How Come Elmo Isn’t a Girl?

[12 May 2003]

By Hildie S. Block

When we think of Sesame Street and other children’s programming on PBS, we likely smile at memories from our own childhoods. We think back to the PBS shows of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and remember Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. We remember being introduced to counting and reading (in English and Spanish). Cute animated shorts, puppet shows about kings and princesses, and the beloved Muppets.

Such fond recollections lead us to expect that the shows will be remarkably creative, that young viewers will be enriched, that characters will represent gender equity and non-violence. That PBS is the one network we can trust to deliver this type of programming.

But if we look at PBS today, we see that not a lot has changed in 30 years. Mr. Rogers’ puppets are faded and old. Muppets like Big Bird, Bert, and Cookie Monster still dominate Sesame Street. Many of the animated shorts seem reminiscent of ‘70s (maybe ‘80s) fashion and culture. Even more striking, by today’s standards, some of the shows on PBS Kids look dated, gender-biased against girls, and violent.

There are likely reasons for this. For one thing, no one wants to change a successful formula. Sesame Street brings in about $800 million a year to PBS, mostly in licensing agreements. The Sesame Street name and images appear on juice boxes, Kmart clothing, best-selling toys, books, and Band-Aids. Sesame Street is not in danger, nor are they in need of donations to keep on keeping on.

And so, PBS Kids (the arm of PBS dedicated to kids programming, as well as the name of a 24-hour cable/satellite network), seems to have stagnated. Sesame Street in particular has grown stale, despite attempts to “update” it. Even with the addition of “Elmo’s World,” which takes up the last third of the show, and the new Blue’s Clues-esque game, “Journey to Ernie,” the show is too much like what it always was.

Moreover, Sesame Street is woefully lacking girl protagonists. All of the old Muppets are male: Big Bird, Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster. Even the newbie, Elmo, is a male. There are three minor character Muppets who are female (and, of course, Miss Piggy), but they are rarely the focus of a storyline. Worse, Sesame Street is typical of the entire PBS Kids lineup. Of the 16 shows listed on the network’s website, seven are named for the male lead and only one is named for a female lead. Sagwa, about a Chinese Siamese Cat, debuted in Fall 2001. While the creator, Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), is clearly a feminist, this sole female lead is an Asian kitty living on a turn-of-the-century feudal estate. That is, she’s from a distant past.

Even more surprising than girls being left behind by PBS Kids is that other networks that cater to the preschool set—commercial networks—are keeping up with the times. While one might shudder at memories of the Smurfs or Care Bears, rest assured that these new shows are dynamic, intelligent, and appropriate. They represent the best of applied educational theory, political correctness, and meaningful strategies for getting along with peers.

Nick Jr. and Noggin also remember that little girls hold up half the sky. Nick Jr., for instance, lists 10 major shows on its website, four named for female leads, five for male leads, and one with a balanced-gendered cast. These include the wonderful Blue’s Clues, featuring a blue dog who teaches kids to solve riddles, speaking through a human host, and the Spanish-language Dora the Explorer who teaches problem-solving, map use, and “preparedness.”

While commercial networks do (more) right by girls, they do even better when it comes to programming the time between shows. That’s to say, even though they are commercial networks, they don’t fill up in the air with pitches for Cocoa Puffs. As most everyone knows, a 30-minute television show actually lasts 22, to allow for commercials. Commercial-free tv is no different, which leaves eight minutes of free time. The commercial networks (with the exception of Nick, Jr.) have jumped in with creative, educational programming, and loveable hosts cum teachers (Paz, Clay, Moose A. Moose) to guide the young viewers between series episodes. PBS has come up with only a simple cartoon character who says, “Doink!”

This lack of creativity is trumped by the spate of violent shows that PBS Kids has recently introduced. Introduced just this year, George Shrinks is about a three-inch boy who is in mortal danger in nearly each episode. Liberty’s Kids focuses on the Revolutionary War, a topic that seems inappropriate for very young viewers. Redwall is about Middle Ages mice monks who wield swords to protect their monastery. Even the math-minded Cyber Kids battle a villain each episode, as if they were ‘70s-era Saturday morning superheroes.

This creates a situation where parents must be vigilant about PBS Kids, to sort the negative from the positive, the downright frightening from the encouraging. Research starting with the Senate hearings in the 1950s has proven a harmful nature of watching violent media, particularly to young children. Whether or not you believe that watching violent media makes children more aggressive or more fearful, the fact is that we expect Public Television to be the most vigilant in avoiding this type of media (especially as the Surgeon General, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association have issued warnings about it).

Other networks sort such “older” kids shows with deliberation that is absent on PBS Kids. Noggin is only on from 6am to 6pm; after that, the station renames itself “the N,” and airs programs for school-age kids. Nick Jr. goes off mid-afternoon to switch to shows like Sponge Bob Square Pants on Nickelodeon. All the networks have very specific times for preschool viewing and older kid viewing, except PBS Kids.

Some of the newer PBS Kids shows, like Between the Lions offer amazingly creative approaches to learning. But in the main, PBS has overlooked girls, left the time between shows a wasteland, and offered violent shows to very young viewers. We expect more from PBS. The competition is too stiff now, with four other networks showing commercial-free preschool programming. PBS Kids: It’s time for really new ideas.

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