Over the hills and far away, Teletubbies come to play.
On the playground, I ask fellow parents about Teletubby Land. “What’s with that place?” I ask. “Oh, it’s a utopia,” they respond, before rushing off to take a twig out of little Madison’s mouth.
That term, “utopia,” as coined by Thomas More in 1516, meant simultaneously “eutopia” (a good place) and “outopia” (no place). I don’t see the utopia in Teletubbies. I see something else entirely. The very concept bothers me. Their round, toddler bodies, custom-fit with antennae on their heads, seem a metaphor for every generation post-Brady Bunch. It’s like these chubby youngsters have abandoned tree-climbing and tag-playing for watching TV incessantly, to the point that they’ve grown their own personal sets in their bellies.
While I am temporarily fascinated by Teletubby Land, I do not profess to be an expert. If there are any books or academic papers out there on Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La La or Po, I am not aware of them. I am only vaguely aware of the Congressional hearings when Tinky Winky’s sexual orientation was called into question. My question is: why do parents assume it’s a utopia?
Teletubbies was conceived in England for a preschool audience. But that doesn’t explain why Teletubby Land is green and grassy, with little hills. It also features clumps of plastic-looking flowers that never bud, die or grow (but then, neither do Po and company). And, for some reason, real rabbits. Indeed, at first glance, the term “utopia” does seem to suit Teletubby Land, so pleasant and yet impossibly bizarre. The Tubbies share a space-agey, underground home, where they keep a machine that meets all nutritional needs, producing both Tubby Toast and Tubby Custard. In addition to the pod-like sleeping arrangement under their mylar blankies, the Tubbies keep a vacuum cleaner that, well, cleans up everything, all by itself. It possesses a more evolved intelligence than all the Tubbies put together. Each Tubby owns one object: a bag, a ball, a scooter, and a hat. And they all share. This does seem utopian.
But is Teletubby Land really “a good place”? Where are the parents? Where is anyone else? How will our four fuzzy friends grow up, become educated, and mate?
Such concerns make me think that Teletubby Land is not a utopia, but a dystopia—a literary/political anti-utopia. But in reality, I think it more closely reflects dystopia’s first cousin, the post-apocalyptic future. “Apocalyptic” refers to the disasters that occur just prior to the Second Coming in the Book of Revelations, the final book in the Christian bible (“Apocalypse” is Greek for “revealed,” thus Revelations—for what was revealed to John on Patmos, his Apocalypse). “Post-apocalyptic” refers to a world already decimated by an “apocalyptic” devastation, for example, an earthquake, nuclear war, new ice age, drought, disease, or famine. Think: Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, Planet of the Apes, Waterworld, The Postman, Twelve Monkeys, and Soylent Green.
Tell me the Tubby home doesn’t resemble a bomb shelter: underground, with sealed doors. Everything they need is inside. (It’s like a space ship, and for that matter, the Tubbies look like they’re wearing space suits, or modified toddler-sized de-contamination suits.) Perhaps the transmissions that come to the young Tubbies’ bellies are preprogrammed by caring, now departed parents. Maybe their existence is the result of some genetic combining of human and machine caused by all this radioactive nonsense. Or, pre-suits, the babies were merged with the televisions. (Is this a cautionary tale, warning against the dangers of too much TV?)
Mutants they may be, but the Teletubbies live exceedingly peaceably. Following the legacy left by their parents, they watch prerecorded videos of children engaged in typical pre-school activities, eat a never-ending supply of astronauts’ food, spontaneously dance when mysterious music plays and appreciate their artificially intelligent vacuum cleaner, named “Nunu,” coincidentally, the Chinese word for mother’s milk (this is the mother’s replacement?).
Indeed, their only possessions seem to be all that’s of a world gone, or better, a person evaporated, neutron bomb-style. I can’t help but see a mother wearing the hat, carrying her purse and a ball, riding the scooter. Poof, the mother is gone, and all that is left are her things. Tinky Winky, being the oldest, carries the purse, perhaps because he does remember his mother.
As to whether or not Tinky is gay, Americans might do well to remember that British gender and sex stereotypes are different from those in the States. Sure, he carries that purse, licks Tubby Custard from the laps of other Tubbies, sports a triangle-shaped antenna on his head. And, yes, he has been in compromising positions with a feather. More to the point, what is the future of humanity, if one of two males has no interest in procreation? Are Tubbies capable of reproduction at all, with the ambient high levels of radioactive contamination?
And what might this radiation have to do with the show’s frequent voiceovers? A mysterious male knows what is going to happen and interprets the Tubbies’ toddler-esque language: this reminds me of the controversial last chapter of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a future where the horrors have long ended, at an academic conference where historians discuss the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, trying to determine whether or not it’s propaganda. Perhaps in this same way, the tapes of the founding Tubbies are left for scholars to define and interpret. If true, this then gives a new meaning to the laughing sun with the infant’s face: the next generation (or the last generation) exhibits joy and hope for continuing human existence.
Such optimism echoes the last lines of the 1961 British film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire: “Then may he say once more, truly the light is sweet, and what a pleasant thing it is to see the sun.” If that laughing baby isn’t sweet and pleasant, I don’t know what is. Perhaps, the male voiceover and the Teletubby tapes are studies of the past (of survivors of the apocalypse) conducted by a present community of scholars who are distant descendants of Po, La La, Tinky Winky, and Dipsy. And so perhaps, the story of the Tubbies does have a happy ending. Perhaps, it is a utopia after all.
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Hildie S. Block has a MA in writing from Johns Hopkins and teaches at American University in DC. Mostly, she chases around her three-year-old daughter and fervently attempts to keep her brain from turning to mush. In her spare time, she’s working on a novel.