Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

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Revisiting the female Muppets of 'Sesame Street'

I recently wrote about my thoughts about female Muppet characters on Sesame Street in a post that continued to become more rambling and incoherent as I did more reading and kept adding footnotes after posting it originally. Then it occurred to me that people who haven't watched Sesame Street regularly for the last 20 years or more might not even know about the new Muppet characters, particularly the new female Muppet characters. So I decided to write some commentary about the three most prominent female Muppets who have been introduced over the course of the last 20 years or so.

Rosita la Monstrua de las Cuevas, which translates to "Rosita, the Monster of the Caves," joined the cast in 1991. Having been around for over 20 years and remaining a prominent character, she has a legitimate claim to the title of the first major female monster on Sesame Street, a title somewhat disingenuously bestowed upon Zoe by the Sesame Street marketing department in 1993. Fluent in both English and Spanish, Rosita is also the first major bilingual Muppet character on Sesame Street; it would seem that Sesame Street Muppets are only allowed one claim to fame.

Rosita is performed by Carmen Osbahr, a puppeteer who performed on Plaza Sesamo (Mexico's coproduction) before being recruited as a Muppet performer by Jim Henson himself in 1988. I've referenced this story before but I am going to share it again because I love it so much:
"When I first met [Henson], I was shy and my English was not very good. But he said to me in his voice — which was exactly like Kermit the Frog's — ‘Carmen, would you like to be part of my family?' How could anyone resist that?"
And why would anyone want to resist? It breaks my heart all over again that their professional relationship was cut short, but I'm glad that she still gets to be part of the "family."

Apart from being bilingual, Rosita's talents include singing, playing the guitar, pantomime, ballroom dancing and wordplay in the grand tradition of Abbott and Costello. Of the three characters profiled here, it seems to me that Rosita is the least popular and most underrated. For example, her merchandise page on only has one lonely little plush toy, while Zoe and Abby each have a page or two of toys, clothes, books and other accessories. In the book Street Gang, the controversial introduction of Zoe occupies a lengthy portion of Chapter 18 and Abby Cadabby gets a brief mention in the epilogue, but poor Rosita fails to garner a mention at all. Perhaps for these reasons, or perhaps just for her general awesomeness, Rosita is probably my favorite of the three characters profiled here.

Even though she first arrived on the Street in 1993, two years after Rosita's debut, Zoe is the character anointed by the show's spin doctors (no, not those ones) and hailed by feminists and other concerned citizens as the first major female monster on Sesame Street.

If most of the Sesame Street Muppets are created organically, Zoe is like a test-tube baby. Going into the show's 25th season in 1993, the research department, led by Dr. Valeria Lovelace, was tired of the criticisms about the lack of prominent female Muppet characters on Sesame Street. Instead of continuing to wait for a female Muppet to break into stardom in the traditional way, the researchers decided to create a character for the express purpose of making her the female star they had wanted for over twenty years, and to introduce her with an aggressive public relations campaign--which, they hoped, would also serve the dual purpose of averting people's attention (particularly that of young children and their parents) from the toothless tyrannosaur who, at the time, had PBS children's programming firmly beneath the sole of his yellow-toenailed purple foot.

By the time Zoe was introduced, I was 13 years old and no longer watched Sesame Street at every available opportunity, but I do remember seeing a story about Zoe on one of those evening news magazine shows, Dateline or Primetime or 20/20 or something like that. I thought she was cute enough, but she wasn't interesting enough to draw me back into a show that (in the eyes of the world) I had long since outgrown. Moreover, I didn't appreciate the implication that all of us girls who had grown up before the introduction of Zoe had been horribly deprived of positive roles models on Sesame Street. Lest I be misunderstood, let me reiterate that I do not object to the inclusion of female Muppets on Sesame Street. Quite the contrary; while I didn't even really notice the imbalance between male and female Muppets on Sesame Street at the time, in retrospect I think that my peer group in particular could definitely have benefitted from seeing more modeling of healthy and age-appropriate interactions between boys and girls on Sesame Street, as well as on TV in general. It's just that the way they handled the issue annoys me. But more on that later.

