Why we should study Teletubbies

When I was younger and my stepbrother was only a few years old, he would watch Teletubbies on CBeebies with what can only be described as a profound fascination, along with some version of Mitsubachi Māya no Bōken from Poland. As he grew older, he fortunately moved to what at that time I’ld deemed to be more intersting and stimulating shows, such as Thomas & Friends on Channel 5, what I believe was a rerun of Thunderbird on Cartoon Network and the rather colorful Balamory, back on CBeebies. Yet, as years went by, I remained deeply troubled by the Teletubbies and their predilection from seemingly pointless, repetitive documentaries. What was the point to show two or three times an episode the same documentary sequence? What on earth could the Teletubbies have been saying to one another, again and again, all these years? Later one, I discovered I hadn’t been the only one to have fallen prey to the powers of these creatures. Some people apparently thought they offer quite an enjoyable and possibly satanic psychedelic experience1 and actually went as far as to label club drugs after them2 — which, indeed, seems fitting. Many aspects of the show have now been underlined, by scholars and other critics, such as its materialistic depiction of social interactions and, of course, Tinky Winky relevance as an advocate for LGBT movements.

Still, in France, while studies on TV serials are an ever growing field of interest, children’s programming has garnered next to little attention. Overall, in international scholarship, even a well-known show such as Dora the Explorer has almost only motivated studies on a single aspect, that is, of course, its main character’s hispanic background3 Surely, Dora is more than the brown girl on American Television. There’s no denying that racial and ethnic depictions are an important aspect of contemporary American television4 but we should by no mean reduce the scope of our inquiries in such a program as Dora. Obviously, as Teletubbies once did, Dora the Explorer is doing some strange things to our television and asks from its viewers behaviors that have little to do with ordinary televisual experience. Of course, it’s always relevant to study such mediatic experiments in the context of children’s programming, perhaps because they indeed are programming children, but they could very well be studied in a wider perspective.

By and large, western animated television is usually only considered by academic scholarship in its relation to children’s programming. It is the case that Teletubbies offers to narratology strangest phenomenons than most of Game of Thrones episodes and yet I do not believe there ever was a study on the subject. Studies on animated television outside of the frame of children’s programming tend to be included in collective works on animated cinema. In the sixth issue of the Revue d’Études Culturelles devoted to postmodern animation for instance, one would find a paper on The Simpsons5 whereas no paper on animated television can be found in the leading French journal on serial television, TV/series. In fact, if compelling works in French already exist on animated television, such as Lallet’s thesis6 , this corpus seems to have great difficulty to make his way into the current academic field of serial television studies in France.

Although it is frustrating that no one seems to want to take seriously my Teletubbies induced childhood trauma, it helps to remind oneself that studies in children’s literature have long encountered similar difficulties. Admittedly, the problem is not quite solved but great progresses have been made towards the recognition of children’s literature as a dignified field of interest for grown men and women with PhDs. It’s unlikely that being an international expert on Teletubbies, Dora the Explorer and T’choupi et Doudou will ever give the same social prestige as leading the field of shakespearian stylistic. Yet, one can certainly hope that the study of animated series will one day encompass both a special interest in children’s programming and a wider work on serial television. It is to be expected that such an evolution will be brought through the study of animated shows aimed at older audiences, as Futurama or The Simpsons are already discussed with some enthusiasm in English-written papers. Yet, this would feel as kind of a drawback, for it would tend to demonstrate that animated television is worthy of interest because of the similarities it bears with other programs deemed more serious. I would rather have a massive influx of Franklin related papers in French serial television studies.

It is perhaps a lot to ask from a field that is still struggling for wide scholarly approval. Studies on serial television are indeed flourishing in France, but more often than not, papers and communications are relegated at the kids’ table of collective works and conferences workshops, along with videogame studies and sex stuff. In France, working on serial television can sometimes still be regarded as some sort of a second-rate track for trendy young people who can’t read latin. As somene who can read latin but also watch quite a lot of TV series (as well as, if it comes to that, porn), I’ve observed that I could be treated quite differently depending on wether I would present a paper for a pentalingual formal analysis of a XVIIth text nobody has read but me or one on a show everybody has watched. Being a porn or a TV series scholar is not always an ideal way to shine in academic cocktail parties. It is true, on the other hand, that one can be very well received by very serious people and that’s why there’s hope. Plus, working on porn attracts lots of Internet queries.

It is perfectly understandable that scholars would prefer to study those programs with cultural and aesthetics qualities easiest to underline. After all, being able to draw parallels between this or that show and Shakespeare or Beowulf is a good way to prove that one has received a true humanistic education, and such proofs are by no mean irrelevant to one’s academic career. It is also the case that we might find more pleasure in watching again and again episodes of Buffy, The West Wing or The Wire, than in what could only be described as binge-Teletubbies torture. It sure takes a special strength of will to watch pencil in hand all four seasons of Cow and Chicken and survive the bovine nightmares that would ensue. In a rather similar way, reasons like this explain why there is so many scholarly papers on Rabelais and not so much interest in Hubert van Giffen’s works. It’s easier and probably much healthier to confront cultural hierarchies while working on something one likes than on a mind-numbing corpus.

