Will a fairy muppet be a good role model for girls?
By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff | August 14, 2006
Surely, Sesame Workshop knew what it was wading into. Once word got out that ``Sesame Street" was unveiling its first new female muppet in 13 years -- and that she would be colored pink, and dressed in fairy gear -- the opinion press started to rumble. Is Abby Cadabby a ``third-wave feminist," the kind empowered by high-heeled-shoes? Is she a horrid throwback to stereotypes? A shameless Tinkerbell knock-off?
That's a lot of heady talk for a puppet, but it makes sense, given the show's place in the world. ``Sesame Street," which launches its 37th season today, is still the gold standard of children's TV. Female muppets are in short supply -- strange, for a franchise that otherwise works to be diverse. A new girl, by definition, means a lot.
There are reasons to be skeptical of Abby, with her magic wand and gossamer wings. But they have less to do with feminism than inspiration.
The great achievement of ``Sesame Street" is its enduring characters, created from puppets with static faces and few clothes. Elmo, in particular, has a mysterious power to lodge in a preschooler's mind, owing to some magic combination of redness, voice, and wavy-arm energy. Whether those qualities were assiduously market-tested is unclear; my sense, from back-reading, is that Elmo just caught on.
Abby, by contrast, seems a concoction of focus group demands, and as such, she's a fair amount fussier than her ``Sesame Street" companions. She has a ruffly dress, heaps of glitter in her hair, polka-dot freckles and a coquettish overbite. Her mother, we are told, was Cinderella's fairy godmother. (Blessedly, she does speak proper English, in contrast to Baby Bear, her speech-impediment-stricken classmate at the Storybook Community School.)
A back-story so proscribed provides less room for originality, and Abby's ability to ``poof" in and out of situations seems an easy trick to substitute for actual personality traits. Her girlishness, too, seems a bit mail-ordered: sweet voice, shy nature, cheerleader enthusiasm.
Compare her to Zoe, arguably the most prominent female ``Sesame Street" denizen to date. Zoe may be orange, not pink, but she's hardly a classic tomboy; she asserts her femininity with a tutu and barrettes. But Zoe is a spitfire. Abby is demure. Zoe tussles with Elmo, while Abby gazes at him adoringly. If her eyelashes could move, she would probably bat them.
As a role model, Zoe seems the better bet, and she's also more believable as a well-rounded 3-year-old kid. Fortunately, she'll still be prominent this season, in such skits as a take-off of the musical ``Hair." The show remains an ensemble affair that still retains its trademarks: a nice, perfunctory treatment of people with disabilities; clever use of celebrities (Amy Sedaris looks uncharacteristically girly, herself, when she shows up as Snow White); spot-on parodies, such as a new alphabet feature, ``Law & Order: Special Letters Unit."
Still, it's clear that ``Sesame Street" is searching for someone new to market, and Abby represents the show's latest push into the lucrative realm of licensed products. Rail all you want, but that's the state of the world. You can't really blame ``Sesame Street" for wanting to compete with Dora the Explorer, the ubiquitous Nick Jr. character, whose merchandise makes up a $3 billion industry.
I just have my doubts that Abby is the answer -- that female preschoolers have been waiting around for the next great fairy princess to emerge. Of course, I haven't been privy to the focus groups. I can only speak with authority about a certain 2 -year-old I know quite well, an Elmo devotee who, like most girls her age, is equally enchanted by baby dolls and motorcycles.
I test-marketed Abby on this toddler, of course, and she did seemed intrigued, for a time. But she hasn't stopped asking for Elmo.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com
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