06 August 2006

COMMENT: Sesame Street Has a Lesson for Comics

When the question of diversity comes up in comics, it's always interesting to watch the likes of Joe Quesada, Dan DiDio, et al stumble over themselves to not put their foots in their mouths as they cautiously dance around the subject. The New York Times has an interesting article today about Sesame Street's newest female muppet, Abby Cadabby, that has some direct relevance to the comics industry.

A Girly-Girl Joins the 'Sesame' Boys

LIZ NEALON, executive vice president and creative director of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind "Sesame Street," wasn't sure exactly what she wanted in a new Muppet for the show's 37th season, which starts on Aug. 14. But she did have one major goal: She wanted the creative team, at long last, to come up with a female Muppet star...

Even bastions of liberal creativity like "Sesame Street" are apparently vulnerable to the realities of show business, including a disproportionately high ratio of male to female puppeteers, said Rosemary Truglio, executive vice president for education and research at Sesame Workshop. (Miss Piggy has always been played by male puppeteers, starting with Frank Oz.) And a show as politically sensitive as this one has an added challenge: finding female characters that make kids laugh, but not laugh at them as female stereotypes.

"If Cookie Monster was a female character," said Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer of the show, "she'd be accused of being anorexic or bulimic. There are a lot of things that come attached to female characters." For example, said Deborah Aubert, associate director of national programs and training services at Girls, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group. "It would be hard to have a female character with Elmo's whimsy who didn't also seem ditzy."

But it's not just a high-minded interest in gender equality that drove the search for a strong female character. The success of "Dora the Explorer," a show built around a strong female lead, has not gone unnoticed by its competitors at "Sesame Street." " ‘Sesame Street' is living in an increasingly competitive market," Ms. Nealon said. "We used to be the only game in town, and now we're having more conversations about where are all the points of appeal of our cast. We're trying to be as absolutely broad-based as we can be."
The competition, of course, is much more limited in comics than it is in children's television, and neither Marvel nor DC ever really push the envelope (on anything significant, at least) in a way that might force the other side to step up their game. The status quo works for both of them pretty well and none of their nominal competitors -- Image, Dark Horse or any of the myriad indie publishers who depend on the direct market for survival -- are in a position to challenge them. Not in the direct market, at least.

Particularly interesting was the noted difficulty in conceiving a viable character who could transcend the societal baggage that's attached to virtually every minority group, a significant hurdle in forums where minority characters are few and far between to begin with, resulting in every new character bearing the full burden of representation. As the article notes, Sesame Street is somewhat ahead of the curve thanks to the presence of several female muppets in supporting roles -- as well as a history of prominent female human cast members -- so Abby Cadabra won't have to bear that extra burden.

Despite a variety of sometimes well-intentioned, ofttimes ill-conceived attempts at creating diverse characters, minorities in the Marvel and DC universes haven't quite gotten to that point yet, especially in the hands of writers who grew up primarily reading comics and see the inclusion of minority characters as either a personal mission or editorial mandate, as opposed to simply reflecting the world beyond their limited scope. And, of course, it wouldn't hurt if Marvel and DC had more minorities of all types actually writing and/or editing for them, the first real step towards broadening their fictional worldviews.


Juisarian said...

Big Bird should be a girl muppet.

SanctumSanctorumComix said...

Big Bird WAS/IS voiced by a woman.

There was really no reason for B.B. to BE a male, except maybe for "nudity".

I dunno.


zilchic said...

Caroll Spinney (a Man) is currently and has ALWAYS been Big Bird. In 2000, the Library of Congress declared Spinney, as Big Bird, a "living legend."