On many a cold, bitter day, the memory of the horrified look on a former male colleague’s face when I casually informed him that my then 2-year-old son loved watching ‘ChuChuTV’ is a constant source of mirth to me.
“That doesn’t sound legitimate.”
Not only is it legitimate, but with nearly 20 million subscribers, it’s the most watched channel on Youtube after T-series and SET India, started by Indian software engineer dad, who wanted to animate regular nursery rhymes for his infant daughter whom he affectionately called Chu Chu at home. He gave grim nursery rhymes a happy twist — Humpty Dumpty is put back together again, Jack and Jill walk down the hill back home, and Little Miss Muffet isn’t afraid of the big spider. Most Indian parents with toddlers will immediately acknowledge the show’s hypnotic appeal at dinnertime.
I found the animation average and as my son outgrew the channel, I was looking for an alternative when I stumbled upon Peppa Pig, the globally popular British animated anthropomorphic series that features a 4-year-old girl piglet and her family and other animal friends. My son was hooked. And as a result, I was forced to watch episode after episode of the porcine heroine’s adventures for the next three years. The opening jingle almost had a Pavlovian response from my son as he grew up with Peppa and friends.
There’s no dearth of animated content for preschoolers on YouTube, from Paw Patrol, Finger Family and HooplaKidz to PJ Masks, PBS and Morphle TV. My son has had obsessive-compulsive phases with all of these as he went from pre-school to nursery and now Kindergarten. Like most other children he discovered dinosaurs and from wanting to be one he evolved to wanting to study them as a paleontologist. He has loved and outgrown Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures on CBeebies. He’s a child of the Internet generation and the biggest challenge I face as a mother is to constantly find content that will improve his cognitive skills and impact his young mind positively.
He’s of course blissfully unaware of this daily struggle as he drives a hard bargain for those extra five minutes over his scheduled screen time every week.
As a parent I try to shield him from marketing propaganda and sexist stereotypes that creep into children’s programming on popular video platforms. I worry about the politics that will shape his world view from the pop culture he follows. It’s a daunting task to constantly comb what he watches for gender stereotypes
Chhota Bheem is out of question. The machismo of a young boy with a fair-skinned girl with pink cheeks as his sidekick and a dark-skinned boy named Kalia as his adversary? No, thanks. Much has been written about the latent sexism, racism and linguistic chauvinism of Indian animated characters.
Peppa Pig, with its obvious throwback to conservatism with the ‘model family’ constituting a straight couple and their two kids is no great shakes either. The mother animals on the show stay at home while the “daddies” go out to work. The exceptions being Madam Gazelle, the teacher at the local school who was in an all-girls rock band when she was younger, and Miss Rabbit, the unmarried younger sister of Mummy Rabbit, and nearly indistinguishable from her in looks, who works several jobs — as a bus driver, cashier, and even a ‘fireman’ (because married women do not work outside of their homes?)
The show has stirred up many controversies in the past, with Sydney Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Ackerman saying “it pushes a weird feminist line that would be closer to the hearts of Labor’s Handbag Hit Squad than the pre-school audience it is aimed at.” The show was removed from a popular video sharing app in China because it apparently became associated, for no fault of the creators, with a counterculture that glorified gangsters and slackers.
An episode of Peppa Pig was also pulled off the air in Australia after complaints it encouraged children to play with spiders. The ABC got flak in 2012 “for sending the inappropriate message that spiders were friendly and not to be feared,” The Guardian reported.
And of course it has come under criticism from to time for reversing the gender stereotype to allegedly mock and ridicule Daddy Pig, the adult male in the family who is a bit of a joke. The four-time Bafta winning show has also been called out by mothers in Britain allegedly for teaching kids to be bratty.
I have suffered through Shin Chan and its terrible Hindi dub and bizarrely adult tropes and I have cringed at the ham-fisted Motu Patlu comedic set ups. The sheer lack of imagination when it comes to gender-inclusive programming for children of single-parent and LGBTQIA homes is a telling commentary on the reluctance of writers to expose them to the politics of gender identity. The age of 3-10 is when children normally form lasting imprints of the world around them. From solitary activities, they venture out tentatively to groups and form their first impressions about diversity. A large part of that education comes not only from what they hear and see at home, but also from the media they are exposed to. Their acceptance come from normalisation of what they see. I am yet to see TV programmes that handle subjects such as disability, child rights, body positivity and racial diversity in an age-appropriate way. I try to avoid shows such as Bob The Builder and Sid The Science Kid that reinforce gender stereotypes. I was glad to read that Bitz the girl engineer will replace Bob the builder on CBeebies.
Peppa as a girl piglet who leads her friends onto many adventures has become as much an obsession with my 5-year-old son as videos on dinosaurs. So far, apart from picking up a weird British accent at three and jokingly snorting as his heroine does on her show, Peppa hasn’t caused any major behavioral changes in my son. He hasn’t shown any focused interest in becoming a ‘man-hating rabid feminist icon’ at 5 as suggested by many writers who accuse the show of peddling pop feminism.
But as he grows older, he will notice that most of the shows he is allowed to watch online lack the characters he sees around him all the time at school and on the playground — children who are differently-abled and those who speak different Indian languages — and he will wonder why.
Rituparna Chatterjee is a feminist journalist and writes on gender parity, women’s rights and social inequality. She started her career with The Statesman newspaper in Delhi and has worked in digital and print media for the last 15 years.
Views expressed are the author’s own.