06 August 2006

New Muppet to fill an old hole?

Today's New York Times Arts section reports on the creation and deployment of Abby Cadabby, a new little girl Muppet for the upcoming season of Sesame Street. She'll appear on The Today Show later this week. If that sounds like a marketing campaign, it is. Sesame Workshop announced Abby's coming in this June press release, and the Times article makes clear that writers didn't just set out to create a character--they wanted to create a star.

Abby's pink color, big eyes, pompom hair, and status as a fairy in training were all givens. Unlike some previous female Muppets, she wasn't designed to counteract feminine stereotypes; she embodies them. "On the set the joke was about the new toy on the block," the Times reports, "...a dig at the obvious marketability of the new pretty-in-pink creature."

The Muppet and Sesame Street writers have long been criticized for not coming up with enough strong female characters. This trend was especially obvious on the prime-time series Muppets Tonight, whose only major new female character was Spamela Hamderson, a one-note parody that would have been at home in Playboy magazine, circa 1970. But the Sesame Workshop writers have a point that depicting exaggerated traits in males carries less danger of echoing gender stereotypes; a girl monster as trepidatious as Telly could seem sexist, while a boy monster as tough and strong as Herry raises no complaints (and can be used to show boys' soft sides).

The irony here is that there have always been strong but feminine little girls among the Sesame Street Muppets. First was the character of "Betty Lou." She evolved into Prairie Dawn, who retained the original's interest in directing pageants but is also eager to be a news reporter. You do not want to get in these little girls' way. Yet they never gained the merchandising power of Big Bird, Elmo, or Grover. Were they too much like ordinary girls, with no wings or magical powers? Or were they too competent to win sympathy?


Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I was always a fan of Grungetta, who never got nearly enough air-time. Grungetta was messy, grouchy (naturally) and rebellious, but she did have a bow in her hair, so she accepted some traditional aspects of feminine fashion... on her own terms. Technically, she was Oscar's girlfriend, but I always thought of her more as a friend of Oscar's who happened to be a girl.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there have been several female Sesame Street Muppets who are obvious spin-offs of males, as girlfriends, sisters, or mothers. Usually they have longer eyelashes, hairbows, and dresses, but not really original or independent personalities. I think that's why for the most part they haven't lasted.

The two most prominent and long-lasting female Muppets, Miss Piggy and Prairie Dawn, seem to have evolved out of minor background characters. They weren't just female versions of male predecessors.

Anonymous said...

Well, there was Flo Bear (who looked like Bella Abzug, but since she wasn't very good, I don't suppose that helps...)

-- rams

J. L. Bell said...

I must have missed Flo Bear's seasons. The Muppet Wiki says her body was reworked to make Mama Bear, so in a way she's still around.

Baby Bear is another example of a character who wasn't meant to have as long as life as he did. He and the new Abby Cadabby are supposed to be starting school together this season.