John Dillermand - Danish children's TV show
Artillery Row

Why contemporary feminists are wrong about policing children’s television

Once we start using the political concerns of the adult world to moralise about the imaginative realm of children, we’re in trouble

Children love forbidden things – the biscuit tin, swearing in public and laughing about their genitals. So it’s not hard to see why the creation of a new Danish programme for primary-school kids about a man with a giant penis has been a hit.

Contemporary feminists believe there is an entrenched desire in men to hurt women

John Dillermand (roughly John Penisman) is a plasticine man living in a small town, constantly being undermined by the actions of his uncontrollable and unusually long penis. Dillermand’s penis gets him into trouble with his neighbours, blows up barbecues, fires a gun, attaches itself to moving vehicles and generally causes havoc. Each five-minute episode follows a pattern of the well-meaning but useless John trying to accomplish a task, being thwarted by his diller and eventually gaining control of the situation to make everything right. John is dressed up as a circus strongman, clothed in a stripy onesie. His diller makes an appearance as an extendable stripy snake. It is the funniest thing I’ve seen in years – and I’m 29.

But, predictably, not everyone is thrilled by the idea of a comedic penis. Writing on her Facebook page, the author Anne Lise Marstrand-Jørgensen decried the programme (which she admitted she hadn’t watched) for glorifying male gender stereotypes while girls are still denigrated. After finally watching the programme, she added that it was “worse than I thought”. Quoted in The Guardianshe said “is this really the message we want to send to children while we are in the middle of a huge #MeToo wave?”.

Dillermand’s creators don’t seem too worried – apart from one author’s objection and a handful of gender researchers who claim it is “perpetuating the standard idea of a patriarchal society and normalising ‘locker room culture’”, most Danish kids (and their parents) love John. He’s not the first fictional children’s character who has been criticised for being too sexual.

According to fans, Pingu – my childhood obsession – had his first kiss banned in the US for “beak to beak” contact. In 2005, Conservative MP Peter Luff attacked the BBC Saturday morning kids show Dick and Dom in da Bungalow for its “lavatorial” content. Forty people complained to Ofcom for a series finale in which children on the show were dressed up as surgeons to help deliver several dozen toy babies that shot out of a pregnant Dick’s legs covered in their signature “creamy muck muck”. We loved it so much my sister-in-law had the Dick and Dom CD in her car until she went to university.

Without wanting to sound like a “back in my day” cliché, children’s television has become far less interesting – for parents and kids alike. Pingu was emotionally sophisticated and could be dark at times. His nightmare about a laughing seal who eats his bed is utterly terrifying – but it’s ok, as his mum is there to wipe away his tears at the end. This kind of content is a far cry from the inane niceties of Igglepiggle and Peppa Pig. Those who had access to Cartoon Network could watch Cow and Chicken or The Powerpuff Girls – two shows featuring mincing, ridiculously sexualised devils. It isn’t just sex and fear that appeals – the surreal aspect of John Dillermand and his crazy trouser snake plays into the limitlessness of children’s imagination.

Penises are funny – my father remembers a Northern Irish rhyme from the 1950s about old King Billy and his “ten-foot willy” that he showed to the girl next door: “She thought it was a snake and hit it with a rake and now it’s only five foot four.” When we were young, we watched shows about cacophonous mice on the moon, Moomins in Finland and a sentient Brummie car. At no point did anyone worry that four-year-olds might grow up to think these things were real. Why would we think differently of a fictional man and his long penis?

I imagine kids would find extendable boobs, a giant vagina or a talking big toe just as funny

But this isn’t just a case of prudes wincing at willies or children’s tv producers sanitising fun. Marstrand-Jørgensen might have been alone in her criticism of John Dillermand, but her assertion that the #MeToo movement was about revealing men’s innate danger is widely held. A few months before the show aired, Denmark had its own belated #MeToo moment with over 1,600 singing an open letter in support of TV presenter Sofie Linde who had talked about sexual harassment in the Danish media. While the global #MeToo movement might have begun as a reaction to Harvey Weinstein, over the past three years it has come to encompass a policing of all aspects of women and men’s relationships, from sexual harassment to rude jokes.

The idea that a children’s tv show could train little boys to become abusers – or worse, rapists – by poking fun at a man who can’t control his penis is entirely in keeping with the politics behind #MeToo. Contemporary feminists believe there is an entrenched desire in men to hurt women – it’s why there is such a panic about relationship advice during sex education at school, or consent classes at university.

Rather than tackling serious sexual harassment, what this panic about our sexual encounters really involves is the casting of men as predators and women as hapless victims. This kind of deterministic approach denies women’s (and men’s) ability to act as autonomous agents. It’s the kind of insulting fatalism that was used as the excuse to keep women chaperoned and shielded from public life up until the 1960s.

John Dillermand’s stripy penis gets snapped by dogs and shot at by his mother – you could quite easily view his actions as examples of learning self-control. But, just maybe, parents and children aren’t watching this bizarre man for life lessons, but to have fun. Once we start using the political concerns of the adult world to moralise about the imaginative realm of children, we’re in trouble. And for those complaining about the domination of dicks – I imagine kids would find extendable boobs, a giant vagina or a talking big toe just as funny. Why don’t you get yourself some plasticine and try it?

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