Adventures in Feministory: What Women Can Be on Sesame Street

 

As Sesame Street turns 40, the media is brimming with think pieces about the groundbreaking show. From its educational impact to its unprecedented portrayal of racially diverse urban life, the show changed the face of not just children's TV, but the medium of television in general.

There's a lot to talk about when we talk about Sesame Street, and people are doing just that. Time magazine postulated that Barack Obama is the first "Sesame Street president," writing that "The Obama presidency is a wholly American fusion of optimism, enterprise and earnestness — rather like the far-fetched proposal of 40 years ago to create a TV show that would prove that educational television need not be an oxymoron." (The show's creator, Joan Ganz Cooney, is happy to support this theory, saying "I like to think that we had something to do with Obama's election). Newsweek pondered Sesame Street's global reach, reporting that among the world's Sesame-friendly regions are Kosovo and the Palestinian territories; the South African SS features an HIV-positive character. And New York magazine revealed that 75-year-old Carroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird for all 40 seasons, spends his days with one arm raised above his head, manipulating the puppet's eyes and beak and not even once grumbling that he could be playing shuffleboard on a Carnival cruise ship.

And then there are the videos -- like "Women Can Be," a hilarious feminist ode to the world of beyond-nurses-and-ballerinas careers that I was reminded of this morning, courtesy of my friend Tina. (Rita Moreno, voicing the surgeon, is especially awesome.)


But at the risk of getting all Oscar the Grouch about the feel-good reminiscing, the thing that strikes me in watching this video on the eve of the show's birthday is that, well, it probably wouldn't be produced today. For all Sesame Street's forward-thinking construction of a racially-mixed, intergenerational, monster-friendly city neighborhood, the show has repeatedly failed to foreground its females. (That sentence was brought to you by the letter F, by the way.) It's astonishing to think that Sesame Street didn't have a lead female Muppet until its 37th season, but the debut of Abby Cadabby in 2006 was a milestone for the show, finally offering a female character with as much personality (and, it must be said, as many marketing opportunities) as Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and Elmo.  

But Abby Cadabby isn't a surgeon, or a lumberjack, or a chef, or any of the other possibilities celebrated in "Women Can Be." She's a fairy. And fairies are great, but as a 2006 New York Times article pointed out, entrenched sexism—yes, even on Sesame Street—makes female characters far trickier to make relatable and acceptable to kids and their parents. (Elmo, the article reasons, would read as flaky if he were a she; Cookie Monster would be even more problematic—"she'd be accused of being anorexic or bulimic," said SS executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente.)

And that's the paradox of Sesame Street's feministory. Girls growing up today may well take for granted every lyric in "Women Can Be," and never doubt for a minute that they have the rights, the smarts, and the freedom to grow up and be whatever they want to be. Yet the very cultural product that taught them that—or, more accurately, taught their parents to teach them that—seems increasingly bogged down in stereotypes and market imperatives, concerned more about the size of a female Muppet's nose than about what message she sends.

The show's new season offers up plenty of evidence that Sesame Street is dedicated to staying relevant to its audience. A new science initiative will focus on the environment (with special guests like Michelle Obama, who enlists Elmo to help plant a vegetable garden); the show's timely, adult-friendly references include parodies of Mad Men, True Blood and, as you may already have read, Fox news. Hopefully the show will also look  to its past in the new season and beyond, and offer up new—and just as charming—ways for girls to realize that Women Can Be...anything.

Comments

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On and on, let's do more...

Nice examples, love the video! I've written a family series called ManorMeta that borrows some of the best joyful bits of Sesame Street, the Muppets, PeeWee and the other multimedia mashups and wild characters that made up our youth....but with female leads in science reality adventures, not fantastic but deeply grounded in research & development, engaging young women and men in the pursuit of better solutions that many adults undertake in multiple fields. Sesame Street got some things right on diversity (it's not easy bein green) but we can do much more to promote female leads throughout our storytelling adventures.

Wasn't Grover pretty androgynist?

It's great Sesame Street has made a concerted effort to emphasize gender equality, but let's be real: the only way to convey the benefits of feminism to anyone, especially children, is to lead by example, in one's home and in the workplace-- if only because singing feminist praises will go nowhere in the face of opposition without tangible evidence of its value. (And just imagine how fast detractors would mobilize to get Sesame Street pulled if Abby Cadabby were an ACLU attorney fighting against gender discrimination.) Sesame Street's role is to reinforce the values taught in the home, and if mommy has chosen to let daddy be the "boss," no amount of Muppets will undo that lesson.

I loved Sesame Street as a child and identified with the characters because my mother taught me (by working full time to raise myself and my siblings by her lonesome) that gender does not dictate one's abilities or character. Although I am thrilled to see women being better-represented in any realm, it is my hope that gender will stop being outcome-determinative on Sesame Street and through active parenting, real life will follow suit.

Prairie Dawn and Betty Lou

If you look at the early Sesame and the marketing around it, Prairie Dawn and Betty Lou were both more prominent characters (especially Prairie Dawn). I think that those characters just didn't "catch" the way the monsters did and as Sesame became the PBS cash cow, I think the other muppets were more exploited. And to me, that's the real sadness I have around Sesame. The show became more targeted to suburban kids, the show geared younger and younger, the segments sped up and the toys toys toys came out. To me, Sesame is a shadow of its former greatness.

A few that you may be forgetting

While I agree that the majority of the Muppets found living (and starring) on Sesame Street are male, there are some that stick out to me from years before Abby Cadabby. Zoe for example has been around since 1992 - she loves to dance so much that she always wears a tutu (she also drives a soapbox-style car and has a pet rock named Rocco). Rosita has also been around since around that time (1993) - she is fluent in both English and Spanish - for a while she was doing the "Spanish Word of the Day" on the show (not sure if that's still occurring).

