How Come Elmo Isn't a Girl?

Hildie S. Block

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.

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.





'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.