The Teletubbies embrace Pride, more than two decades after 'gay' Tinky Winky scandal

·Senior Editor
·8-min read
This rainbow pin, available for $10.99, is part of the new Teletubbies Pride Collection. (Photo courtesy Teletubbies Pride Collection)
This rainbow pin, available for $10.99 and featuring the symbols of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po, is part of the new Teletubbies Pride Collection. (Photo courtesy Teletubbies Pride Collection)

When it comes to pearl-clutching gay scandals involving children's TV characters, the story of the Teletubbies — particularly of the handbag-holding Tinky Winky — is right up there with that of Bert and Ernie.

But now it looks like the series is embracing the 22-year-old controversy in a most rainbow-hued way: by launching the official Teletubbies Pride Collection, just ahead of June. The limited collection, which premiered Thursday, offers a handful of '90s-vintage-vibe fashion looks for sale — with proceeds to benefit nonprofit LGBTQ media monitor GLAAD.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10:  The Teletubbies, (L-R) Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po attend photocall to promote new tour at Westfield on September 10, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
The Teletubbies, from left, are Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po, seen here in 2009 at a promotional event in London. (Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

It’s "'90s inspired on-trend streetwear that's both iconic and nostalgic, including a zip sling bag, reversible bucket hat, muscle tanks and oversized tee, knee-high socks, vintage-inspired athletic shorts, and more," an official press release explains (though no mention of a red handbag, sadly). 

It goes on the say that the collection "is centered around two themes, 'Big Hug Big Love' and 'Teletubbies Love Pride.'"

Models pile on some of the new Pride merch — rainbow tube socks, statement tees, red shorts, bucket hats and fanny packs. (Photo courtesy of Teletubbies Pride Collection)
Models pile on some of the new Pride merch — rainbow tube socks, statement tees, red shorts, bucket hats and fanny packs. (Photo courtesy of Teletubbies Pride Collection)

And said Michael Riley, chief brands officer at WildBrain, which owns Teletubbies, "The Teletubbies have always embraced their own offbeat quirkiness and sense of style. This Pride Month, we're celebrating that 'love who you are' spirit through our Collection of ready-to-rave fashion that makes Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po very proud. We’ve taken the most iconic elements fans know and love about the Teletubbies and designed a playful Collection with fashion flair that we hope fans will love to wear this Pride Month and all year-long."

Talk about embracing your demons.

The hubbub over the British-import toddler-aimed series — which originally ran on the BBC from 1997 to 2001 and on PBS in the U.S. from 1998 to 2008 and had a reboot in 2015 — all started 22 years ago, when Baptist televangelist and noted homophobe Jerry Falwell penned "Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet," in the National Liberty Journal, a promotional publication for his evangelical Liberty University, noting, "He is purple — the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay pride symbol."

Tinky Winky and the controversial red handbag. (GIF: YouTube/Teletubbies)
Tinky Winky and the controversial red handbag. (GIF: YouTube/Teletubbies)

A little context: This was just two years after Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay and three years after President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, effectively banning same-sex marriage. It was four years before the Supreme Court would rule that U.S. anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional, and five years before Massachusetts would become the first state to legalize gay marriage (while federal legalization would not come until 2015).

And so, for those who haven’t been following along from the beginning — or anyone in need of a refresher — here's a brief timeline of the Teletubbies' journey from denial to acceptance to full-on pride.

1997

Teletubbies launches in the U.K.

The original Teletubbies, created by Anne Wood and Andrew Davenport for the BBC and starring brightly-colored, life-size creatures named Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po, launches, sparking a No. 1 single — "Teletubbies say 'Eh-oh!'" (toddler-speak for "hello!") — by the end of the year.

1999

Jerry Falwell panics, citing "evidence" about Tinky Winky's gay role model status.

"The character, whose voice is obviously that of a boy, has been found carrying a red purse, and has become a favorite character among gay groups worldwide," Falwell (who would die in 2007) infamously writes in his magazine, along with details about character's hue and triangle antenna. He adds, "As a Christian, I feel that role-modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging the moral lives of children."

Jerry Falwell gives a press conference after meeting with Botha in Pretoria, South Africa August 15, 1985.     REUTERS/Trevor Samson
Jerry Falwell, pictured in 1985. (Photo: REUTERS/Trevor Samson)

Falwell gives some credit for the tip-off to Washington Post writer Michael Colton, who had recently (and jokingly) declared, in his annual "In/Out" column, that Tinky Winky would be replacing the just-out Ellen Degeneres as the new gay ambassador (something Colton amusingly apologizes for after the Falwell fallout).

