My two-and-a-half-year-old is awake. He is wearing a pair of pink Peppa Pig pyjamas, and, as usual, he is sporting a backpack in the shape of Peppa’s little brother, George.
He wants to watch Peppa Pig. Again.
He is told no and his lip folds in a quiver, matched immediately by an onslaught of snot and tears and the squealing sound associated with Peppa’s whiny, but otherwise mute, younger sibling: “Wahhhh oink oink, wahhhhh.”
After standing in the doorway sobbing, hands limp by his side, mouth inverted in a cartoonish grimace, he goes off to wake his big brothers. They have recently discovered how to access YouTube videos from their DS and can often be persuaded to do his bidding if nagged with a careful balance of sweetness and aggravation.
I can hear him clambering onto one of their beds. “Wake up it’s mowning time! Kiss please. Please me watch Peppa Pig rghonk rghonk on yo small ’ploot pleeeease?”
He takes the George bag everywhere. It goes to bed with him and sits beside him at dinner. It is filled with cast-iron cars which collectively weigh far more than his toddler back can carry. A short-term solution is to sneak the cars out when he is not looking.
The Peppa Pig addiction is a more complex problem.
Do White Boars Still Own Culture?
I first encountered an episode of Peppa Pig last year. I never exposed my eldest children to the series on the assumption that, as a piece of popular children’s culture, it must ultimately be a vehicle for moral apathy, sexism, racism, capitalist values and general deference to The Man.
This is not a totally off-the-wall assumption, or at least, there is a fairly established school of thought to support it. Over the last couple of decades there has been enough research to convince right-on parents like myself of the inherent evil of most popular TV. The famous ’90s study “Television Cartoons: Do Children Notice It’s a Boy’s World?” is perhaps one of the most influential, and its findings are enough to scare any feminist mother off the unmediated TV babysitter.
It is fairly standard by now for well-read parents to associate television exposure with childhood obesity, sleep disorders, attention problems, body-image disorders and, for girls, negative gender identities. That said, a study published last year in Communication Quarterly revealed that, contrary to expectations, the children of today’s “more educated parents” are “at greater risk for increased television viewing” if television is used as a babysitter, than those of “less educated” parents.
A wariness based on the popularity of Peppa Pig is obviously a weak defence for blatant bias. Like most bias, though, it is backward but not completely baseless. Respected critics like Frederic Jameson and Richard Dyer explain popular culture politically: the draw of a work of mass culture lies in its interaction with political anxieties. Generally, the culture we enjoy en mass is entertainment that legitimates the existing order in one way or another, soothing the anxieties we may have about it.
Once you start thinking this way, you can see it at play everywhere – in film after book after film, we watch capitalism, heteronormativity, patriarchy and white supremacy turn out a happy conclusion.
In the Twilight series, for example, or Fifty Shades of Gray, masochism may be shown to have entirely infiltrated female sexual identity, but by the time the credits start to roll, we feel alright about it all. The rape-y vampire will protect us; the sadomasochistic sex fiend will be appeased into tenderness. We can carry on as we are, it’ll all come right in the end.
So as a loose but long-term subscriber to these beliefs, I think my wariness was not entirely unfounded. However, a combination of flu, thwarted literary ambition and third-child-laziness all conspired to allow my impressionable youngest son his first viewing of “Peppa Pig ghronk ghronk”.
For those readers without a snorting, squealing, media-indoctrinated toddler, Peppa Pig is a preschool series of five-minute episodes. The show is an international hit worth over $1 billion and broadcast in more than 170 countries.
Peppa is the star. She has a pig mummy and a pig daddy and a little pig brother called George. The episodes have titles like “The Picnic”, “Compost” and “Bubbles”. Each one sees Peppa experiencing some event that is familiar, or at least of interest to the target audience: a birthday party, a trip to the dentist, a holiday.
Peppa’s friends are Danny Dog, Suzie Sheep, Pedro Pony and a variety of other alliterated mammalian pals. They all love jumping up and down in muddy puddles.
When Peppa first came into my home, I was working on a story that wouldn’t come right, about motherlove and all the failure that comes with it. The irony wasn’t lost as I kept half an ear on a randomly selected episode of Peppa Pig: “The Camper Van”.
In the opening credits, Peppa introduced her family and they all snorted in answer. My son beamed and cried “ghronk grhronk, piggies!” as the Pig family giggled and wobbled to the manic tempo of the opening score.
The narrator explained the story slowly, in a gentle, avuncular tone: “Peppa and George are very excited today. They are going on holiday.”
They all piled into a camper van. Daddy Pig declared himself “an expert at map reading”, but promptly got lost and had to be saved by the satnav.
When the van ran out of oil, Daddy Pig said not to worry. He had a spare can of oil.
“Well done Daddy Pig!” gushed his sow, in the intonation used by mothers the world over to praise and encourage slow children. But, “Oh dear!”
Silly Daddy could not find the engine. “The engine’s gone!” he declared.
Luckily, along came Mummy Sheep. “I don’t know a thing about engines . . . ” she said. “I’m probably being silly but this looks a bit like an engine.”
“Argh yes,” bumbled Daddy, “Erm. Well spotted Mummy Sheep.”
I chuckled away to myself. Ah yes silly men, always thinking they know everything. Women always putting themselves down . . . Oh.
Oh. That’s not good is it?
For “Television Cartoons: Do Children Notice It’s a Boy’s World?” Theresa Thompson and Eugenia Zerbinos analysed a group of 80 children to see how gender stereotypes on TV affected their self perceptions. Their study found that young children notice the difference between how girls and boys are portrayed and come to associate the characteristics portrayed with their stereotypical genders.
