Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Here's to Girly Girls and Muppets, Too

A recent article by Tanya Barrientos of the Philadelphia Enquirer (reprinted today in the San Jose Mercury News) noted the derision encountered by PBS executives as they introduced Sesame Street's first new muppet in thirteen years--a little girl named Abby Cadabby. So what's the problem? Well, it would seem that Abby Cadabby is a girly girl. She's pink. She wears a pretty dress. She has sparkly pink hair. She dabbles in magic.

Ms. Barrientos quotes one of the critics, Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, as saying:

"The last thing little girls need is one more pink fairy. My understanding is that she's a little incompetent with her magic, too. I'm concerned that now even the Sesame Workshop has bought into the girlie, girlie commercialized image of what it is to be feminine. They could have had a Asian girl, they could have had a girl who's really good at math. They could have had someone who's just more complex."

There are so many things wrong with this statement that I'm not sure where to begin, but I'll give it a shot.

1) "My understanding is . . ." Does this mean that Ms. Linn has not even watched the show? So is she judging on appearances? Isn't this discouraged by parents everywhere?

2) "[S]he's a little incompetent with her magic": Do we demand that Elmo color within the lines? She's THREE YEARS OLD. Very few of us are competent at any one thing at three. Those who are are exceptional. Gifted. Not necessarily someone that the average three year old can relate too. So maybe not a good character for a show targeted to younger children.

3) "They could have had an Asian girl . . ." Sure, and they could have chosen an African-American girl or an Indian girl or any other ethnicity. But why? If I remember correctly, Rosita and Prairie Dawn are the only Muppets on Sesame Street who have a specific ethnicity. What ethnicity is Elmo, the most popular (at least in my house)? Or Cookie Monster, who runs a close second? Bert and Ernie are closer to having an identifiable ethnicity, but they could go one of a couple of different ways.

4) ". . . they could have had a girl who's really good at math." See number two above--SHE'S THREE YEARS OLD. Sesame Street has always been about learning, not about how to handle being a child prodigy. And anyway, Count Von Count is still very much a part of the show, so the math thing is covered.

5) "They could have had an Asian girl, they could have had a girl who's really good at math." I had to read that one three times. While I sincerely hope that it was just an unfortunate coincidence that these two ideas were in the same sentence, I have to wonder if Ms. Linn has her priorities straight. While I'm a huge fan of Noggin and public television for my children, I would rather have them watch a few commercials than learn to assign these implied ethnic stereotypes, which brings me to,

6) Why do we assume that girlie girls are less capable and/or less smart than their more obviously bookish sisters? Why the surprise when a beautiful woman is good at math and science? Why the flip-side disappointment that the less-attractive woman won't be able to do your taxes after all? Do we just assume braininess is a built-in survival mechanism that the more attractive women have been able to turn off as unnecessary? I'm fairly certain that can't be it as standards of beauty change too fast for evolution to keep up.

I don't wonder these things idly, as an impartial observer in need of a blog topic. I live with an uber-girlie girl. Hannah, who I happen to think is gorgeous and smart and funny, will only wear dresses and skirts, the twirlier the better. I've tried, but she decided at 18 months that pants just weren't for her. Sure, it's frustrating sometimes because it might be a wee bit safer to climb in jeans and shoes. But was I proud when she responded to a playmate's "You can't climb a tree in THAT" with "Yes I can--watch!" as she proceeded to out climb him--in her dress and flip flops!

And when I say that Hannah is a girlie girl, it goes deeper than just what she likes to wear. She plays dress up and, yes, princesses are her favorite. Her favorite color is pink and has been from the first time she saw it--this even after I made sure that all of her baby clothes were purple, green and/or yellow. She's never had a pink bedroom but is determined that her new room will be pink with black polka dots. She has tea parties and makes hats for the bears and dolls who attend. Every spare piece of fabric becomes a blankie for some random "baby," some of which are then tucked into socks for their naps.

But my girlie girl is also good at math. She loves books. Her favorite place on earth is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and she will pretend for weeks on end that our playroom is a tank filled with sharks and tuna and sea turtles. She knows how to tell a giant squid from an octopus and can tell you the names of some of the jelly fish. She knows her letters and the sound each makes, although she's not really interested in reading yet (but she will let you know if you ever skip a page).

In short, Hannah is just like almost every other person on the planet--there is much more to her than you might see at first glance. And rather than making her any less complex, being a girlie girl makes her that much more interesting. I wouldn't have her any other way.

So here's to the girlie girls everywhere, even (without naming names) those who sell themselves as brainless twits. Because after all, even if you start with a famous name, it takes a certain amount of smarts to make cluelessness your raison d'etre.


Jess said...

Very interesting, and good food for thought. Personally I feel that Hannah is beyond brilliant in most every way. I also feel that she is far far far from the norm of American society in her self identity and self-esteem. Kudos.

I also agree in some ways to what the critic was saying about the new muppet character. MOST of television markets girls as those who like fairies, magic, pink pink pink, polly pocket with their happy meals, cosmetics at 3, kitchen sets, barbie, and princesses .... as you can guess I am attempting not to wretch as I think of all the not-so-cool girlie girl stuff that penetrates our psyches.

I feel parents turn to Sesame Street to escape all of that. Forget the ethnicity questions or the academic concerns, for me Sesame Street is where I go so my nappy headed munchkins can feel like so much diversity is the way to go... not be shown YET AGAIN that girls like pink and are neurotic or flighty, yet socially secure. That is what Sesame Street was for me when I was a little kid too. I was far from a girlie girl (still am) and it was nice to get a break from massive girlie girl culture for a change. I felt good about myself watching sesame street because unlike the brady bunch or bewitched or other shows... I got a break form the blond haired blue eyed leads. The one character I HATED growing up was little whitey blonde blue eyes in a dress Prarie Dawn. But I always wished Maria and Gordon were my neighbors... not the Mr. Rogers type freaks I had. OOof that man always gave me the willies.

Yeah, I don't think a girlie girl is in keeping with the Sesame Street genre of characters, but then again, I'm sure there was some uproar over Zoe when she first joined the crew in her tu-tu and bracelets... and she is quite cool in my book.

We all just love to pick on the new kid, yes?

tonya said...

Hi Melanie, I found your blog through Jess. A belated *thank you* for the chocolate cookies you sent along while I was on bedrest-- turned out to be the same day I gave birth! ;-)

I've been thinking about your post for a couple of days. As the mom of a girlie girl who also has blonde hair and blue eyes, I struggle with how to nourish her self esteem without the thought crossing her mind that she needs to look like Barbie or Cinderella to be considered pretty. She LOVES princesses, and really believes she is one. Why bring reality crashing down on her quite yet? She has friends enough that can be quite harsh (what ever made four year old girls such huge critics anyways? I can't believe some of the things I hear them say at preschool!)

I like Sesame Street because it doesn't play to stereotypes (as much as other shows), and it lets kids express imagination and see others work through conflicts and learn numbers/letters and be exposed to a broader range of folks than they might in real life. It also doesn't tend to wind my girl up, unlike most other TV.

I agree with your conclusions, and hope this new character grows on me the way Elmo and Zoe had to. ;-)