In Street Gang, Michael Davis says, "Zoe was like a plush toy in search of an identity, a carefully considered product that would be tested for its appeal with children in focus groups. Every aspect of its development was controlled and strategic." The executives wanted Zoe to be identifiably female but not stereotypically "girly". They wanted her to appeal to girls but not alienate boys. As aggressively as they marketed her, they ran the risk of overexposure and backlash. It was a risky endeavor and it could have easily blown up in their faces. If Zoe had not caught on the way they wanted her to, the best-case scenario would have been a publicly humiliating loss of credibility, and I don't even want to think about the worst-case scenario. Fortunately for all concerned, Zoe survived and continues to thrive.

What is the secret to Zoe's success? Is it the coldly calculating, strategically meticulous process by which she was brought into the world? Is it the relentless market research conducted as the driving force behind her inception? Personally, I doubt it.

I think a lot of the credit has to go to puppeteer Fran Brill (who, incidentally, also performs Prairie Dawn, probably my favorite of all the female Sesame Street Muppets, old and new, prominent and obscure, monster and humanoid). In this interview, Fran Brill talks about her initial difficulties with developing Zoe's character. Eventually, as she explains:
"Zoe kind of told me who she was. [...] I always feel that these puppets really are not inanimate. They have a spirit [...] and you just sort of let them tell you who they are."
Now, this point of view might sound strange--maybe even a little crazy--to some people; nevertheless, it is undeniable that Fran Brill is passionately devoted to her craft, and I think that that commitment is one of the major reasons for her success, as well as that of her two major characters.

I think another reason for Zoe's success is that, due to some unfortunate behind-the-scenes circumstances, the time was ripe for the introduction not only of new female Muppets but new Muppets in general. In the early 1990s, Sesame Street suffered the untimely deaths of two of its core puppeteers
--Jim Henson in 1990 and Richard Hunt1 in 1992--sending many of the show's most well-known characters into retirement or semi-retirement. I think that, in a way, the unavailablity of these characters (whether temporary or permanent) forced the writers to not only imagine new characters but also look at older, less popular characters in a new light to see how they could be further developed.2

With her wide, somewhat flat head, large eyes and small nose, Zoe kind of reminds me of E.T. In spite of her dubious origins, her sunny disposition (matching her bright orange fur) and her casual self-confidence have a certain appeal (plus she's not as shrill as Elmo, so that wins her major brownie points right off the bat). Many of the best and/or most popular Muppet characters on Sesame Street--i.e. Elmo, the Count, Oscar, and Bert & Ernie--have a distinctive laugh, so distinct and so amusing that it becomes that character's calling card, and Zoe has a laugh that is both unique and charming. I love the way she throws back her head and laughs with exuberant but strangely quiet abandon. I can't help but laugh myself at the absurd pride she takes in putting a needlessly copious number of barrettes in her hair. Nonetheless, I was never inclined to embrace Zoe as a character until I heard her speak lovingly of her favorite book, which is "falling apart" not only because she reads it so often but because she hugs it so much. Seeing that sketch recently was the first time I looked at Zoe and said to myself, "That's like me." Zoe is also pretty gifted at the wordplay, which I always appreciate.

But so far, my favorite Zoe-moment is still that parody song featuring the Spin Doctors that I linked to above. I love the original song, I love the parody lyrics, and I love the costumes. Elmo looks fantastic in a cape!

Abby Cadabby joined the cast in 2006. She is a fairy. Her skin is covered with short pink fur. Her cheeks are dotted with purple freckles. Her hair is purple with pink highlights, gathered into two puffy pigtails, and has strands of sparkly tinsel in it. She likes to dress up in princess gowns. As a three-year-old "fairy-in-training," she can do magic with her "training wand," an instrument that (much like Abby herself) is festooned with ribbons and glitter, which also doubles as a cell phone on which she talks to her "fairy god-mommy". She flies around with her dragonfly wings (she herself is part dragonfly and can therefore talk to insects). She can turn herself invisible and disapparate. On paper (or in pixels, as the case may be), she sounds utterly nauseating. But underneath the surface, she has some things going for her which keep her from being a complete Sparklypoo stereotype.

