The British parent living in France has a great TV bargaining chip: yes, child, you may watch half an hour tonight… so long as it’s in English. I am strict about this, and my daughter has long given up trying to wiggle her way into VF. Noddy is Noddy (it’s Non-Non to Oui-Oui).
Peppa Pig, then, has been another handy instrument for forced induction of my children into English. And it’s not bad for the long-suffering parent subjected to supervising their children’s television viewing. The episodes are five minutes long, the characters personable and jolly-ly British, and everyone ends up laughing at the end of each story.
Try getting ticking any of those boxes with the wearisome Petit Ours Brun or what-is-it?-Tchoupi, and their inevitable tantrums/lost doudou plots.
Carried along on the Peppa Pig craze, we even ended up giving into my daughter’s third birthday wish a few years ago: a trip to Peppa Pig World (near the New Forest in the UK). I was pregnant with my son at the time and remember blessing my mother for living five minutes away from the park. This meant we could escape for a lunchtime nap and some paracetamol, before returning afresh in the afternoon, unlike those people who had driven down from Scotland to be there eight hours on the trot.
My gender-antennae first tweaked in the gift shop, as it happens, where I rewarded my sacrifice with a Mummy Pig mug: pink, like Mummy Pig’s dress. The fathers who survived those eight hours of porcine adventures came home bleary-eyed, clutching mugs, too: theirs were blue.
My daughter is now almost eight. Peppa Pig had been packed away. But her four-year-old brother has come of age, and is now allowed his dose of English cartoons twice a week. With a fondness for familiar things, we dusted them off, and began with the perky-plonk theme tune and snorting all over again.
But this time, four years on, I found myself paying closer attention – and realising that Peppa’s imaginary-world is nicely summed up by the pink-and-blue mugs sold in the real-life gift shop. I hadn’t noticed, since I had been probably been guilty of that parental abandon which comes from thinking what your child is watching is wholesome family fun, as pointed out below:
“A lot of parents feel that those programs are beneficial to the children,” parenting expert Dr Karen Phillip said.
“But by beneficial you don’t know if they mean education or childminding. To me, it’s more childminding.”
And I was also guilty of the feminist assumption that a programme first aired in 2004, oh-enlightened-twenty-first-century, would have thought about gender stereotypes.
Such as the fact that Daddy Pig is the one to go out to work, and have “important meetings” (Mummy Pig does something involving her computer, at home; when the children break it in one episode, thankfully Daddy Pig is around to mend it). Such as Daddy Pig doing all of the driving, and newspaper (if not map) reading. Such as the household chores, when they appear, being done by Mummy Pig. Such as the fact that in every episode I’ve ever watched it is Daddy Pig who is “rather an expert at these things”, and does the majority of explaining and deciding (even if he gets it wrong).
The standard general stereotypes, reinforced by specific episodes which add another layer. There’s the one where Peppa inadvertently puts her red dress (she only ever wears a dress, like Mummy Pig) into the washing machine with Daddy’s white football top. The colours run. Daddy Pig is so horrified by the thought of wearing a pink tshirt in front of his mates – confirmed by George Pig, with a snort, even though George doesn’t seem to say or think about anything apart from dinosaurs – that he goes to football training wearing his white work shirt instead.
Then there’s the one where they go on holiday to Italy, and Mummy Pig takes the huge heavy suitcase filled with unnecessary things, and buys another suitcase once there to bring back more unnecessary things. There’s the camping foray, where Daddy Pig takes over and Mummy Pig is instructed in what to do. There’s the Christmas episode, where of course Peppa Pig wants a doll. And of course there’s the one at the funfair, with a bit of fake feminism: told by everyone that the different games are too difficult for her, Mummy Pig gets angry, gets good, and wins all the prizes.
Researching views on Peppa Pig mostly produces positive articles. The series has won countless awards, and is now a $2bn brand extending from your TV screen to educational games, books, and applications. The only complaints have been about road safety messages (leading to characters having seatbelts in cars from the second series) or creating unrealistic expectations of the UK’s National Health Service (given Dr Brown Bear’s startling availability for a home call to treat George Pig’s cold).
Ok, but so what? So what, if George only wears blue, if Mummy Pig doesn’t say as much as Daddy Pig? If when Suzy Sheep comes to look after her friend Peppa, it is as a nurse and not a doctor?
Well, it matters because this series is more than popular culture – it is almost compulsory viewing, not only in the UK, but all over the world: over 250 episodes available, in 20 different languages. Mild or not, the pink/blue divide is absorbed by hundreds of thousands of small people. Television, like the books they read, or songs they sing, normalises their world. What you see is what you get; what they see is what we will get.
It’s not all bad. The series centres, after all, on a strong female character (even “sexist”, according to the Daily Mail). Peppa is (cutesily) bossy. Mummy Pig isn’t submissive, per se: she scolds Daddy Pig’s self-importance with a loving derision which has them all (and us) laughing.
But it could be better – good, even, and easily so. These are made-up characters, remember. With a stroke of computer-animated pens, they could be a tool not just for my children to learn English, but to unlearn the stereotypes that can put limits on the rest of their lives.
Pigs might fly?
Well, they just might, if given wings.