[7 August 2006]
Today’s New York Times has an item in the Arts and Leisure section about Abby Cadabby, a new female muppet designed to be a lead character on Sesame Street. Reportedly, the character “has her own point of view and ‘is comfortable with the fact that she likes wearing a dress.’” What a breakthrough; finally those women who like wearing dresses will get some attention in our culture, because heaven knows, it’s hard for a girl who wants to conform to traditional expectations about gender. Liz Nealon, the show’s creative director, wanted “a girly girl” to fill an underrepresented niche, since, she explained, “We have our wacky, and we have our gentle.” So women apparently come in three flavors now; wacky, gentle and (the somewhat tautological) girly; this makes them slightly less flexible in terms of personality than a Dungeons & Dragons character, for whom there were nine alignments available (if you count “neutral”).
Abby Cadabby seems like an attempt to mollify family-values critics on the right, who have targeted publicly funded children’s television and who seem to regard any attempt to unshackle women from traditonal roles as an assault on the family and the future of the species. “Political correctness hampers creativity,” Nealon tells the Times, which seems like a dead giveaway. So in order to be “creative” one must be able to work in the tried and true gender stereotypes that have been worked for centuries? Any reference to political correctness, the bogus boogeyman of the right, is a tip-off that pressure is being applied by conservatives, or that a conservative point of view has taken root that promotes conformity as freedom and paints subversion as doctrinaire. Sesame Street seems to have had a long history of not playing this game in the past; it’s sad to see it undermine its reputation as a cultural niche where the Disney rules don’t apply.
It’s nice that the show wants a female lead character; it’s counter-productive though when the reason is to turn that female character into a popular toy. (What else is femaleness good for?) The article sees Abby Cadabby—pink and insectile; a kind of warmed-over feminized Harry Potter imbued with magical skills (a.k.a. feminine wiles) and designed to be able to look “vulnerable” and “beseeching”—as a attempt to make a marketable female muppet that can be a new cash cow for the Sesame franchise and compete with Dora the Explorer. “There are so many cute things out there,” one of Sesame’s product managers explained, “but in order to make them want one doll over another, I think the real deciding factor is how much they’ve connected with the Muppet from the show. And you’ve got to be able to capture that.” The best way to do that? Make a character who conforms to the ideals of many misguided parents who crave a feminine doll-child; then the child too can idolize and “connect” with this creature that obviously wins approval. The little princess in the household can play with her little princesses from the culture. Perhaps it’s an unfair caricature, but this is what seems troubling about third-wave feminism in general (at least the aspect of it that champions the manipulation of femininity as empowerment, anyway); it wants to redeem gender stereotypes by seizing control of the way they are marketed. Gender difference becomes a kind of comparative advantage to maximize and exploit, making irreducible personal qualities into product conforming to customer expectations. Abby Cadabby is femininity for sale in doll form, and it is also an object lesson in how to manufacture the valuable product of femininity for yourself out of the raw material of your own body and sensibility.