First, being a young, untrained fairy, she's not actually very good at magic yet. For example, she's very good at turning things/people into pumpkins but not very good at turning them back, and comic hijinks invariably ensue from her magical mistakes (although I have to admit that I sometimes find these situations too contrived to be funny). Second, having lived most of her life in a world of magic, she is fascinated (much like the Weasley family in Harry Potter) by ordinary things. For example, she studies fairy tales as history but likes "real people tales" for pleasure reading ("Once there was a boy named Scooter whose daddy worked at a computer. They had no magic wands or fairy wings..."). Third--and perhaps most importantly--the puppeteer who performs her, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, is brilliant and insane and insanely brilliant. I listened to an interview with her and was blown away by her energy and exuberance. She put me in mind of a female Robin Williams the way she shifted effortlessly in and out of different character voices. She's also a very skilled and subtle puppeteer, giving Abby these beautifully nuanced little gestures that really make her come alive. As Abby herself might say, "It's so magical!"

Nevertheless, when I first started reading about this character a few months ago, I had my doubts. Of course, like a lot of people my age, I'm always suspicious about new Sesame Street characters and I was dubious about the whole sparkly-pink-fairy-girly-girl aspect as well. But then I read that one of the things that they can do with Abby's character is that they can address issues about multiculturalism--and particularly the hot-button topic of immigration--in an nonthreatening, allegorical way. Well, I can hardly object to that, not in good conscience.

With regard to her sparkly-pink-girly-girlishness, I came across a quote from one of the executives that explained it this way: "If you think about the Mary Tyler Moore Show, some girls relate to Rhoda, who's our Zoe, and some girls relate to Mary, who's a girly girl. And we didn't have that girl." That seems fair enough to me. If Abby were the only girl Muppet character--or if, for example, she were in the position that Zoe was in back in 1993--that would be one thing. But if the goal is to legitimize the experiences of little girls, it makes sense to have different girl characters with different interests so as to represent the entire spectrum of young female experience. After all, if we want to empower young girls to be whatever they want to be, it doesn't make sense to then turn around and tell them that it is wrong to "enjoy being a girl," as the song says, if that's where their interests lie.

Still, I was skeptical. I argued with myself, saying, "Surely it's not a good idea to have a character who can do magic," and the wiser part of myself answered, "What, you mean like the Amazing Mumford?" While it wasn't enough to completely assuage my misgivings,4 I had to admit that the precedent had already been set. Then I said, "All right, but it can't be a good idea to have a character who can fly," and the wiser part responded, "What, you mean like Super Grover?" At that point, I had to admit that I had no more valid objections.

After I settled that argument with myself, and after I listened to that interview of Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, I made a concerted effort to seek out Abby material and try to find a reason to like her. She starred in a parody of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that I quite enjoyed, but that was more because the material itself5 than Abby's performance. The first time I laughed out loud at Abby in an actual Sesame Street sketch was when I heard her sing a song called, "I Love Words" (now THAT'S like me) in which she says, "I know I'm just a little fairy/But I've got a big vocabulary!" But my favorite Abby moment isn't official Sesame Street material at all but an interview with Abby and Rosita conducted by the purveyors of one of the major Muppet fansites--in which, among other hilarious pronouncements, Abby informs us: "my nostrils are practically nonexistent," which goes to show that Abby can be pretty earthy, even though she is not strictly earthbound.

Now, in case it's not clear, I like all three of these characters. I don't love them like I love the "old school" characters, but that's probably because I haven't known them very long. However, if these three characters had been extant and established when I was a kid, I think I would have liked Abby best out of the three of them. Then, as now, I gravitated toward anything having to do with magic and fantasy and fairy tales, so it is not difficult at all to imagine my younger self running around pretending to fly, clutching an ersatz wand and pretending to turn things into pumpkins, wishing for my mom to let me grow my hair out so that I could wear it in pigtails--oh wait, that last part actually happened, but it had nothing to do with Sesame Street. Would Abby have rivaled even Bert and Ernie in my affections? I honestly don't know. I related to them in a way that was different but no less valid than the way I would have related to Abby. Bert and Ernie represented the life I knew in the real world; Abby would have represented the inner life of my imagination.

