In Spring 2018, as I began the research for this essay, there was a brief 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 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 had 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 appears to be 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 had 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 online. A poster for Peppa Pig, the Movie: Kingdom of Evil sits alongside a screenshot from a game walk-though entitled Killing Floor: Evil Peppa, featuring an image of the character brandishing a knife and splattered with blood. As Bridle describes, the prevalence of such material is partly a consequence of the technology of social media: the people who produce it are exploiting the potential of 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. As I’ll go on to suggest, this kind of politically incorrect or inappropriate response on the part of adults is far from unusual, or even particularly new.
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 in 2018, 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 with electronic screens. As we shall see, this anxiety that media might be used as an ‘electronic babysitter’ has a very long history indeed: it can be traced back almost to the beginnings of television itself.
In these respects, the controversy surrounding Peppa Pig reflects a wider debate about very young children’s relationship with media. In this essay, I want to offer a different perspective on these issues, by tracking back historically to the very beginnings of television for pre-school children. I will be focusing on three very well-known, long-running programmes, first broadcast between the 1950s and the 1990s: Watch with Mother, Sesame Street and Teletubbies. The latter two are still in production today. I will also refer more briefly to other programmes from the same period, including Play School, Barney and Friends and Blue’s Clues.
In some cases, there has been a considerable amount of discussion of the effects – and the educational effectiveness – of such programmes; and more recently, there have been some useful studies of the changing context of production. While I will say something about these issues, I also want to focus more directly on the programmes themselves. More specifically, I want to look at their formal qualities, as a way of exploring their pedagogy – that is, how they are attempting to ‘teach’ their viewers, rather than what they are attempting to teach. This involves several further questions. For example, how do such programmes address or speak to the child viewer? What roles do children and adults (or learners and teachers) play in them? How do the programmes define and balance out ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’? What assumptions do they appear to make about children’s understanding and knowledge about media themselves – or their ‘media literacy’?
As I hope to show, the answers to these questions reflect broader assumptions – about childhood, about pedagogy and about media literacy – that have changed significantly over time. The programmes I will be looking at also come from different cultural contexts (from the US and the UK), where these issues tend to be addressed in quite different ways. And there are further distinctions to be drawn here between the products of public service and commercial systems, not least in terms of ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’ – although these distinctions are not necessarily predictable or easy to make. As this implies, my questions about the formal characteristics of such programmes relate in turn to much broader historical, cultural and institutional issues.
Pre-school television is not always easy for adults to watch. Such programmes are not primarily intended for us, and they sometimes make very few concessions to adult viewers – although, as we’ll see, there are some interesting exceptions to this. The producers of such programmes rely on a whole set of assumptions about children’s development, about what they understand and how they learn: they are constantly making judgments about what viewers will remember, what they will be able to follow, what they need to be told and what they will be able to infer, and so on. There are also assumptions – which were very much at stake in the Peppa Pig controversy – about the context of viewing: are children any longer ‘watching with mother’ (or father), or are they watching unsupervised? These assumptions are sometimes based on very detailed research, and sometimes merely on a kind of popular wisdom. They may often be unstated or implicit, a matter of creative intuition rather than explicit formulation.
As such, preschool television is likely to look very different from adult television. To us, it may seem thin, repetitive, contrived, or just plain incomprehensible. Alternatively, we might see it as charming and cute, or as refreshingly bizarre and surrealistic. We may feel a kind of affectionate nostalgia, or a degree of sentimentality – responses that often become apparent when long-running programmes are discontinued or replaced. We may indulge in a degree of smart irony – a response that has long been apparent in the cult appeal of programmes from The Magic Roundabout (in the 1960s) through to Teletubbies (in the 1990s) and now, it seems, to the likes of Peppa Pig. In some instances, this may lead on to a kind of subversive humour, and even (for unwilling viewers) to bitter hatred. And of course, we may veer awkwardly from one response to another, or feel all these things at the same time. I suspect that this ambivalence is inevitable, and I cannot promise that this essay will be entirely devoid of it.