But others had beaten him to the punch, with Tinky Winky already proudly claimed by the gay press — including the Advocate, Out magazine and the Village Voice, in which columnist Michael Musto declared that Tinky Winky is "out and proud" and sends "a great message to kids — not only that it's OK to be gay, but the importance of being well-accessorized." Looking back years later, Musto would recall, "As I landed in the middle of this hilarious contretemps, I had to chuckle over the fact that Falwell and I actually agreed on something—that Tinky was gay."

After penning his divisive piece, Falwell doubles down on the Today show, telling then-host Katie Couric that to have "little boys running around with purses and acting effeminate and leaving the idea that the masculine male, the feminine female is out, and gay is OK" is something "Christians do not agree with."

Nighttime TV hosts have a field day, and the city of Berkeley, Calif. passes a council measure proclaiming "Long live Tinky Winky." Teletubbies spokesperson Kenn Viselman, meanwhile, holds a press conference.

Jerry Falwell riling folks up with homophobic rhetoric was nothing new, as evidenced by this photo of gay protestors at the 1992 Republican National Convention, outside of Falwell luncheon, in Houston, Tex. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jerry Falwell riling folks up with homophobic rhetoric was nothing new, as evidenced by this photo of gay protestors at the 1992 Republican National Convention, outside of Falwell luncheon, in Houston, Tex. (Photo: Getty Images)

"Teletubbies is the most harmless, most delightful show for children," Viselman says. "It is the sweetest, most innocent place a child can go. To fill it up with paranoia or right-wing propaganda is ridiculous." He adds, "If gay people think Tinky Winky is gay, it’s because there aren’t enough gay role models on TV. But they aren't going to find one on this show."

2000

Sales for Teletubbies merchandise reach $1.6 billion.

The news prompts one marketer to reportedly marvel, "Jerry Falwell has become the spokesperson of the '90s. He can sell anything."

2007

Polish official orders Tinky Winky investigation.

After a long stretch of quiet around the issue, Ewa Sowinska, the government watchdog for children’s rights in Poland, is alerted to the Tinky Winky situation. "I noticed he was carrying a woman's handbag," she tells a publication at the time. "At first, I didn’t realize he was a boy. At first, I thought the purse would be a burden for this Teletubby... Later I learned that this may have a homosexual undertone."

Eventually, Sowinska backs off, with her spokesperson noting she "hasn’t asked and won’t ask" psychologists to investigate, and that, "They are fictional characters, they have nothing to do with reality, and the bag and scissors and other props the fictional characters use are there to create a fictional world that speaks to children. We are not going to deal with this issue anymore." Sowinska will resign a year later.

This is also the year that Teletubbies creators Wood and Davenport create a new British kids' show, In the Night Garden, prompting interviews and, finally, comment on the long-running Tinky Winky controversy to Reuters. "We laughed when we first heard it, but in the United States certain communities took it seriously, to our horror, and it damaged the brand considerably in America," Wood says. "Whether Tinky Winky is gay or not is still the most frequently asked question that we get." (And one which she does not answer.)

In March, the Teletubbies, including Tinky Winky, receive an honorary "Key to the City" on what is deemed Teletubbies Day in New York City.

2015

Teletubbies gets a reboot.

Wood, who had sold her rights to the show in 2013, says she will not be watching to new version of the series. "I couldn't bring myself to. I have nothing against them, it might be brilliant. They tell me they've got the best producer possible on it, so that's a good sign," she tells the BBC. "But how could I watch it? All my programs are like my children. It's like seeing a child remade in somebody else's image. So good luck to them."

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2018

Original Tinky Winky actor, Simon Barnes, dies at 52.

Obituaries note that Barnes, who replaced original Tinky Winky Dave Thompson, had at one point addressed the controversy, saying, "People always ask me if Tinky Winky is gay, but the character is supposed to be a 3-year-old, so the question is really quite silly."

2021

Teletubbies Pride collection is released.

"This Pride Month, the iconic Teletubbies brand is celebrating the importance of self-expression and acceptance in a unique and uplifting way, while giving back to create change," said John McCourt, senior director at GLAAD, where merchandise proceeds will go towards efforts to expand LGBTQ images and inclusion in children’s and family programming. 

And that, kids, is what we call changing the narrative. Eh-oh!

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