Before Lil Nas X Sparked A Widespread Moral Panic, There Was Purple 'Teletubbie,' 'Tinky Winky'
Twenty-two years Before Lil Nas X gracefully slid down a stripper pole into the depths of Hell to give the Devil a lap dance in his new music video for "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)", singlehandedly resurrecting the Satanic panic, another highly controversial character sparked a bout of widespread moral hysteria, sending a collective chill down conservative parents' spines – Tinky Winky the purple Teletubbie.
In 1999, the 10-foot-tall, triangular-antennaed children's character found himself in the hot seat (at least in the eyes of some right-wing Americans) for carrying a red handbag and allegedly being gay, a bizarre theory devised by televangelist and conservative activist, Jerry Falwell. In the late ‘90s Falwell, clearly having never seen an episode of the avant-garde children's classic, stood firmly by the belief that Tinky Winky, with his jaw-droppingly scandalous hobbies of “walking, marching, dancing and falling over,” according to the Teletubbies Wiki, was “gay and therefore a moral menace to American youth,” the New York Times wrote of the scandal.
''He is purple -- the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle -- the gay-pride symbol,'' Falwell, the late leader of the Moral Majority alleged of the character in an article entitled “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet," from the February 1999 issue of his magazine, National Liberty Journal.
The televangelist who "made his living finding gay people where they didn’t belong," according to Slate, had made a career antagonizing members LGBTQAI+ community – or those he apparently perceived to be. From confronting President Jimmy Carter about hiring “practicing homosexuals” in 1980 and calling Ellen DeGeneres “Ellen Degenerate” after she publicly came out as a lesbian in 1997, the Tinky Winky brouhaha was only Falwell's latest attempt at riling up the moralistic right, taking his crusade to basically any media outlet that would let him ramble on about his nonsense. During his appearance on The Today Show surrounding the topic, Falwell reiterated these claims, telling anchor Katie Couric that “Little boys running around with purses and acting effeminate and leaving the idea that the masculine male, the feminine female is out, and gay is OK” is a notion that “Christians do not agree with."
Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, the company that licensed the fever-dream of a children television program in the United States, denied that the character was designed to be a role model for LGBTQAI+ youth, noting that Tinky Winky's purse was in fact a “magic bag,” with the show's producer Ken Viselman adding that “He's not gay. He's not straight. He's just a character in a children's series,” the issue supposedly became such a problem that it prompted an emergency press conference in New York City. “It is the sweetest, most innocent place a child can go,” a spokesman reportedly told members of the press in attendance, Slate noted. “There is simply nothing sexual in our show.”
Although whether or not Tinky Winky was or was coded as a member of the LGBTQAI+ community later became a topic for discussion among scholars with some even dubbing him a “gay icon,” it seems the conservative activist failed to take one major component into account. "Falwell was wrong about Tinky Winky’s supposed harm to children. But he wasn’t wrong that children’s television—and culture in general—was becoming much more comfortable with queerness," the publication added. “Today, the backlash that is taken seriously by most culture producers comes not from dinosaurs like Falwell but from the LGBTQ community demanding richer representation. Tinky Winky would be right at home.”
So Lil Nas X, as you field the hate of angry parents clutching their pearls over your badass music video, remember, you're in good company with a beloved character.