Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

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"That's like me"

This weekend I read a very interesting book called Street Gang about the history of Sesame Street, particularly the personal and professional histories of people involved in it, its genesis and its development through the years.

One of the most interesting parts was the story about the push in the early 1990s to create more female Muppet characters for the show. Now, I want to be clear that I think this was--and is--a laudable endeavor. One of the most important goals of Sesame Street is to help all children feel accepted, included and empowered. If a lack of female Muppet characters ever had even one little girl feeling excluded or marginalized, that was unacceptable.1 Speaking for myself, however, I never felt at all excluded or marginalized watching "Sesame Street" and had no trouble at all relating to and identifying with the mostly male Muppet characters.

The book quotes Dr. Valeria Lovelace, the show's research director at the time (I'm unclear as to how long she held this position or if she's still there), as saying, "Little girls need to have role models on the show...[to] see them and say 'That's like me.'" Now, since this quote was taken out of context,1a I have to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it sounds like she's saying there were no positive female role models on the show at all prior to the '90s, and I--as an analyst and a lifelong devotee of the show--would have to strenuously disagree. What about the creative and highly organized Prairie Dawn, the precocious director and accompanist of so many brilliantly hilarious "Little Theater" pageants? What about the unceasingly patient, nurturing and (of course) darling Clementine? What about the human characters of Maria, Susan, Linda, Olivia and Gina? What about the ingeniously resourceful little girl who uses a magnet and string to retrieve the lost jack in that live-action interstitial film?2 Or folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie who (as I learned reading this book) was on the show for five seasons in the '70s and, incredible as it seems, actually did a segment about breastfeeding her infant son.3

Again, I can only speak for myself, but when I was watching the show back in the early 1980s (back when Elmo was only a little-seen bit player), the characters I most related to were Bert and Ernie. The fact that they are boys was immaterial to me then and is immaterial to me now.

As far back as I can remember, I shared a bedroom with my older sister until she went off to college in 1989. She is nine years older than I am and, while the fact that we were the only girls in the family served as a bond between us (especially when I was younger), we are complete opposites in almost every dimension of personality, as are Bert and Ernie. Like many younger siblings, I idolized my sister and my older brothers, and they were almost always very indulgent with me. However, my sister had had a bedroom to herself until I came along and seemed to resent her loss of privacy. Therefore, the dynamic between Bert and Ernie paralleled the relationship between me and my sister, particularly at bedtime, with me playing the rambunctiously eager, borderline insomniac Ernie to her more serious and long-suffering Bert, who just wants some peace and quiet.

If you were to ask my grade-school peers whether I was more similar to Bert or Ernie as a child, most of them would probably say that I was more like Bert: serious, smart, bookish, sedate, something of a stick in the mud or a goody two-shoes. I won't deny that I have some of those traits, but I have always identified much more with Ernie: imaginative, fanciful, with his heart on his sleeve and a perpetual smile on his face, always quick with a laugh and a song. If you'd asked me at the time, I would have said, "That's like me."

And I don't think it's a coincidence that the two Muppet characters that I love and identify with the most (Kermit and Ernie) were originally performed by Jim Henson. Many people have attributed the quality of idealism to Jim Henson's approach to his work4 and to his life, but I am increasingly convinced that in his temperament he was an Idealist with a capital I ("in the middle of the desert/in the center of the sky").

I always hesitate to attribute Idealist temperament to someone, especially someone who is no longer able to speak for himself, because I'm an Idealist as well, and one of our most salient traits (and often one of our biggest flaws) is that we tend to project our values erroneously onto other people. But if I am right and Jim Henson had the same temperament that I do, it makes sense that I would identify most closely with his characters, regardless of gender or even species.

My point is simply to say that all of the characters on Sesame Street, Muppets and humans alike, have qualities to which children can relate on a much deeper and more profound level than the more superficial areas of sex/gender or race or socioeconomic class, etc.5 Which is not to say that diversity in these areas should not be represented. Quite the contrary; another of the main goals of Sesame Street is to learn to relate to people who are different than us and thereby to foster respect and understanding. It just seems self-defeating to say, "we need a female Muppet character for little girls to identify with" rather than saying "we need female Muppet characters to reflect an accurate analogue of the world in which we live and to provide positive role models for all children."

1The highly publicized push to create a breakout female Muppet character for Sesame Street did not come from an entirely pure place. It was part of an elaborate, somewhat ill-conceived strategy meant to counteract a loss in viewership to a certain prehistoric purple menace that debuted on PBS in 1992. Interestingly, in 1993-94 Sesame Street marketed the character of Zoe as the first major female Muppet monster on the show despite the fact that the character of Rosita, a female monster who was also the show's first major bilingual Muppet character, had inconspicuously joined the cast in 1991.

1a. The quote in Street Gang was taken from a New York Times article from August 20, 1993. I recently found another NYT article on the subject from August 19, 1993 which has a similar but much more succinct quote from Dr. Lovelace (though this article misspells her first name): "Children love our characters, they see them and say, 'that's like me.' It's important to legitimize the experiences of little girls." Okay, fair enough; I agree that it's important to legitimize the experiences of little girls, but I think it's equally important to recognize that not all little girls are going to have the same, universal experiences. For example, the article goes on to talk about Zoe's puppeteer, Fran Brill, "[who] is the voice and hand behind [...] Prairie Dawn, who is acknowledged to be too much of a Miss Know-It-All for stardom". ARRRRRGH! First of all, who acknowledges that? Second of all, what happened to legitimizing the experience of little girls (some of whom may very well be precocious "know-it-alls" like Prairie Dawn)? Third, who says "know-it-alls" can't be stars? Of course, Harry Potter hadn't been published that point, but surely the character of Hermione proves that a "know-it-all"--that is to say, a prodigiously intelligent young girl--can indeed be a star.

2This sketch is available on the incredible DVD set Sesame Street: Old School, Volume 2 which, along with its companion Volume 1, preserves for posterity some of the greatest sketches and material of the pre-Elmo era. I came across them at the library and I heartily recommend both volumes for all fans of classic "Sesame Street."

3That is so awesome. I'm just trying to imagine how that would go over if they were to try it again today. Even though breastfeeding is actually more acceptable now than it was back then, I can just imagine the hue and cry: "Oh my stars and garters, they said the word 'breast' on a children's program!" In recent years, people got mad when Katy Perry taped an appearance in a dress that bore evidence to the fact that she possesses breasts (gasp!). And yet, Sofia Vergara later made an appearance in which she danced and shimmied around in all her curvaceous glory and nobody said a word. Although I notice that she kept her hair over her chest for the most part, and I doubt that was a coincidence.

By the way, does anyone know why my links are suddenly struck through? I didn't do that.

4 The character of Rosita (see above) is performed by a puppeteer named Carmen Osbahr, who got her start on Plaza Sesamo (the Mexican version of Sesame Street) before being personally recruited by Jim Henson for the US cast of Sesame Street in 1988. In her biography on, she recalls Jim Henson asking her, "Carmen, would you like to be part of my family?" What a precious memory for her to cherish! What a remarkable gift he had given her, and what a gift she has given us by sharing the story!

5 If they were so concerned about children being able to relate to these externals, it's kind of strange that they didn't make a push to include more humanoid Muppet characters on the show. After all, how many of us can truly relate to being furry monsters?
Tags: books, family, memory, muppets, music, sesame street, ss youtube channel project, television
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