But as an adult, as I mentioned to earlier, I think I like Rosita the best of the three profiled here. Though both Zoe and Abby are established as being three-year-olds (making them peers to Elmo), Rosita's character age has never been established, as far as I know, but to me she seems a little older and more mature than Zoe and Abby, perhaps more of a peer to Prairie Dawn. I relate to that; I was always a little older than most of my classmates, and therefore more mature--in some respects, anyway. Rosita is big and shaggy and somewhat awkward-looking next to her more petite and accessorized best friends, and I always felt big and shaggy and awkward compared to my best friends, who were generally shorter, slimmer and had more manageable hair than I did.


The reason that I started thinking/talking about all this in the first place is because I was reading about this whole issue in Street Gang and I ran across a quotation from Dr. Lovelace that, when taken out of context, seemed to imply that she didn't think that there were any positive female role models on Sesame Street prior to the debut of Zoe, which infuriated me because it seemed like a slap in the face to all the female performers on the show, whether they be puppeteers or actresses portraying human characters.

The offending quote in Street Gang was taken from a New York Times article dated August 20, 1993. While doing further research, I came across yet another New York Times article on the subject, even written by the same writer, but dated August 19, 1993. This article has a similar but less inflammatory quote from Dr. Lovelace:
"Children love our [Muppet] characters, they see them and say, 'that's like me.' It's important to legitimize the experiences of little girls."
Okay, fair enough; I can't really argue with that. As wonderful as the human characters on Sesame Street are (as well as the actors who portray them), they have never been the primary draw of the show. The primary draw has always been the Muppets. And it's true that the Muppets are meant to be the proxies for the children viewing, while the adult human characters are meant to represent parental figures. Or to put it another way, when we're kids the adult characters represent what we want to grow up to be, but the Muppets represent what we are/want to be as kids.

However, while I agree that it is important to legitimize the experiences of little girls, I think that it is equally important to recognize and validate the fact that not all little girls are going to have the same, universal "little-girl" experiences. Nor will little boys, for that matter. In my opinion, one of the worst things that they could possibly do is to send the message, either explicitly or implicitly, that female characters are only for girls to like/relate to, and vice versa. I think it's so important for Sesame Street to continue to counteract the message that girls can only like "girl things" and boys can only like "boy things" because children are exposed to this message virtually from birth--when they are wrapped in either a pink or blue blanket--and, interestingly enough, boys seem much more susceptible to internalizing it than girls.6

Be that as it may, when Dr. Lovelace, et al. talk about the importance of legitimizing the experiences of little girls, it's hard for me to take them seriously when they fail to recognize their own successes, or even actively dismiss them. A mere twelve paragraphs after quoting Dr. Lovelace on the importance of legitimizing the experiences of little girls, the writer of the article reports that it is "acknowledged" (though he doesn't say who acknowledges it) that Prairie Dawn is "too much of a Miss Know-It-All for stardom."

EXCUSE ME?...I don't have any advanced degrees in education so I'm not exactly sure what is involved in legitimizing the experiences of little girls, but I'm pretty sure it does NOT involve saddling one of the best, brightest and most well-developed female characters with an offensive nickname. Prairie Dawn should be praised (along with the creative minds involved in her development and performance) for her precociousness, her efficiency, her creativity, and her organizational and leadership skills rather than belittled and dismissed; by belittling and dismissing her, they do the same to any and all children who happen to relate to her.7

The author of the article also, in the very first paragraph, lists both Prairie Dawn and Rosita among other female Muppets who had "failed." Obviously, not having the benefit of the perspective that we have today, he grossly underestimated the staying power of these two characters in particular. This is most unjust in the case of Rosita since, at the time this article was written, she had only been on the show for about two years. As Michael Davis points out in Street Gang, "Muppets most often evolve in an organic way, in fits and starts. In some cases, it takes a year or more for the fully formed personality to bloom." In other words, Rosita had been dubbed a failure before she'd even really had a chance to succeed.

