Piglets and preschoolers: who can deny the commonalities? They stick their snouts everywhere, they eat everything off the floor, they communicate in grunts and squeals, they get under foot, they tend towards chubbiness – and don’t even get me started on all that gratuitous, unscheduled puddle-jumping.
Small wonder then, that piglets turn up fairly regularly in children’s literature. There’s the suckling pig in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Piglet in Winnie-the-Pooh, the famously divergent Three Little Pigs, eponymous characters like Babe and Olivia, and who can forget Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web? Why, even mere babes have had their fat fingers and toes tweaked to the sound of “This Little Piggy went to the Market”.
Fictionalised piglets have long had their day in the sun. Yet, nothing prepared me for the animation phenomenon: the preschool anthropomorphic Peppa Pig. A news report published this month in The Australian states that the Peppa Pig franchise, which began as an animated TV series in 2004, is worth $1.7 billion in annual retail. The show has been broadcast in 180 territories and counting. Language is no barrier – the show has been translated into more than 40 tongues. The first Peppa Pig theme park is up and running in England. The secret dream of animation companies has come true: around 50 million toys and 30 million books have been sold worldwide.
The show’s preschool viewers care little for statistics, or that it’s a four time BAFTA award winner. They just want to see it, “Again! Again! Again!” with that special passion for mindless repetition that little kids seem to thrive on. Whatever their background, kids are only too glad to be mesmerised by the warm, familiar, and uniform glow that is the Peppa Pig show. Who can look away from those hypnotic pastel colours, and those cheerful blue skies? It’s not such a bad thing – as TV shows go – either. I mean, what’s not to love about a show where everyone snorts or falls down and rolls with uncontrolled laughter?
Peppa Pig is the manufactured epitome of harmlessness – not just in content (so age appropriate!) or tonality (such scrupulous politeness!) but also in its bite-sized packaging. What kind of monster would keep a child from watching its five-minute long episodes? Fits in before a nap, is appropriate when waiting for the dentist, and allows for a beleaguered parent to slip in and out of the shower, without being missed.
Five-year-old Peppa lives in a house at the top of a hill with Mummy Pig, Daddy Pig and her two-year-old brother George. Her ambitions and desires are the ambitions and desires of five year olds across time and continents: to splash in muddy puddles, to boss around the house, and plunge into new activities. She may get a little antsy at times, but the grownup narrator with her rich tonality of voice is never frazzled.
Surprisingly, neither are we. This is a world of real comfort – little things go wrong, but no one suffers for it – Peppa may drop her stuffed rabbit on a flight in the Big Balloon episode, but it’s quickly recovered, and there’s no blame or shame involved. Daddy Pig may turn out rubbish at map reading and drive their balloon into a tree, but he’s solidly there for his children. What’s more, Mummy Pig won’t make him stop for directions. In fact, “Silly, Daddy Pig” is firmly in the mode of generously paunchy and incompetent fathers in contemporary television animation: similar to the dad from Family Guy or Homer in The Simpsons. He is full of easily shattered delusions: “I’m naturally fit,” he says, or, “My work is very important.”
The kind of self-deprecation that follows says a lot about the relaxation of gendered norms when it comes to children and parents attitudes towards the “bread-winner”.
A century ago, children may have been raised to be seen and not heard – but Peppa’s voice dominates the show and she leads the family’s adventures. Coming back to the Big Balloon story – it delighted the kids, and it moved me as well. Not only because the eternally single, career-hopping and carefree Ms Rabbit was now learning to fly a hot air balloon. But because it gave me an opportunity for reflection and do-overs. Consider the episode as an illustrated parenting manual. What if I shifted mode from blaming my toddler to merely solving the problem when she dropped something out of the car window next? Peppa Pig is a lesson on the psychological benefits of focusing on positive behaviour.
What incredible allure that imaginary world had for both my kids and I, when they were little: I could stand to sit through it on repeat because it was parental wish-fulfilment 101. After all, it takes a village to raise a child, and the village in Peppa Pig is full of trustworthy, supportive, and decent individuals. The family is unbroken and and the show’s only tension comes from new yet-to-be-fulfilled desires. Peppa Pig is like a balm for the overheated parental brain. It’s a place of hyper-realised comfort where raising a happy child in a world without innocence or security does not seem like an act of sheer delusion. The cake never runs out, the puddles never dry up, and everybody’s welcome no matter what type of animal they are. If Peppa Pig were a political animal, she’d have my vote.
I asked my ten-year-old what she remembered about Peppa Pig.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “I loved it. In fact, I met a sixth-grade girl in the bus, she’s really cool, she still likes Ben Ten, and Peppa Pig, like, even now; she isn’t ashamed of it.”
It made me curious, so I tried my seven-year-old son. “It’s because everyone is ready to help Peppa Pig,” he said, firmly. “There’s always a happy ending – just listen to the music and you’ll know.”
Blameless, bucolic, and bland, Peppa Pig is a cultural phenomenon in itself – a fairy tale without teeth. As its first crop of viewers head into teenage hood, it is tempting to speculate about the imaginary world of Peppa Pig’s impact on them. Will they demand the standardisation of “happy”, on exposure to the real world’s complexities? Or will the warm embrace of predictability in their early viewing form a bedrock of stability for the storms ahead?
Karishma Attari is the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down. She runs a workshop series called Shakespeare for Dummies and is currently writing a novel titled The Want Diaries. Her Twitter handle is @KarishmaWrites.