Recent controversies about a cute cartoon character are part of a longer history of adults’ responses to media for very young children.
Over the past couple of months, there’s been a flurry of media coverage focusing on the unlikely figure of Peppa Pig, the lead character in a popular British children’s cartoon. ‘Why is Peppa Pig banned in China and Australia?’ asked a recent edition of the Metro newspaper. As it turned out, the story of a ‘ban’ in Australia was a little overstated: it related to just one episode in which Peppa made friends with a spider – not a good idea in some parts of Australia. However, videos relating to Peppa had indeed been removed from the Chinese video-sharing site Douyin, apparently on the orders of the government. According to the Metro, there had been over 30,000 clips uploaded to the platform using Peppa Pig hashtags.
In fact, the concern in China was not to do with any potential risks to children. Rather, it seems that Peppa has become a subversive icon for what the government sees as undesirable elements. To some extent, she is following in the footsteps of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh, who has also been banned by the Chinese government after images of him were used to ridicule their leader, President Xi. In the case of Peppa, the subversion was a little less direct. According to the website Sixth Tone, which specializes in reports from China, Peppa has become a ‘street couture icon’ for Chinese celebrities and young people – and for what the state-run newspapers call ‘unruly slackers’. Chinese companies have produced a range of unlicensed Peppa Pig merchandise, including toys and clothing, and there are apparently plans to open theme parks in Shanghai and Beijing in time for the Year of the Pig in 2019. However, young people have also taken to sporting Peppa Pig tattoos and haircuts, and there are a great many fan videos, chat stickers and artworks circulating online. At least some of this imagery portrays Peppa as a ‘gangsta’, wearing ‘thug life’ shades and apparel, while some of it borders on violence and pornography.
Meanwhile, in the UK and the US, Peppa has also become caught up in a wave of public concern about inappropriate content seemingly targeting young children on YouTube. Late in 2017, a long article on Medium by James Bridle described how the platform was being used to circulate material that would ‘systematically frighten, traumatize and abuse children’. Bridle drew attention to the massive popularity of channels that feature the ‘unboxing’ of toys and Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs, along with versions of nursery rhymes and re-edited mash-ups of cartoons – all seemingly targeted at very young children. Such channels feature hundreds of videos, and have millions of subscribers; and the titles of the videos are often long lists of brand names and terms designed to ‘game’ the search algorithms. More disturbingly, Bridle also pointed to the prevalence of videos featuring characters such as Peppa that include violent and horrific content. Apparently videos in which Peppa is seen (for example) eating her father or drinking bleach, or where the characters are wielding knives and guns, are widely available, and can easily be accessed via simple search terms.
The material Bridle described was not a new development – the UK tabloid The Sun had reported on it more than a year earlier – although the controversy raised by his article seems to have provoked YouTube to address the problem: many of the videos he mentions have since been taken down, although it is still very easy to find similar clips and images online. Images of Peppa Pig, the Movie: Kingdom of Evil sit alongside screenshots from a game walk-though entitled Killing Floor: Evil Peppa, featuring the character brandishing a knife and splattered with blood. As Bridle describes, the prevalence of such material is partly a consequence of the technology and the business model of social media: the people who produce it are exploiting algorithmic automation in order to generate clicks (and therefore income from advertising).
However, this material also points to some broader questions about children’s media, and how adults relate to it. The Peppa Pig gross-out videos are, one assumes, largely parodic: they play with the idea of childhood innocence, undermining and subverting it with obviously ‘adult’ material. They may also express a kind of adult exasperation with the unrelenting cuteness of such characters, and the cloying pro-social messages they tend to promote. Parents obliged to watch such cartoons with their children – especially when they have to be repeated time after time – might be forgiven for occasionally wanting to massacre Peppa and her family with a chainsaw.
Yet while some of this material is almost certainly intended for adults, the obvious anxiety is that children will encounter it; and this in turn raises the spectre of children’s unsupervised use of media and technology. Earlier this year, BBC News reported on a study by the UK charity Childwise which suggested that television viewing was no longer a family activity – a realisation that seems to have dawned several decades too late. By the early 1990s, if not earlier, the majority of British children already had television sets in their bedrooms. More than ten years ago, researchers were pointing to very young children’s growing fluency in using mobile digital devices. Yet even today, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children under two should not be spending any time whatsoever in front of electronic screens.
In several respects, the controversy surrounding Peppa Pig reflects a long-running debate about very young children’s relationships with media. I’ve recently completed a new essay for my Growing Up Modern project, in which I offer a historical perspective on these issues, by tracking back to the very beginnings of television for pre-school children. I focus on three very well-known, long-running programmes, first broadcast between the 1950s and the 1990s – Watch with Mother, Sesame Street and Teletubbies – as well as some others from the same period, including Play School, Barney and Friends and Blue’s Clues. In the process, I attempt to show how the concerns that are arising now have actually been around for a very long time.
For instance, the anxiety that media might be used as an ‘electronic babysitter’ has a very long history indeed. It was certainly a consideration for the producers of Watch with Mother back in the early 1950s: there was widespread concern about the dangers of unsupervised viewing, and working-class children were often seen to be particularly vulnerable in this respect. According to Alistair McGowan, the programme’s title was intended ‘to deflect fears that television might become a nursemaid to children and encourage “bad mothering”’. The prospect that children might in fact be watching without mother led the producers to adopt what we might call a ‘maternalistic’ tone: several of the programmes in the Watch with Mother strand are narrated by an upper-middle-class mother figure who controls and interprets the children’s play.
More broadly, there has been a long-running concern about the relationship between education and commercial entertainment in programmes for very young children. Peppa Pig is screened on Channel Five in the UK and on Nick Jr. in the US, both commercial channels. The programme is also sold in numerous international markets; and like other children’s characters (Bob the Builder, Postman Pat et al.), Peppa is the vehicle for a large-scale merchandising enterprise, with a range of toys, clothing, bedclothes, bags and lunchboxes, as well as books, DVDs and games. Yet the programme is also expected to contain wholesome pro-social messages about sharing and caring, as well as instructions on good hygiene, health and safety, and so on. As Jeanette Steemers has shown, the production of preschool television has become a focus for wider tensions between public service and commercial imperatives, which sometimes play out in unexpected ways. Even so, this too can be traced back to the early days of Sesame Street in the late 1960s, and indeed to Sooty and Muffin the Mule in the 1950s.
Ultimately, such controversies may tell us more about adults – and adults’ ambivalent investments in the idea of childhood – than they do about children themselves. It is Peppa Pig’s cuteness and innocence that renders her a focus for adult sentimentality; but it also makes her a target for subversive parody and even for condemnation. Such responses can also be tracked back historically, for example to the initial reception of Teletubbies in the late 1990s, where the programme was condemned by some educationalists (and indeed some ill-informed politicians) while simultaneously enjoying ironic cult appeal among youthful ravers.
Meanwhile, back in the early 1990s, the advent of Barney, the dreaded purple dinosaur, provoked a barrage of parodies and anti-Barney ‘humour’ from adults. While this has died down in recent years, there are still several websites that circulate such material, some of which is blatantly violent, scatological and obscene. In some respects, Peppa Pig would seem to have inherited Barney’s mantle here, although in his case, the response seems easier to understand. The online ‘Jihad to Destroy Barney’, as one of the websites calls itself, makes perfect sense to me – although I am clearly not the programme’s intended audience.
In my longer essay, I look at these issues primarily in relation to the programmes themselves – and especially their pedagogy or style of teaching. You can read more by clicking right here!