Sesame Street is the gold standard for kids under five. That’s in terms of entertainment and everything else used by toddlers, including diapers, food, and toys. The people at Sesame Workshop and PBS have worked very hard (read: resisted outsourcing everything to China) to ensure that if you see familiar muppet faces on a given product, you can trust that product. Sesame Street matters. We trust it to raise our kids the right way.
Now, if you don’t have a child between the ages of 2 and 12, this may be news to you, but for the last decade or so, the hottest thing on Sesame Street has been this character, Abby Cadabby:
This is easily confirmed with the most cursory glance at this, this, or this. After Elmo, she’s tops. Yet Abby only debuted in 2006, becoming the third female muppet on the show. Any regular watcher can confirm that her screen time far exceeds that of her two female muppet pals, Zoe and Rosita. No doubt, this is partly because of her segment, “Abby’s Flying Fairy School,” which has been a fixture on every episode of Sesame Street since the show’s big 40th anniversary in 2010. Before “Abby’s Flying Fairy School,” the show had no regular segment “starring” a female muppet. So let’s be clear that Abby brings some welcome and much-needed gender parity to Sesame Street.
Abby Cadabby has something you can’t fake, which is real star quality. She pops off the screen. Even her laugh (“ha HA!”) – serving as a bridge between dialogues and a signal to younger kids that nothing here is scary – is better than the bridge-signal laugh of any of her companion characters, with the possible exceptions of Elmo (“ah-hah-hah-hah”) and Ernie (“kee-hee-hee”). Perhaps most importantly, she’s an excellent role model. As voiced/performed by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, she has spunk, intelligence, enthusiasm, curiosity, morality…she’s pretty much everything you could ask a young girl to be. She’s become the moral center of the show’s muppets. In one of this season’s episodes, Elmo, Rosita and Telly obsess on being “cool” while Abby just does her own thing…and the other three muppets eventually realize they need to be more like Abby. Knowing the characters as we do, the show couldn’t have believably written it any other way. Abby really is terrific, and that’s the problem. Let me explain.
You can learn a lot about Abby’s origins here – or, at least, you can learn what her creators want you to know. The article says that Sesame Workshop consciously created their first lead female in reaction to Dora the Explorer. The Workshop’s director, Liz Nealon, said, “We have our wacky, and we have our gentle, but we wanted a lead female character.” When The New York Times posited, “There’s something suspiciously marketable, of course, about a new character who happens to be a fairy, just now in the midst of a girlish craze for tutus, tiaras and all things princessy,” Nealon responded by saying, “My daughter is comfortable with clothes and hair and makeup and totally embraces her femininity, but can still be strong and completely competitive in a world populated by men and women.”
The New York Times discussed the kid-focus-group testing that led to Abby being small-nosed, pink, and dress-bedecked, and added: “Abby Cadabby’s lashes are long and feminine, her voice pitched somewhere between Elmo’s dog-range high notes and Zoe’s scratchy old-womanish tones…For all the educational consultants and child psychologists the show could have enlisted, the success of the character seems to rely largely on the one simple quality no other Muppet can claim: she’s very, very pretty.” And there’s a bit of a twist; Abby creator Tony Geiss made her a fairy so that she’d also be a bit of an outsider, or as the Times puts it, “Her origins in fairyland would provide plenty of story lines about difference, without the show ‘having consciously to introduce somebody from Indonesia or India,’ Mr. Geiss said.”
Put aside that bit of un-PC speech, and you’ll realize Geiss is cleverer than he lets on. Neither the Times nor Sesame Workshop will cop to it, but the truth is that Abby Cadabby (a kid’s way of saying “Abracadabra”) never would have existed if J.K. Rowling had never been born. The Harry Potter books were a bit of a supernova in the galaxy of teaching to children, and you can hardly blame Sesame Street for wanting to capture a little of the, ahem, magic. Also, Rowling has quite admirably refused to permit her characters to populate books and TV shows that she didn’t write – probably leaving billions on the table. (I know Rowling doesn’t personally need another ten castles, but hundreds of animators and below-the-line TV and book people would be set for life if she changed her mind.) Sesame Street happily filled in the gap, creating a character with a wand who says “poof” and is something of an outsider to the others – basically a younger, sparklier Hermione. Every Rowling reader knows how often Hermione is bullied as a “mudblood,” a human amongst wizards; here, Geiss has wryly flipped that script, making Abby a wizard amongst humans fairy amongst monsters.
(Still not convinced of the Hermione-Abby connection? Watch “Abby’s Flying Fairy School,” which is basically the junior adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Note their distinct, personalized wands. Note Gonnigan’s awesome Gryffindor-esque hoodie and how he has this thing about turning invisible. Note the fact that they’re in a magic school. Note how Sparklenose = McGonagall, Niblet = Dobby, etc. I mean, sure, no one’s getting sued, but it’s not hard to connect the dots.)
