In the age of niche marketing, children of all ages, races and sexual persuasions want programming for themselves.
Just when we were wondering what the next target of the right's moral indignation would be once President Clinton was acquitted, up pops Jerry Falwell to relieve the suspense.
With Bill off the hook, the mantle of corrupting the children has fallen to Tinky Winky, Teletubbies star of the tax-sucking TV arm of liberal establishment PBS. Where others see a pro-social half-hour of mewling gibberish, Falwell sees a plot to promote homosexuality.
The evidence: Tinky Winky talks like a boy, yet he's not only built like Linda Tripp, he carries a purse to boot. Then there's the triangle atop his head, which, as every toddler knows, is a symbol of gay pride. And you thought all Teletubbies' creators wanted was to make a fortune on licensing.
After those endless months of impeachment, we can be grateful to the Rev. Falwell for a little comic relief. And horrified parents who beheld the rapt devotion of their offspring to the witless Barney can empathize a bit with Falwell, too. His mistake--one of them, at least--was to watch programming targeted at the 1-4 demo through the eyes of an adult.
It's not just that the wee ones, presumably still reveling in polymorphous perversity, lack any mental notion of homosexuality. Young children are relentlessly literal-minded, not yet capable of grasping that the color purple or a triangle might be symbols that stand for something else. The Good Lord didn't create us paranoid; it's something we learn as we go along.
Although I don't usually find myself in sync with Jerry Falwell, I confess I find the Teletubbies a little sinister, too. With those huge, low-slung ears, dark button eyes and laytex smirks, they eerily resemble somewhat less evolved versions of Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter in Planet of the Apes. They gambol on Astroturf, watched by unblinking parental periscopes.
Don't these kids know they have the rest of their lives to sit glassy-eyed in front of the TV set, but the days of finger painting the wall with your food are fleeting? And yes, there is something creepy about that triangle growing from Tinky Winky's head. It's an antenna, as potent a symbol of TV-raised babyhood as the most paranoid mediaphobe could devise.
But then who are Jerry Falwell and I to second-guess, let alone understand, a 3-year-old's taste in television? The transformation of 1-4-year-olds into a "demo"--with all the unalienable consumer rights that come with it--is one of those things that drives a critic to despair. The target audience has the first, last and only word that counts. In essence, you cannot judge a different cohort's television until you've crawled in their Dr. Dentons.
Sure enough, once you literally get down on the level of the Teletubbies target audience, the show no longer looks like a conspiracy against children. Those frozen Teletubby smiles, like Barney's crazed permanent grin, send a signal whose meaning--"I am your friend"--is wired so deep in the human brain that even a 1-year-old gets it. "Do it again!" cries the 2-year-old, and the playful Teletubbies usually oblige by doing whatever it is they do at least twice.
As for the show's glacial pacing, it's perfect for viewers who can sit in drooling contemplation of their own fingers for minutes on end.
Yet in other ways, Teletubbies is not that much different from hit TV shows for older cohorts. In the age of niche marketing, children of all ages, races and sexual persuasions want--no, demand--programming for and about themselves.
Like teens who watch Dawson's Creek, the little ones can see in the Teletubbies their running, hopping, napping selves-- or rather, a more glamorized, magical version of themselves, since from the tenderest age, we prefer our narcissism tempered with fantasy. For twentysomethings who tune into Friends, that fantasy is expressed in a funky but vast Manhattan apartment, great hair and fabulous size-four outfits. For boob-tube babies, it's having a television receiver in your tummy. The friends of Friends have romance and sex; the Teletubbies hug and fall down. Same difference.
Now that Barney is a decade old, we know that sooner or later--though not soon enough for a lot of parents--kids outgrow this kind of thing. One can only imagine the boredom the average 8-year-old feels for that dumb dinosaur she once could not live without. Remember that the next time you see the ad for disposable diapers designed for toddlers who know how to use a computer but have yet to master the potty.
Let the child decide when he's ready, the kindly pediatrician advises--a slogan for the Consumer Republic if ever there was one. In which case, we can look forward to the day that babies will have outgrown their first media crush before they're toilet-trained. Maybe this is a conspiracy after all.