Also, one of my favorite all time Sesame Street Muppets is Prairie Dawn; I have fond memories of her plays (and piano playing). Some great "celebrity" muppets are out there too - BaaBaa Walters and Polly Darton.

I also think it's important to recognize some of the non-muppet lead characters. Two of my favorites are Susan who has been there since the beginning and Maria who joined in '74 and now in addition to acting, writes for the show.

And one of the sweetest guest spots that I have ever seen was made by Jill Scott who came to Sesame Street to sing the classic We Are All Earthlings (cute).

Zoe, Street Gang and other Muppets

Glad to see someone mentioned Zoe; she is one of my all-time favorites. As for the genders, or lack thereof, of the Sesame Muppets, it's true that many seem androgynous, but since Big Bird, Snuffy, Ernie, Bert, Telly, Grover, Oscar, Cookie Monster and Elmo were all referred to on the show as "he"s, children weren't left thinking they may be gender neutral. I don't believe the creators thought of them all as male, but since there weren't (and still aren't) gender-neutral pronouns in the vernacular, they ended up saddled with male pronouns by default (and, probably, partly because none looked stereotypically feminine and masculinity is assumed to be the absence of femininity.)
The issue of female Muppets on Sesame is addressed quite a bit in the nonfiction book Street Gang, a sort of biography of the show. I don't recommend the book -- it gets bogged down in countless somehow-related figures' family histories -- but those parts interested me. Essentially, up until Zoe, the workshop had tried almost every year to introduce a prominent female Muppet, but the audiences didn't respond well to them and so they faded into the background. Unlike the previous efforts, Zoe was heavily advertised before she was introduced -- or even before she was assigned a performer. After being bombarded with hype about the Big New Girl-Muppet, the audiences backlashed over her just not being interesting enough. While I love her, she's *not* complicated, but none of the Muppets are; that's part of their appeal. Given the weight of being the prominent female, though, heightened the expectations of her, and she also sadly faded into the background, the popular girl-Muppet role remaining unfulfilled until Abby Cadabby.
Do I think the lack of female Muppets is related to sexism? Absolutely, but I think it is more the fault of the test audiences, or their *adult influences*, who wouldn't accept the many would-be leads than the creators themselves. They're not blameless -- I think, or at least hope, the whole issue could have been avoided if they had just thrown female pronouns out there in regards to some of the original Muppets, or tried longer and harder with some of the pre-Zoe efforts. There's something to the fact that feedback about all of them was so negative or apathetic, though.

Don't forget Linda Bove, the

Don't forget Linda Bove, the deaf woman who lived on the block. Everybody you know knows at least three signs because of Linda Bove.

Restricting an argument about gender representation to the muppets seems to miss the effort the show really made, and continues to make, to represent a diverse array of real live people. Both the adult characters and those children featured in sketches represented a real diversity of not only gender, race, and class, but also experience. As a child growing up in a house in a small town, I remember being particularly fascinated by a short about a birthday party attended by an ethnically and racially diverse group of children...in an apartment? And, not a room in a house kind of apartment. A modest, multi-room apartment in a large apartment building. Blew my mind.

Monsters

I understand your points and I have the same feelings about Abby Cadabby, but I also grew up watching and loving Sesame Street and I can't remember ever assigning gender to many of the Muppet characters. Some of them were clearly male, like Bert and Ernie, but Telly for instance, or Big Bird could just as easily have been female monsters or even gender neutral.

elmo is male?

I agree. Until I read this article, I never thought about specific genders of some muppets. While obviously Bert and Ernie are male (and a great example of a male friendship), I never thought about the sex of Big Bird, Elmo or Snuffy. Also, what about all the awesome real live women who have been on the show? Buffy St. Marie breast-feeding beside Big Bird was a pretty awesome image for children's television.

muppets have genders?

I think one of the great things about sesame street, is how genderless many of the characters seemed. Not that there aren't problems within Sesame Street, but there are very few other children's television shows that have characters that seem to be as androgynous as many of the muppets (Big Bird, Elmo, Grover, etc.) As I child, I watched countless hours and hours of Sesame Street, but I had to stop and think just now about which characters were male and female. Obviously, strong female role models for young girls are great and important and definitely something that Sesame Street should be including, however I think it's also worth noting how androgynous many of the muppets are, and I'd be interested to see more programming for young children with androgynous characters.

Also, for what it's worth, I can't remember the genders of any of the fraggles except for Red.

Sesame Street

I love Sesame Street most specially Ernie and Bert. When I was still young I wouldn't like to miss watching Sesame Street. Actually it's funny me and my children shared something in common to watch "Sesame Street". LOL

Every time we watch Sesame Street it is a family bonding for us.

Sexism on Sesame Street?

Sexism on Sesame Street? Hm, I'd never thought about it, but you've made a lot of good points. It didn't occur to me until now just how many of the muppets I've loved were "male". Though to be honest, the most intriguing Sesame Street characters to me were Maria and Luis. They were the earliest representations of Latinos on TV (along with Desi Arnaz and Ricardo Montalban) that I can remember, and I always felt so inspired by Maria working at the Fix-It Shop along with Luis.

Does anyone know Casey form

Does anyone know Casey form Mr. Dressup? Maybe that was just a Canadian kid's show? Anyways, Casey was a puppet character that was never identified as male or female. Casey was whatever you wanted him/her to be. The weird thing, though, is that Casey's face and mouth never moved, yet he/she spoke. However, his/her dog, Finnigan, did have a mouth that moved and NEVER made any noise. I have no idea what that was about. Everyone to the tickle trunk!