There are two ways to teach about these kinds of large social issues: you either address the issue directly or you just set a good example and not make a big deal about it. One method is not inherently better than the other; the appropriate approach depends on the individual situation, and both have been effectively utilized on Sesame Street over the years. As a general rule, however, I favor the latter method because, personally, as soon as I get the sense that I'm being preached at, I tend to shut down and tune out. With that said, I imagine that a number like this is more engaging if it's performed by characters that you already know and care about rather than a crowd of random whatnots. Doing a parody rather than an original song probably helps too.

At any rate, I like all three of these characters, and I'm glad that I took the time to get to know them better because they're not only great female characters, they are great characters, period.

1Richard Hunt joined the Muppets in the early '70s and remained a major Muppet performer until his death at the age of 40 from AIDS-related complications. Even if his name is not familiar to you, if you're any kind of a Muppet/Sesame Street fan, I guarantee that you know and love his characters, which include Beaker, Scooter, Statler, Sweetums, and Janice ("fer sure!"); on Sesame Street, he was Forgetful Jones, Don Music, Sully the construction worker (remember Biff and Sully?), Placido Flamingo, Gladys the Cow and one-half of the Two-Headed Monster (the one on the viewer's right, with the bushy black beard and the horns that pointed up). While most of his characters from the Muppet Show and its subsequent films have since found new performers, to my knowledge only the lattermost two of his Sesame Street characters have been recast and still appear regularly on the show.

2For instance, the already well-established Prairie Dawn not only took up the mantle of fairy-tale news reporter from Kermit the Frog but also formed a fruitful comedic partnership with Cookie Monster, of whom she can do a spot-on impression (a little TOO spot-on, as she ruefully discovers). The tragic loss of Jim Henson and Richard Hunt opened the door for new puppeteers as well, as did experimental changes to the show's 25th season to counteract the effects of that certain aubergine abomination. One of these new puppeteers was Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who also starred in the original Broadway production of Avenue Q, concurrently while working on Sesame Street, which seems like a recipe for disaster to me, but apparently it worked out okay (it's just fortunate that Sesame Street is not broadcast live).

3Abby's name is a play on "abracadabra." Another cultural touchstone etymologically related to "abracadabra" is the Killing Curse from Harry Potter, Avada Kadavra. This made me laugh uproariously when I started reading about Abby Cadabby and found out where her name came from. "Oh no!" I said to myself in tones of mock horror, "it's the Sparkly Pink Death Muppet!" By the way, I think that "Sparkly Pink Death Muppet" would be a good name for a band. Except that the name "Muppet" is now a Disney trademark so...yeah, I don't think that kite would fly.

4I saw a sketch in which Rosita, Zoe and Abby are hanging out, and the three of them are hungry, so Zoe and Rosita ask Abby to magically conjure up a pizza for them. Of course, the spell goes all wrong, but I'm still not convinced that that was a good message to be sending: "Yes, children, the way to make your friends like you is to bribe them with junk food!"

5Not to mention the supporting cast. Grover was perfect as the Mad Hatter, Elmo uses first-person pronouns as the red White Rabbit--always a pleasant change of pace--and Bert and Ernie make a brilliant, though all too brief, cameo as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, as follows..."BERT (as Abby runs obliviously past them): That's it? That's our whole scene? ERNIE: Well, we're not actually in this story. It's a common misconception."

6In the book Sesame Street: A Celebration, it says, "The lack of a major female Muppet 'celebrity' [on Sesame Street] may have less to say about the show than about the instincts of viewers: ratings studies make it clear that girls become invested in boy characters they enjoy, but boys rarely form the same strong attachments to girl characters." This, by the way, is the most sensible thing that I've ever heard anybody say on the subject, except that the word "instinct" implies something that is inborn, and I am convinced (though without the benefit of research) that this is a learned attitude. To counteract this attitude, my suggestion would be to bring back Herry Monster and his doll, Hercules, to further demonstrate that it's okay for boys to like "girl things". And while they're at it, they ought to make and sell a doll likeness of Herry Monster. A TALKING doll likeness of Herry Monster. To be honest, I don't know if that would help to dispel gender myths; I just really want a talking Herry doll!

7Moreover, anyone who's made the acquaintance of one Hermione Granger through the Harry Potter stories knows that it's completely absurd to say that a female "know-it-all" can't be a star.
Tags: books, muppets, sesame street, ss youtube channel project, television
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