We should still study Teletubbies and all animated television and we definitely have to include animated series in our works on serial television. We should tried to understand what make T’Choupi so interesting, why Dora has so much trouble locating her monkey, and why Dipsy is so bad at putting on hats. We should probably also admit that older viewers that watch these programs alongside children are not spacing out for the time of the show, but rather experiment it in their own fashion. Put in an other way, we should be aware that if these shows are intended to captivate children, they’re also directed at parents, whom they tried to convince to let them captivate children. Even questions most narrowly framed by the children’s programming perspective bring new problems and these problems are a great way to investigate the whole of television. As painful as it could be, we should step up, and come forth in academic congresses, and say: I’m hear to talk to you about the feud that has been going for too long between Laa-Laa and Po.

  1. Agatha Cowart. « Time for Teletubbies: Childhood, Child Participation, and the Struggle for Meaning ». Mémoire de master. Denton : University of North Texas, 2003. PDF. 3-6. []
  2. JeanAnne Johnson Talbert. « Club drugs. Coming to a patient near you ». The Nurse Practitioner 39.3 (2014) : 19-25. PDF. []
  3. Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández. « Dora the Explorer: Constructing Latinidades and The Politics of Global Citizenship ». Latino Studies 5.2 (2007) : 209-232. Sandra L. Calvert et al. « Interaction and Participation for Young Hispanic and Caucasian Girls’ and Boys’ Learning of Media Content ». Media Psychology 9.2 (2007) : 431-445. Kristin C. Moran. « The Growth of Spanish-Language and Latino-Themed Television Programs for Children in the United States ». Journal of Children and Media 1.3 (2007) : 294-300. []
  4. Olivier Esteves and Sébastien Lefait. La question raciale dans les séries américaines. Paris : Presses de Sciences Po, 2014. See my review. []
  5. Chloé Gauzi. « Do I Dare Live Out the American Dream? Subversion et réaffirmation des discours fondateurs dans The Simpsons. Revue d’études culturelles 6 (2014) : 47-58. []
  6. Mélanie Lallet. Il était une fois… le genre. Le féminin dans les séries animées françaises. Bry-sur-Marne : INA, 2014. See my review. []

François-Ronan Dubois

Agrégé et certifié de lettres modernes, doctorant en littérature française et francophone à l'Université Grenoble-Alpes. Auteur des ouvrages Introduction aux Porn Studies (Bruxelles, Impressions Nouvelles, 2014) et Gouverner l'Amérique, politiques et séries télévisées (Vendémiaire, à paraître en 2017). Spécialiste de l'histoire intellectuelle de la France à l'époque moderne (1650-1780) et de la culture audiovisuelle de grande diffusion à l'époque contemporaine (1990-2015).

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François-Ronan Dubois

Agrégé et certifié de lettres modernes, doctorant en littérature française et francophone à l'Université Grenoble-Alpes. Auteur des ouvrages Introduction aux Porn Studies (Bruxelles, Impressions Nouvelles, 2014) et Gouverner l'Amérique, politiques et séries télévisées (Vendémiaire, à paraître en 2017). Spécialiste de l'histoire intellectuelle de la France à l'époque moderne (1650-1780) et de la culture audiovisuelle de grande diffusion à l'époque contemporaine (1990-2015).

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4 réponses

  1. Merci pour ce commentaire !

    Alors du coup, moi, ce qui m’intéresse, c’est ce qui se passe à l’intérieur du champ/domaine d’études considéré. Je ne connais pas bien et même presque pas du tout les études sur les jeux vidéos, en dehors des gens que je croise parfois en colloque. Est-ce qu’on y étudie beaucoup des jeux qui sont peu prestigieux ? Qui ne répondent pas aux critères de qualité (réalisation, gameplay, narration complexe ou que sais-je encore) ? Pas forcément les jeux mauvais — encore que je serais curieux de savoir si des personnes travaillent sur les jeux Barbie sur Gameboy, par exemple — mais simplement les jeux indifférents, les innombrables Tetris-like, à tout hasard.

    • Mathieu Fusi dit :

      Dans ce cas, pour faire un parallèle avec les études sur les jeux vidéo, est-ce qu’une personne travaillant sur les séries télé infantiles doit faire avec les images et prénotions attachées à ce (sous)genre télévisuelle (légèreté du sujet, moindre importance face à des sujets jugés plus sérieux, attachement à un public jugé peu pertinent au regard de la « rationalité » explicative…) ?
      Je sais que pour les jeux vidéo, dans ma discipline (science de la com), ces derniers sont surtout analysés en tant qu’industrie culturelle. Autrement dit, les critères constitutifs des jeux vidéo en eux-mêmes (le produit final auquel on joue) ne sont pas pris en compte, au contraire des modes de production, du salariat, de la structure du marché, le rapport avec l’État etc. Toutefois, même sur cette apparence très sérieuse – car économique de la science économique – les personnes travaillant sur ce terrain doivent (peut-être moins maintenant) lutter contre quelques idées préconçues (et malheureusement reçues) telles que le caractère récent de cette industrie ou l’aspect « jeux vidéo c’est pour les ados ».

  2. Mathieu Fusi dit :

    Sans aucun doute, un objet de recherche dans le « champ » universitaire est une présentation de soi, un poids dans la balance symbolique des rapports (de force) ou plus clairement, une carte de visite. Le problème se pose aussi pour ceux qui travaillent sur les jeux vidéo ; ça fait moins sérieux que ceux qui travaillent sur l’industrie du cinéma par exemple.

  1. 23 août 2016

    […] in the discussion of enjoyable historical sources and when I wanted to write about a show my stepbrother, who was raised in the United Kingdom, had watched in English, while my first […]

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