They were, of course, talking about boys being violent, active and career-driven, and girls being passive, pretty and weak. We do not want our boys learning that to be a boy means to be in a continuous state of defence. We do not want our girls learning that to be a girl means to be a non-entity, a mystic power, a sparkly dress.
But what do we want? Boys who identify as feckless men? Self-deprecating girls who sigh with secret superiority?
“The Camper Van” was not an exceptional moment in the Peppa Pig repertoire. I have seen a lot of Peppa since and can confirm that in episode after episode, Daddy declares himself “a bit of an expert”, and is proven clueless.
He says he can speak French, but can’t. (Predictably, the self-effacing Mummy Pig is revealed to be quite proficient at the language.)
He says he is an expert at kite-flying, but gets the kite stuck in a tree. He says he is “an expert at camping”, but forgets the poles.
Mummy Pig and Granny Pig are constantly sighing, chastising the boys, and making passive-aggressive digs at their male equivalents.
In one episode, the Queen announces that she will give an award to the hardest-working person in the country.
The Queen: I will give an award to the hardest working person in the country.
Daddy Pig: I wonder who that will be.
Mummy Pig: It certainly won’t be you darling.
Who is the target audience here? Little girls and boys who are just learning what the difference is, or bored, put-upon mothers who have stuck the TV on for half-an-hour’s peace while they iron Daddy Pig’s shirts?
Fat Is a Feminist Issue
Daddy Pig is not only fairly useless, he also has “quite a big tummy”. Daddy’s big tummy (“just like a bouncy castle”), his laziness, greed and general lack of self-awareness (“I’m a bit of an expert”; “My tummy is not big!”) serve as a premise for many a comic turn.
In “The Tree House”, Peppa chooses the secret words that will allow access to the tree house:
Peppa Pig: I have to whisper them to you. The secret words are: “Daddy’s big tummy.”
Mummy Pig: I see.
Peppa Pig: Say the secret words.
Mummy Pig: Daddy’s big tummy.
Peppa Pig: That’s right! Daddy’s big tummy!
Daddy Pig: I think those are silly secret words.
We know that thin-ideal focussed television impacts adolescent girls’ perceptions of their bodies – but what about all the little girls and boys who watch someone with a “big tummy” qualify as a figure for ridicule in episode after episode of this wildly popular series?
Since the ’80s, parents have been superficially aware of the “evil” of television. The sophistication of this perception ranges from fear of getting “square eyes” to psychoanalytic interpretations of the early psychic positions being played out on screen.
What was once considered cathartic violence is now thought to be reiterative instead – in other words, instead of containing our innate violence, paranoid schizoid positioning and omnipotence fantasies, violence on screen is now understood to stimulate aggression, and, possibly all the above as well.
But where does this leave Peppa Pig and the systematic bullying of her daddy? It all seems to slip out of the grasp of established critical faculties.
Critics of children’s culture often suggest that children’s sense of humour turns on the tensions in their relationships with adults. Is the ridiculous, harmless figure of Daddy Pig a way of containing and disarming the Oedipal nightmares of little boys and the (still under-theorised) complexes that little girls face when negotiating adult men?
Is it because it releases the tension they feel fizzing beneath their own mummies’ spitting iron? And what does it do to our children?
You and All Your Kind
It is not just Daddy Pig who is useless.
Danny Dog’s father returns after his sea voyages, vowing to stay at home with his “darlings”, but repeatedly makes noises about taking to the sea again, and has to be reminded by a disappointed Danny that he said he would stay.
In “The Fire Engine”, Mummy pig takes the kids with her to the Mummies’ Fire Practice. In a moment of hubris, Daddy Pig declares the evening “nothing but an excuse for a cup of tea and a chat”. Mummy responds by calling his football practice “a load of grown-up little boys kicking a ball about”.
Daddy spends the evening failing to light a barbeque and annoying Mummy with an “emergency” call to say that he can’t find the ketchup. This is followed by a real emergency when he and the other silly Daddies cause a fire.
Not to worry. The mothers hop in the fire engine, declaring, “Mummies to the Rescue!”
If this is pure and simple misandry, it’s bad enough.
I don’t want my little boy learning that the members of his sex are useless, their bodies objects for ridicule and their silly heads in need of the firm gentle control of the females of his species.
Then again, he is beginning preschool this September. Here in France, the first two years of school are focussed on “socialisation” – in other words, any received misandry will soon be levelled by the patriarchal world order he is entering.
But it is a mistake to see misogyny as the antidote to misandry, or vice versa.
The comic male figures on Peppa Pig are a reiteration of social and domestic inequalities. In this series, men get paid for doing little work, while mummies slave away at home, squeezing in some work-from-home jobs with good-natured exasperation.
Otherwise, men are useless. Women are mildly frustrated by this, but generally find it quite endearing and fulfilling. They keep it together with only the odd sigh or dig as complaint and, even if George is still fairly silly and a crybaby, the kids are alright.
Incidentally, the hardest-working person in the country is the childless Miss Rabbit, identical sister to the super-breeder Mummy Rabbit. There is an episode where the two exchange roles for a day . . . but that is another story.
Mummy’s Little Helper
I am carefully outlining these concerns even while two of my sons are laughing into a tiny DS screen because Daddy is just so fat.
“He’s a bit of an expert!” says my eight-year-old. “An expert at being fat!”
I tap away, squeezing in some pre-breakfast work before beginning a day of cooking and cleaning and martyrish sighs.