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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Gender Identity Construction in Gumby's Adventures: What Makes a Girl a Girl?
by Thomas J. Overstreet, Jr.

When Jerry Falwell's conservative paper "outted" Tinky-Winky (the purple Teletubby) as being gay, fans of the Teletubbies television series usually fell into two camps: those who supported Tinky-Winky as a positive gay character and those who maintain Tinky-Winky has no developed sexual identity. A few unfamiliar with the BBC/PBS show asked the question, "how can you even tell if Tinky-Winky's male?" Brushed off by most fans as a naive inquiry, this concern does merit discussion. How do we, as television viewers, determine gender identities for non-human characters? How is this complicated for children's characters?

Sometimes obvious cues are given to viewers. For instance, Mickey and Minnie Mouse are undeniably male and female. Due to current moral standards (at the time of Mickey's and Minnie's creation, but also now), genitalia is not graphically displayed in children's programming. Of course, genitalia is only an indicator of physical identity, which may be different from the gender identity an individual accepts. Instead of physical clues, we look for other signs of masculinity and feminity. Mickey is usually a man's name, although that is not always the case. Minnie is almost always a female's name. Minnie wears a dress, thus presenting herself as female. Minnie's high-pitched voice (higher than Mickey's) also forces viewers to accept her as female. The actions of Minnie are keeping with those of traditional females. It is not "Steamboat Minnie." Minnie does not break any stereotypes. Mickey controls most of the action, receives most of the press, and is the most famous of all Disney characters. It is Mickey's show; Minnie's just along for the occasional cameo.

But what happens when clothes are no longer an issue? None of the Teletubbies regularly wear clothes; neither do the characters of Gumby's Adventures. Yet ask any child familiar with the characters and they'll like answer that Gumby and Pokey are boys. How can they tell? How do they determine those assignments?

Defining Goo

Goo, from Gumby's Adventures, is Gumby's closest female friend (non-family member). Her blue body is shaped like a cross between a seal and a raindrop. Long blond hair (made of yarn) signals to most people that Goo is female; her high-pitched voice and long eyelashes usually cement the decision.

While a few physical indicators exist, it is the way Goo is treated by the boys around her that truly identity her as girl and thus Other. Prickle, the yellow dinosaur (in both the reptilian and conservative meanings), is most disrepectful to Goo. In the episode "All Broken Up," Prickle and Goo team up to make expressionistic performance art. Prickle bangs on the drums and Goo transforms into Henry Mooresque "sculptures" reflecting her impression of the beat. When Pokey falls off the fence watching them, a la Humpty Dumpty, Prickle repremands Pokey for creating sound and causing Goo to express the sound visually: "I prefer to make the noise, Pokey." Prickle makes it clear that Goo is his method of communication; she is not Pokey's. That sense of possession is consistent throughout different episodes of Gumby's Adventures.

Another episode features Prickle and Goo as fighter pilots. Prickle refuses to let Goo come along, yet she stows away on the plane's wing. Gumby had already returned, winded, by his losing battle with the enemy pilot. Prickle likely thought the action would be too dangerous for a girl. Despite Prickle's chauvinism, Goo defeats the the evil pilot. Prickle, unrealizing Goo's actions, claims victory is his. Goo knowingly winks at the camera. Surely a boy would be portrayed as taking credit where credit is due. Instead, we learn Goo is female based on her deference and "little secrets" she keeps in order to stroke Prickle's ego. Goo usually appears with Prickle, one may sense they are a "couple," yet Prickle is often rude, inconsiderate, and condescending towards her.

Goo's body is different from the others: she has no legs and can fly. Her talents in the air distinguish her from the others, although it is surprising that Gumby cannot do some of the interesting maneuvers she can complete. (There are obvious ties to current criticism with reading the body and feminist criticism, yet that is beyond the scope of this study. Also, since Goo is blue clay, some of the parallelisms become far-fetched.) Goo's distinctly different body enables her to succeed where the boys are limited. Again, it is not the ability, but the other's reaction to this ability that become important.

The irony of most episodes is that the ultimate winner is Goo. She is usually the one who saves the day (in episodes where she appears, of course) and is often slighted. When she is broken into pieces on Gumby's operating table in "All Broken Up," Gumby makes a joke of her injuries. Gumby, Prickle, and Pokey laugh at Goo's condition instead of further helping her. What sort of friendship is that? Even if Gumby kids Pokey occasionally, Pokey fights back. Goo just takes it and smiles slyly. She knows they'll never accept her spot among them.

Works Consulted

Lick, Marty. "Gumbography." Gumby on the Web. http://www.emsphone.com/gumby/index.html. 16 July 1999.