A Love Letter To ‘Pingu’, The Strangest, Most Melancholy Television Show Ever Made
'Pingu' taught an entire generation how to be alone.
There is a scene from Pingu, the classic Swiss claymation series, that has lived with me for two decades.
‘Pingu Runs Away’ opens with the rambunctious young penguin bored at the dinner table. His parents want him to eat — he refuses. He begins to rock back and forth on his chair, singing a high-pitched song to himself. Wide-eyed, over-hyped, he takes it too far, falling backwards and pulling the table cloth with him.
There is a clatter of plates. The food rolls across the floor. His parents, shocked, find recourse in punishment: his mother lays him across her lap, and spanks him, while Pingu sobs and his father nods, approvingly, like some ancient, stern-faced judge.
I was five when I first saw the scene. At the beginning of that year, I had become increasingly anxious; terrified by death; unmoored; obsessed with rules. The world of adults was perpetually mystifying to me — once, stumbling downstairs at the dead of night while my parents were having a party, I caught a glimpse of my mother and father laughing in a way that I had never seen before.
It chilled me. Who were these people? What did they do when I wasn’t around? I stood in the centre of the living room, surrounded by grown men and women, the room rich with the alien smell of white wine, and I sobbed.
Adults Are Scary
The scene of Pingu’s punishment stirred something in me. Just as Pingu had suddenly been initiated into an unfair and confusing world, one in which those who are charged with protecting you can also betray you — can act in ways you do not understand — I too was gradually coming to understand that adults were inconsistent; that they had interior lives; that they thought their own thoughts.
I rewound the tape and watched the scene again and again. Poor Pingu, I thought. Poor children. Poor us.
‘Pingu Runs Away’ was banned from broadcast on British television. It never aired in America. Cultural censors deemed it too scary; too alienating. But they were wrong to shelter children in such a way. Every child, penguin or not, comes to realise that the world is beyond their control — that no number of gold stars, or nodding approval from teachers and mentors, is security enough. One day your parents will carry you to bed for the last time. And then you will be — terrifyingly, exhilaratingly — on your own.
Pingu didn’t prompt such a realisation in me. It was a lesson I had already learned. The show merely found a release for it, pouring a swirling, horrifying truth into a little penguin, and his black-and-white claymation body.
Pingu Is About Finding Your Authentic Self
Pingu is filled with such lessons, many of them deeply melancholy. Pingu must deal with the arrival of a new sister, and the responsibility that comes with it. He must navigate what it means to have friends, and to shape yourself in relation to others. In one critical episode, ‘Pingu And The Barrel Organ’, he must learn that adults are unhappy, encountering a lonely old man who twists the handle of a large organ, to an audience of none.
Taken as a whole, Pingu is one long coming-of-age story, a compact narrative about making sense of an unfair and frequently hostile world. Pingu, like it or not, must grow up.
Mostly, he doesn’t like it. What elevates Pingu above others children’s entertainment — what makes it more powerful than your run-of-the-mill Arthur or Peppa Pig — is the antic, unceasing rebellion in the heart of the young penguin. Pingu pisses on the floor. He causes trouble. He resists, time and time over, the call of the adults around him.
— two pingus (@twopingus) November 3, 2021
It was the famous British pediatrician and analyst DW Winnicott who wrote of the distinction between the “false self” and the “true self.” Good children, Winnicott wrote, present a false self to the adult world, a mask of sorts designed to find and foster approval. They are obsessed with rules, with cause and effect. This, after all, is how you find love, the concerned child believes — if you do what you’re told, maybe your parents will carry you to bed, no matter how big you have become.
Good children say “please” and “thank you” because they know that they will be rewarded if they do. They do not piss on the floor. They do not rock back and forth on their chairs at dinner time. And they hurt themselves as a result. The good child suffers as a result of the way that they choose to seek out connection with others. They do not live authentically or spontaneously. They cannot self-soothe. In order to find meaning and approval, they rely increasingly on others. And when others stop giving their praise in unequivocal terms — which they always do — the good child has no internal sense of self-love to fall back on.
Pingu is not a good child. This means that he interacts with the world forever on his own terms. He is creative in the way he chooses to comply, and under what conditions — as Winnicott himself noted, destruction is a form of creation, and Pingu is endlessly destructive, forever stripping the world of its parts and working out what he wants to do with them.
There are few modern children’s television characters with this level of self-creation. Peppa needs her parents. Pingu doesn’t. Bluey is a relentless people pleaser, forever searching for smiles and reassurances. Pingu has already reckoned with his essential aloneness — with the ways that the world will not always cater to his needs, or make perfect sense.
After being spanked in ‘Pingu Runs Away’, the penguin abandons his home, and seeks shelter in the wasteland that surrounds his igloo. He does eventually return to his concerned parents, who embrace him as a prodigal son, once more returned.
But Pingu has already settled something in himself. He has already made peace with the world. He has self-soothed. And then he turns to the camera, and lets out his iconic cry, “noot noot” — a triumphant song of the self, a mode of expression that is entirely and emphatically his own.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.