The proverb that a child’s mind is like a sponge can be as much a source of wonder as of vexation. Unlike primetime sitcoms and hour-long dramas on HBO, viewers tend to agree that children’s television must be driven by a higher purpose, and must deliver the right message. As a result, even when the programming seems lighthearted and beyond the reach of politics, the debate about kids TV can verge on bitter acrimony, whether it’s a show about neighborhood kids who love to share (“socialist propaganda”) or a hero who delivers the benefits of civilization to his fellow elephants (“promotes colonialism”). Concerned parents and uninvolved critics have always had something to say about the culture kids are exposed to. After the jump, inspired by the news that a Russian kids’ show was pulled off the air after a joke about Putin’s divorce, are a few controversies that have arisen in recent memory.
Jerry Falwell and the Teletubbies
In 1999, the late Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist pastor, wrote about Teletubbies in the February issue of his magazine National Liberty Journal. Aiming special attention at Tinky Winky, a purple character who carries a purse-like tote bag, Falwell opined that Tinky Winky was a gay role model. ”He is purple — the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay-pride symbol.” After the article attracted the attention of half a dozen major news outlets (and more than a few jokes from late-night talk-show hosts), a company spokesperson denied the allegations, telling The New York Times the purse was simply a “magic bag.”
James Dobson and Spongebob Squarepants
The Teletubbies dispute was not the last or only time the Christian Right saw gay propaganda in children’s television. In 2005, Dr. James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, decided to talk about Spongebob Squarepants, whose eponymous hero frequently holds hands with his friend Patrick Star.
Spokespersons for Focus on the Family soon backed off from the outright suggestion that Spongebob was gay, but at the time, Dobson asserted that the friendly, bright-eyed character had been enlisted in a “pro-homosexual video,” in which he appeared alongside children’s television colleagues like Barney and Jimmy Neutron, among many others. At the time, the video he was referring to, produced by the We Are Family Foundation, was being mailed to thousands of elementary schools to promote a “tolerance pledge” that includes tolerance for differences of “sexual identity.”
“We see the video as an insidious means by which the organization is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids,” Paul Batura, assistant to Mr. Dobson, told The New York Times. “It is a classic bait and switch.”
Elmo and Katy Perry
Celebrity appearances on canonical kids TV shows like Sesame Street can be mutually beneficial, making actors seem sweet and relatable and adding of-the-moment cachet to the show. This strategy hit a bump in 2010, however, when parents took issue with a music video in which guest Katy Perry “played dress up” with Elmo. “It was a party dress that was part of the theme of the story,” executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente told CBS, referring to an outfit Perry wore that left most of her chest bare. “If we had had a sweater on set, or maybe one of Burt’s turtlenecks, it might have changed the feedback.”
Elmo and Kevin Clash
A supremely un-Elmo conversation about puppets as sexual beings took on another level of intensity when a 23-year-old man alleged that he had been in a sexual relationship with Kevin Clash, the voice of the Elmo puppet, which began when the younger man was 16. While Clash insisted that the encounter, though statutorily dicey, was consensual, it became more difficult to divert attention from Sesame Street after a second and third accuser came forward. Clash soon resigned from his post as the voice of Elmo. Since then, a fourth and fifth accuser have filed similar lawsuits against him.
[Image via the Guardian]
Jimmy Savile and Operation Yetwree
In the entire history of British television, it’s hard to think of a more dramatic change in public esteem than what befell presenter Jimmy Savile after he died in 2011. In addition to hosting Top of the Pops, for 20 years, Savile hosted the show Jim’ll Fix It, in which he granted an unusual wish sent in from one of the show’s ordinary viewers, most of whom were children. Savile raised more than £40 million ($61.7 million) for various charities in his lifetime, and was widely recognized for his philanthropic activities, with accolades that included an OBE.
In the year following Savile’s death, a deluge of men and women — including former guests on shows like Jim’ll Fix It — came forward to various news agencies to report that Savile had abused them as children. In October 2012, the London Metropolitan Police Service opened an investigation, called Operation Yewtree, into the allegations against Savile, ultimately concluding that Savile had committed a total of 450 offenses, mostly against children and teenagers. And there is still more work to come. The latest arrest in connection with Operation Yewtree was announced last week.
Bert and Ernie’s Marriage
For years, the idea of two adult men living together with no hanky-panky was cause for a few snickers, providing much fodder for the writers of Family Guy. But as the movement to legalize gay marriage gathered momentum, an increasing number of progressives zeroed in on Bert and Ernie to opine that it was a shame to act as if the two men weren’t in love.
“We are not asking that Sesame Street do anything crude or disrespectful by allowing Bert & Ernie to marry,” one petition read. “It can be done in a tasteful way. Let us teach tolerance of those that are different. Let Sesame Street and PBS Kids be a big part in saving many worthy lives.”
Finally, the show’s producers had to make a statement, via Facebook: “Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
The jury is still out on the political acceptability of Rastamouse, a British animated stop-motion show that stars a crime-fighting mouse reggae band called Da Easy Crew. On one hand, there’s something to be read from the depiction of a reggae-loving mouse who uses bad grammar.
A few viewers have even speculated that Rastamouse cheese is a euphemism for cannabis. But these childlike depictions are just that: childlike, and the BBC has insisted that the characters’ voices should be viewed in an acceptable light. “The Rastamouse books are written in Afro-Caribbean Patois rhyme,” they wrote in a statement to The Telegraph, “and this authentic voice has been transferred to the TV series to retain its heart, integrity and distinctive quality.”
Depending on your political stance, or your parenthood status, there’s a chance you might not see the humor in the Twitter feed of Jason Biggs, an actor who now plays the voice of Leonardo in the current incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In November 2012, the kids TV network Nickelodeon hastened to apologize for linking to Biggs’s Twitter account when the actor shared his thoughts on the Republican National Convention. The tweets dealt graphically with the private parts of Ann Romney, Paul Ryan, and Janna Little. Later on, Biggs sought reconciliation, writing: “To everyone freaking out about my tweets: you know i put my dick in a pie, right?”
[Image via China Divide]
Haibao vs. Gumby
The frequent disputes between American copyright owners and Chinese businesses entered the world of childhood animation during the Shanghai Expo in 2010. At issue was the character of Haibao, a plump, sky-blue cartoon figure shaped like a stick person, who some complained resembled Gumby, the beloved American TV cartoon character.
Finding this unreasonable cause for strife, a blogger for Shanghaiist felt the need to weigh in on some obvious differences: “Gumby is green. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for [Haibao,] the mascot of Xinxiang Haibao Electrical Appliance Company: not only is he blue, but he also wears a cape, much like nü-Haibao does in the videos where he patrols Shanghai’s streets for fakes, weapons and all things evil.”
[Image via The New York Times]
Kid Nation and Child Labor
The CBS reality show Kid Nation was marred by controversy in late 2007 when questions circulated about whether young participants — contestants in a game-show setting, who were asked to create a functioning society in the town with minimal help from adults — were beating paid as actors or treated as unpaid participants. It didn’t help that children were reportedly fed lines or asked to re-shoot sequences from the competition regularly. While the state of New Mexico never pursued a case against CBS, the show’s anemic performance led executives to cancel it. “It’s not the kind of buzz you want to launch with,” executive producer Tom Forman told USA Today.