I'm sorry, Tinky Winky

The writer who outed the "gay" Teletubby in the Washington Post apologizes for bringing the wrath of Jerry Falwell upon him.

By Michael Colton
Published February 13, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I'm sorry, Tinky Winky, I truly am. I should have respected your privacy, and kept your bedroom door shut. I shouldn't have exposed your purple, gay soul to an unfriendly world.

When noted God-lover and part-time cultural critic Rev. Jerry Falwell decided to target the hit children's show "Teletubbies" this week, for supposedly promoting a homosexual icon, I cringed. Then, like the rest of the country, I laughed. His main ammunition for the attack came from a joke in a story I wrote for the Washington Post, my former employer. Though I never intended to arm the religious right, Falwell's paranoia is oddly flattering.

For the record, "Teletubbies" stars four oversized, non-gendered, fetuslike creatures named Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po. They have neither gay nor straight sex, possess no genitalia and don't even masturbate. (Obviously not human.) Instead, they eat "tubby custard," perform "happy dances" and watch TV on each other's stomachs. Occasionally, they hug. They're quite popular among the diapered set.

But Falwell, the Virginia evangelist who warned his followers last month of the Jewish antichrist who walks among us, is angered by Tinky Winky's swishy walk. (Some would call it a waddle.)

In the February issue of his National Liberty Journal, Falwell alerts parents about the British show's gay agenda, citing circumstantial evidence for Tinky Winky's sexual preference.

"Furthering Tinky's 'outing,'" reads the journal, "was a recent Washington Post editorial that cast the character's photo opposite that of Ellen DeGeneres in an 'In/Out' column. This implies that Ellen is 'out' as the chief national gay representative, while Tinky Winky is the trendy 'in' celebrity." He also used the Post article to back his argument on "Today" Thursday morning.

The piece was not an editorial -- the Washington Post editorial board tends to ignore Ellen DeGeneres' hipness, or lack of it. It was the Post's Style section's annual In/Out list, which runs every Jan. 1 and gauges the culture from inside the Beltway.

When writing the list, I put Ellen and her girlfriend, actress Anne Heche, in the "Out" column, figuring that everyone had tired of the lesbian power couple. I considered using Rupert Everett as the corresponding "In" item. But then I remembered how Tinky Winky, because his size and voice are vaguely masculine and he often carries a red purse, had become a camp icon among gay viewers here and in Britain. (In fact, Salon's Joyce Millman had written about Tinky Winky's gay fans over a year ago.) Tinky Winky is obviously not homosexual, by any stretch of the imagination, but he possesses a few effeminate characteristics (he also likes to wear a tutu on occasion). It's amusing to label him gay simply because the idea of homosexuality -- or any sexuality -- is completely incomprehensible and irrelevant in Teletubbyland, an idyllic countryside populated by giant rabbits, a friendly vacuum cleaner and a sun with the face of a baby.

When my piece came out, E! Online picked up the story, saying the Washington Post had outed Tinky Winky by declaring him "in." I had assumed it was a commonly known joke. But the story didn't reach ridiculous proportions until this week, when Falwell stepped in, contributing his own evidence that Tinky's creators have fashioned a gay role model: His antenna is triangle-shaped -- the gay-pride symbol. And his skin is purple -- the gay-pride color. Barney the Dinosaur must be a raging queen.

Falwell admits he's never watched the Teletubbies. But homosexuality obviously excites the man, as it did the North Carolina minister who accused Bert and Ernie of being gay companions a few years ago. Remember Falwell's mantra, "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"? Now he's criticizing the sinful cohabitation of Tinky Winky and Dipsy, worrying that little boys across the country are running around with purses. It's a ludicrous charge, but one he surely knew would land his name in the papers and on TV once again.

And what about that purse? Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, the company that brought the show to America, calls it a "magic bag." Why not? It's no more ludicrous than a friendly vacuum cleaner.

Be sure to catch "Teletubbies" this week, when Laa-Laa dances with Ellen and Anne at a dyke bar.

Michael Colton

Michael Colton writes for the New York Observer.

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