Now, I’m not going to complain about Abby being too girly. Sparkles, glitter, blue eye shadow (?), long eyelashes, and dresses are not mutually exclusive with strength and intelligence. I’m not wild about Disney’s “princess industrial complex” (which has only become a thing since around the year 2000), and I don’t like that on the gold standard of educational TV, Abby may serve as a gateway drug for kids into episodes of Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, but hey, I can let that go. I can admit that in 2006, pink was one of the last colors not seen on a featured muppet (red = Elmo, yellow = Bert, blue = Grover, Cookie Monster, green = Oscar, orange = Ernie, Zoe, purple = Count).
On that issue of pink-ness, anyone who’s seen a kid use crayons to color human figures knows that a pink crayon is going to be the kid’s first way to color a Caucasian person’s face, and yeah, maybe Abby’s eyes could have been non-blue and her face a little less “very, very pretty.” Sesame Street seems to have understood that they missed a chance here, and this year they’ve upgraded Segi to featured character, Segi being the very beautiful, obviously African-American, previously unnamed muppet who had sung “I love my hair” and “I’m gonna change the world.” And you know, the show can do more with shaggy, ungirly, turquoise, guitar-playing Rosita, but the reality is that Abby is a star, and Segi and Rosita aren’t going to change that.
I have two issues, and the first is that Abby’s always right. I know that seems like nothing, but in terms of character conflict it’s a bit of a dead end. Great female characters can learn from mistakes and still be role models – perhaps even better role models. I blame the same combination of lazy writing, fear, and feminism that has made other TV characters dull, like Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Viewer 1: “Wonder who’s going to be right in this scene?” Viewer 2: “Uh, no you don’t.”
My second issue is Abby’s magic. No, not in a religious, “Harry Potter is of the devil, straight from hell” way. (Oh, yes, that’s a real quote.) In case there’s any doubt, Abby’s magic is a central part of her character – sometimes she uses it to help Elmo put a ball in a basket, sometimes she turns Chris and Tully into bees, sometimes she conjures a video of what Zoe did wrong, sometimes Cookie Monster steals Abby’s wand to make cookies. So you’re saying: she’s magical, so what?
Well…I realize that in the 21st century, what I’m about to say is officially a rearguard, revanchist, anachronistic position, but…magic doesn’t exist. Fantasy is fantasy. All these superheroes, vampires, wizards, super-robots – they’re not real. And I don’t like that little kids are being subliminally taught otherwise. I don’t mean that a kid may watch Abby, strap on fairy wings, and jump off a cliff as though she could fly – I’ll admit that’s unlikely. I know that kids can usually tell the difference. My concern is that despite our best intentions, magical storytelling leads to magical thinking, which leads either to disappointment or unrealistic worldviews, as though we might use a wand to wave away racism or income inequality.
I know, I know, I know, we grew up with magic as well. But that’s not really true: as kids, we were mostly presented animals behaving anthropomorphically, which probably drew us closer to real-life animals (that’s good!) and had next to nothing to do with spells and super-powers. Very rarely, almost never, did any character fly, teleport, turn invisible, lift a car, shoot rays that heated or froze things, or change something’s constitution (like Abby morphing a cookie into a rubber ball). I realize Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny sometimes strettttched the bounds of reality, but as a rule, we were not taught that the rules of physics could be flipped around with flickers of our fingers. And Elmo and all his friends lived by these same rules – until 2006.
I have no problem with Hermione (she’s awesome!) or the Harry Potter books or movies, partly because they’re marketed to older kids (I don’t see Harry’s face on diapers or foods), and partly because they’re part of a finite world where (nearly) everyone has powers. Abby being introduced to Sesame Street (and the Muppets more generally, including Kermit, Miss Piggy, etc) is like The Great Gazoo being introduced to The Flintstones, inserting magic into a previously unmagical world. Even first-time screenwriters know that you don’t set up a realistic world and then, in a film’s last half-hour, bring in a ghost or goblin or werewolf – even the lowest-budget horror movies follow this axiom, because audiences recoil at the rules being changed.
I would complain less if Abby Cadabby had been introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh’s world or Thomas and Friends (!), but come on, this is Sesame Street. One reason it’s the gold standard is that inner-city kids can see themselves in it, and picture themselves playing on a street with every other kind of kid. Early in the 90s, probably in reaction to the crips and the bloods, Sesame Street decided to “clean up” their Street to appear a lot more like Disneyland’s Main Street – until parents complained, and the show went back to its tried-and-true chipped-paint aesthetic. What I’m saying is that, despite or perhaps because of its muppets (why do kids respond to furry googly-eyed puppets in a way that they don’t respond to anything else?), Sesame Street represents a certain hard-won realism. Storylines in which Abby contravenes that realism work to contravene the overall realism of the show, which undermines its pluralistic, humanistic messages. And I know that because of Abby’s popularity (and the outstanding work of Leslie Carrara-Rudolph), there’s absolutely nothing to be done about it except register my concern. Consider it registered.