Peppa Pig's Pedagogical Power
Claire Birkenshaw and Mandy Pierlejewski, Senior Lecturers in the Carnegie School of Education, analyse the powerful pedagogical messages about children, childhood and families circulated in a popular Peppa Pig episode and comment on the influences of cultural artefacts on children's development.
Exported to at least 118 countries, it’s fair to say that the British preschool children’s animation, Peppa Pig (Astley and Baker, 2004-), is a ‘global phenomenon’ (Hall, 2021): a success that former British prime minister, Boris Johnson, was keen to laud and exploit to foster and cement British global interests (Johnson, 2021).
Interestingly, not only did Johnson acknowledge Peppa Pig’s financial power, he also drew attention to the show’s British influence on children’s cultural development. Furthermore, Johnson stated that “Peppa Pig World” was his “kind of place” due to its “safe streets…good schools [and] excellent healthcare.”
Grouped together, Johnson’s porcus platitudes demonstrate that Peppa Pig should be considered as a powerful form of public pedagogy which draws upon “the educational force of the larger culture to produce, disseminate and circulate ideas” (Giroux, 2012). Indeed, Peppa Pig’s public pedagogy has been cited as conveying both “positive public health messages” and “encouraging inappropriate use of primary care services” (Bell, 2017). As such, and due to the sheer volume of episodes (approaching 400), we consider the animated antics of Peppa Pig as offering a rich explorative seam to examine the circulation of ideas and ideologies pertaining to contemporary childhoods.
For the purpose of this blog, the focus and theoretical reading, pertains to the circulation of ideas relating to children’s oral health transmitted in the episode Peppa Pig at the Dentist (2020).
Defining oral health
The World Health Organization (2022) defines oral health as “the state of the mouth, teeth and orofacial structures that enables individuals to perform essential functions such as eating, breathing and speaking, and encompasses psychosocial dimensions such as self-confidence, well-being and the ability to socialize and work without pain, discomfort and embarrassment.”
Furthermore, oral health is considered to be vital to general health, and in terms of children, an essential component to their development and “school readiness” (Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, 2022).
The cost of poor oral health
Concern for children’s oral health arises because of the number children suffering from unnecessary tooth decay because it is deemed to be “largely preventable” (ibid.). Currently, tooth decay is acknowledged in England, as “the most common oral disease affecting children and young people”, the result of which leads to sleepless nights, school absence and hospital admissions (ibid.).
This explains the Department for Education’s (DFE) support for pedagogical approaches directed toward children’s oral health habits (DFE, n.d.) and inclusion in the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework (DFE, 2021). From an academic perspective then, the government’s drive to address children’s poor oral health, due to costs to society, can be read as a form of childhood biopolitics.
At its simplest, biopolitics “aims at the administration and regulation of life processes on the level of populations” (Lemke, 2011). In order to achieve its biopolitical aims, government must discover and analyse different forms of knowledge concerning the life of its population before strategizing and implementing a range tactics directed at the optimisation of life (ibid.).
Consequently, both individuals (child) and collectives (children) are subject to a range of optimising practices, collectively termed by Foucault (1977) as discipline. Administered through architectural space, instruments of power, such hierarchical observation, normalising judgement and examination, discipline children’s minds (and by extension families), into achieving the government’s childhood biopolitical aims. These Foucauldian concepts are observed in operation in the episode Peppa Pig at the Dentist.
The Foucauldian Doctor Elephant in the room
Peppa and George (Peppa’s younger brother) are invited into the dental treatment room (DTR) by the genial, Doctor Elephant. First, we notice that the architectural space of the DTR is configured to facilitate hierarchal observation (elevating dental chair and moveable light). Furthermore, Doctor Elephant uses specially designed handheld instruments to ensure the entirety of the mouth is visible and observable (dental mirror and tongue suppressor).
Second, through observation, Doctor Elephant is able apply his dental expertise to assess and judge Peppa and George’s oral health by comparing with others in a process termed as normalising judgement. Third, hierarchical observation and normalising judgement combine so that Doctor Elephant is able to conduct an examination of Peppa and George’s oral health. Not only is dental knowledge produced and recorded concerning the state of Peppa’s and George’s teeth but knowledge about the family’s moral conduct is gathered through Doctor Elephant’s gentle questioning of Peppa’s teeth brushing habits and sweet consumption.
“I hope you haven’t been eating too many sweeties, Peppa?” enquires Doctor Elephant, as he examines Peppa’s mouth seeking evidence of tooth decay. As Rose (1999) argues, these questioning techniques, employed through modern medicine, act as confessional mechanisms compelling the questioned to question their own conduct so that a “confessing animal” is produced. Furthermore, Doctor Elephant’s questions about Peppa’s oral hygiene practices also act to individualise the child represented by Peppa, inferring it is the child’s responsibility to eat healthily and clean their teeth.
Compliance with these expectations will result in Peppa being labelled as “good” whereas, conversely, the child who does not clean their teeth is, by implication, not good. In effect, Doctor Elephant’s conduct disciplines the Pig family’s conduct. As such, the DTR acts as a laboratory of power (Nettleton, 1994), channelling the wider biopolitical agenda of ‘Peppatown’.
Our brief academic reading of Peppa at the Dentist (2020) indicates that the discipline arguments presented by Foucault (1977) in Discipline and Punish are not only noticed in real life but have transgressed to children’s animation, too. Therefore, the pedagogical circulation of oral health ideas transmitted to children and families through Peppa Pig reveal the operation of hierarchical observation, normalizing judgement, examination, and confessional mechanisms linked to a moral code of conduct in DTRs.
Proposed academic use of Peppa Pig’s health storylines
From our vantage point, and due to the enormous global appeal of Peppa Pig (for example, Peppa at the Dentist has been viewed over 26 million times on YouTube), this animated series offers a window into the circulation of geobiopolitical (national, continental and global) childhood concerns and agendas. Therefore, we propose that students read Peppa Pig in two ways.
First, students should consider, analyse and evaluate Peppa Pig’s health promotion messages directed to children and families to determine whether they are connected to geobiopolitical agendas. Second, students should consider, analyse and evaluate the sociological, philosophical and psychological processes considered necessary to optimise childhood and family life by the creators of Peppa Pig, as exampled above.
Finally, the purpose of this blog is not to criticise the various efforts aimed at improving children’s oral health; we reiterate, and endorse fully, children’s right to health as stated in Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989). However, as academics, we hold the view that various cultural artefacts should be analysed critically for the powerful pedagogical messages they circulate about children, childhood and families.
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Department for Education (n.d.) Help for early years providers. Safeguarding and welfare: Oral health [Online]. London: GOV.UK. Available from:< https://help-for-early-years-providers.education.gov.uk/safeguarding-and-welfare/oral-health> [Accessed 28 June 2023].
Department for Education (2021) Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage: Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. London: Crown.
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Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (2022) Child oral health: applying All Our Health [Online]. 8 March. London: GOV.UK. Available from:< https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/child-oral-health-applying-all-our-health/child-oral-health-applying-all-our-health> [Accessed 28 June 2023].
Peppa Pig – Official Channel (2020) Peppa Pig at the Dentist [Online video]. 5 March. Available from:< https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3BJHrAL6Fo> [Accessed 28 June 2023].
Rose, N. (1999) Governing the soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. 2nd ed. London: Free Association Books.
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Mandy Pierlejewski is a senior lecturer in the Carnegie School of Education. She is level 6 leader on undergraduate primary education degrees and supervises MA and doctoral students.