to be male, this actually managed to have a political reaction. And more than once! Oh social conservatives, you so crazy. The idea that a character designated (pretty arbitrarily) as male should carry a ‘social marker’ of femininity caused reactions from quite a few people.
As you might expect, the reliably morally outraged evangelical Christian right of America spewed its disapproval – in this instance out of the hatch of Jerry Falwell (who, to give a 60 second summary of his relevant social views, can be heard dishing out blame to abortionists, feminists, gay and lesbian folks for 9/11 here). To quote from a BBC news article from 1999 reporting on Falwell’s views:
In an article called Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet, he says: “He is purple – the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol.” He said the “subtle depictions” of gay sexuality are intentional and later issued a statement that read: “As a Christian I feel that role modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.”
Then in 2007, the spokesperson for children’s rights in Poland, Ewa Sowinska, ordered psychologists to ‘investigate’ whether watching the programme might promote a ‘Homosexual Lifestyle’ (rumble of thunder) to children.
Other folks were also eager to out the purple…space baby thing, but with entirely different motivations. various LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) organisations believed and supported a gay interpretation of Tinky, and indeed specific claims of Tinky being transgender have also been raised.
Now, my point isn’t just ‘haters you suck, gay/trans Tinky is win’. The consideration of sexuality by Falwell and Sowinska is quite obviously backwards in being based on absolutist moralising about sin and delinquency – whilst the support from LGBT groups and people in relation to the interpretation of Tinky’s traits is also pretty easy to expect. But why do people feel the need to make these ascriptions of gender and sexuality in the first place?
If Falwell was really concerned that this asexual character aimed at entertaining those who’re 0-5 years old was a degenerative influence as indicated by his colour and shape, there’s probably plenty of other targets he also missed in trying to protect America’s youth.
“My my darling, the garden is looking very homosexual this morning…”
People like to see patterns in things. In the last post about defining biological sex, I mentioned some of the things people look for in everyone they meet in order to make the (socially coded, and enforced) judgement as to whether someone is male or female. This need has even extended to the non-human secondary-sexual-characteristic-less Teletubbies, as Tinky Winky and Dipsy are officially labelled as male, with Laa Laa and Po as female. There are none of the typical cues from their physical forms to see this however (nudges and winks about Dipsy’s aerial aside), but Tinky’s voice ‘reveals’ him to be ‘male’.
Now unless I missed the episode where Tinky Winky goes to a gay bar and hooks up with a trucker, the judgements on sexuality – whether from under-educated homophobes or from optimistic advocates – rests, in this case, entirely on stereotyping. Maybe without articulating it so barely, it’s clear that people have gone ‘male + female traits = you’ve got a gay/trans!’. The conflation of sexuality and gender identity has got a LOT of interesting background and historical precedent, but it also almost goes without saying – people viewed as ‘men’ exhibiting traits commonly viewed by most members of a society as ‘feminine’ are not necessarily gay or transgender. Likewise ‘men’ exhibiting masculine traits aren’t necessarily straight or cisgendered. ‘Women’ who are ‘masculine’ are not necessarily gay or trans, and ‘women’ who are ‘feminine’ aren’t always straight or cis.
The clichéd statements of ‘oh! I never would’ve guessed’ or ‘Yes, I’ve thought so for a while’ are things that many gay people may have heard one or the other of when coming out, depending on how their characteristics are judged by their peers. Traits that people commonly use to decide whether someone is masculine or feminine can be described as hegemonic. A hegemony is the dominance of one group by another, so for instance, ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – which could be described as big muscles, aggressive attitude, great physical strength, involvement with sports, etc. are all obvious things that could be referred to when someone casually describes someone as ‘masculine’. It’s the obvious, stereotypical understanding of having qualities associated with being male, rather than other experiences of masculinity, such as how some gay men may consider their experiences, or the experiences of men from different cultural backgrounds. Likewise preoccupation with fashion, make-up, and babies, a delicate and dainty physique, and an empathic, caring nature may all be described as ‘hegemonically feminine’.
Not hegemonically masculine, but does this make Tinky like Winky?
Judgement of people (or Teletubbies) in terms of these hegemonic understandings may often have correlation (plenty of men are involved in sports, plenty of women do like make-up, plenty of gay men do like fashion), but it is still hugely flawed, and never fair. The particularly sad thing is, is how much ‘policing’ of deviations from this so-called ‘normal gendered behaviour’ goes on. Whether it’s full-on verbal or physical abuse from strangers, or comments from friends like “why have you got that?”, a man (or someone judged to be a man by looking) can’t go out with a bag like Tinky Winky’s without strongly risking being questioned, and definitely will make people who see him question why, or question his sexuality to themselves. In the interests of true freedom of expression and personal growth, this ‘gendering’ of traits, behaviours, and activities is something I believe should be resisted. Let your little boys carry red bags and wear tutus, let your little girls play rugby, and don’t let these things inform whether you think they like other little boys or other little girls – or whether they are indeed, as you may have judged!