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At this point in UK lockdown, most people rearing children under the age of five will be intimately acquainted with Peppa Pig. The television show is to Gen Z what The Teletubbies was to Millennials: the kind of visual candy that grates on your teeth and lodges itself in your cranial nerves. Parents might find themselves doing the washing up or going for their daily ‘sanity’ walk, only to be plagued by the familiar refrain that plays at the start of each episode on a loop. Peppa Pig has become something of a lifeline to parents who are struggling to deal with toddlers now constantly at home. My three-year-old has yet to start oinking but at one point during lockdown did start referring to me as Mummy Pig.
A whole generation has already been raised on Peppa Pig. The show is based around a family of pigs: a disturbingly heteronormative nucleus of protagonist Peppa and little brother George, Mummy and Daddy. They are comfortably middle-class; Daddy Pig is an architect and Mummy Pig is a stay at home mum and failing children’s book author. The series first aired back in May 2004, so if you watched it aged two, you’d legally be an adult now. The animated series is aimed at under fives and, like anything designed for that age group, it is aggressively addictive.
“My three-year-old has yet to start oinking but at one point during lockdown did start referring to me as Mummy Pig”
Peppa Pig has dominated because it uses simple visual tricks and devices, including its pared-back, pleasing palette of muted primary colours. Its animation style is flat and fast, more than 300 episodes have been made in London at Ashley Baker Davies studio and Peppa now exists in more than 20 languages and 180 countries. (For fun, we sometimes like to switch to a dubbed version and see how long before our three-year-old clocks it). Peppa was even banned by Chinese video site: in 2018 she was appropriated by gangsters, becoming the unlikely icon of an underground criminal network, tattooed onto the flesh of the mob and used as a hashtag.
Peppa is made using a sought-after animation software called CelAction2D; instead of drawing individual frames, its creators only need to rig up the drawn characters and animate their skeletons, which is a much more straightforward process than classic animation. The visual simplicity of Peppa is its most profitable aspect. Once you start to notice Peppa you will see her everywhere: blank eyes staring back at you as you queue at the supermarket or go on your run. The colour scheme of bright primary hues, the distinctive pink, the flat sky blue, the seafoam grass, the perfect yellow sun; Peppa’s red dress (apparently representing her fiesty personality) is all so appealing to young eyes. It’s a palette that’s instantly recognisable; colours etched onto the subconscious of generation Peppa.
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The visual language of Peppa is so successful because it is so transmutable. The four-year-old porcine herself is a TikTok phenomenon, she’s proliferated as a viral meme (after Google said she was 7ft tall), she has her own film, cinema experience, album and lucrative theme park franchise. The show’s aesthetic isn’t only confined to the screen, Peppa is all over the public space. Her form is easy to reproduce, as well as bootleg. The simple lines and lack of perspective or dimension make her readily available to appear on everything and anything from an anorak to a bucket. Her ubiquitousness plays with a child’s desire to conform. Peppa is really bringing home the bacon.
There’s another alarming side to the show, besides this aggressive commercialisation and stereotyping of gender and class, which is barely veiled by the animal family characters. The lack of narrative structure and linear storylines in each of the five-minute episodes means that there’s no building of characters or their relationships, leaving Peppa largely bereft of the more complex emotions even a toddler can understand. There’s no explanation of why we are frozen in this place and time; no-one grows up, no-one moves on. The episodes are so fast and relentless that they train young minds to adopt a Netflix-type viewing habit—non-stop, never-ending consumption that drives itself but is insatiable. Before you can stop it, the next episode has started.
“The episodes are so fast and relentless that they train young minds to adopt a Netflix-type viewing habit”
There is a huge difference between this and the stop-motion techniques of the golden era of early years programmes, from Bagpuss, The Magic Roundabout and The Clangers, to Postman Pat and Pingu. Not to be nostalgic, but it’s incredible to think of shows like Andy Pandy, revived as a stop-motion animation in 2002, but first filmed on 16mm and made originally with string puppeteering and handmade marionettes. The slowness, the details, the craft: the emphasis was on movement and music, making and doing, rather than the kind of passive, prescriptive viewing Peppa encourages.
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Peppa Pig is more than a harmless phenomenon. What kids watch is obviously important, and it moulds their visual understanding of the world, of what culture is and can be. By now the show is as ineradicable from visual culture as a cloud of cheap craft glitter, and this is how Peppa gets her trotters in the door, when you’re at your weakest; when you’re subsumed by tiredness or when a toddler tantrum threatens to break you. The show is visual fast food: it feels great at first but later the guilt and anxiety seep in. Peppa is always there, ad nauseam and ad infinitum.