As Roland Barthes has impeccably articulated, the world and its ways are naturalized and miniaturized for the children. A child’s interaction with the societal structures- through books, toys or television shows, is implicated in the dominant ideology in a way that encourages social conformity. Anything perceived as ‘unnatural’ is deemed unfit for the children world. And Tango Makes Three, a picture book about two male penguins raising a baby penguin together, has stirred up raging controversies since its first print in 2005 on this front.
The book traces the heart-warming journey of Roy and Silo, two homosexual penguins caged at the Central Park Zoo in the New York City, who are smitten by each other, defying the male-female dichotomy of couples. The story borrows from a homosexual couple of penguins, with the same names, residing at the Central Park Zoo. Roy and Silo perform all activities together- they swim together, sleep together and build a nest together much like other mating penguins, but are unable to lay an egg. They comically sit on a rock to get it to hatch. The zoo keeper notices the travesty and provides them with an abandoned egg that needs to be tended to, and that is how Roy and Silo get their daughter Tango. The book then describes how Roy, Silo and Tango make for a happy family, sharing and embracing the warmth, affection and comfort that define a functional family.
The book addresses the widely debated question of what constitutes a family. There is a greater level of diversity in the family landscape today, which is sought to be accommodated in the ever-expanding field of literature through books such as And Tango Makes Three. Then why does a children’s book, aimed at making children well versed with an alternate family structure, face so much heat and flak all over the world? And Tango Makes Three was the most challenged book of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010 and the second most challenged book of 2009, and was banned in several nations such as Canada and Singapore.
This widely contested book has been accused of being ‘inappropriate’ and malignant for the impressionable minds of its target audience, which are children between the ages of 1-3. It is condemned to be supporting a ‘homosexual agenda’, and the agency of penguins for storytelling has been seen as a way of putting a façade over a darker undercurrent theme, too complex to be explored by toddlers. Parents were seen to be taking hugely contradictory stands on the ban. Where some approved of a sieving of the material made available in libraries, others were of the opinion that the ban insulted their intellect as a parent and infringed on their right to make informed decisions.
What’s sad, yet thought inducing about the entire debacle relating to the ban, is that the book is perceived in scandalous hues. The fact that families come in all kinds of packages has been conveniently overshadowed and deemed unimportant. The ban not only reaffirmed the taboos relating to homosexuality all over the world, it also grossly violated the basic premise of the First Amendment and the freedom of expression.
What’s ‘natural’ cannot and should not be set in watertight compartments, bereft of all fluidity. The deep anxieties pertaining to homosexuality entrenched in the society, are reflected and reiterated in a child’s behavioural aspects. Today, the word ‘gay’ is used in an insulting connotation; children who are homosexual are tied to gender roles and identities which are contrary to their sexual preferences and homosexuality is considered a ‘choice’ which can be altered. In a world as intolerant towards diversity as ours, wouldn’t it be healthier to educate children from the very beginning? Constant monitoring and censoring of anything considered to be a threat to the ‘natural’ will only lead to anarchy in the society.