April 22, 2005,
The producers of Sesame Street have decided that Cookie Monster is gay.
Hold the phone. I’m kidding. But try to hold onto your reaction for a moment because what they’ve really done to Cookie Monster is worse, they’ve taken away his reason for being.
Since my copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is in storage, let me explain by paraphrasing Hannibal Lecter’s famous dialogue with Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. Imagine Lecter isn’t a superhuman cannibalistic serial killer and that, instead of being a doe-eyed feminist naif in the FBI, Ms. Starling is a doe-eyed feminist naif at the Children’s Television Workshop.
Lecter: “First principles, Clarice. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this creature you seek?
Starling: He entertains children….
Lecter: “No! That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What need does he serve by entertaining children?
Starling: Social acceptance? Personal frustration?
Lecter: No: He craves. That’s his nature. And what does he crave? Make an effort to answer.
Lecter: No! He is not a “food monster!” He is a cookie monster!
But not according to the well-meaning social engineers of PBS. After three decades, they’ve announced he’s not a Cookie Monster at all. In the interests of teaching kids not to be gluttons, CTW has transformed Cookie Monster into just another monster who happens to like cookies. His trademark song, “C is for Cookie” has been changed to “A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food.” And this is a complete and total reversal of Cookie Monster’s ontology, his telos, his raison d’etre, his essential Cookie-Monster-ness.
If the Cookie Monster is no longer a cookie monster, what is he? Why didn’t they just name him “Phil: The Monster Who Sometimes Likes to Eat a Cookie”? Conceptually, this is no different than the idiot animal rights types who want their dogs and cats to be vegans, too. Cookie Monster cannot help being a Cookie Monster any more than your tabby can stop liking fish. It is their nature to do so. Why not just declare that Big Bird is now an elm tree? If the ineffable, inexorable, immutable nature of Cookie Monster’s cookie-eating can be erased for some good cause, why should Big Bird’s birdness be safe?
Sesame Street and its defenders say they are just trying to do their bit in the war against child obesity. That’s nice. But at what price? The whole point of the Cookie Monster character was to have a character who was silly because he ate so much. If Cookie Monster were a Greek god, he’d be the god of gluttony. Wouldn’t it have been more honest and simply better to implore kids not to be too much like the Cookie Monster rather than make the Cookie Monster like everyone else? We all understand we shouldn’t be like Oscar the Grouch.
Who says that making Cookie Monster into moderate eater will improve kids' behavior anyway? Indeed, for years, Cookie Monster has devoured not only cookies, but things which merely look like cookies, including plates, Frisbees, and the moon. If Cookie Monster is so influential, why haven’t I heard more about kids going to the hospital after trying to eat plates?
Imagine if in the name of combating homophobia, the producers declared Bert and Ernie were gay. They’re not brothers and they live together, so it wouldn’t require much rewriting. The Christian Right would go batty, but not necessarily for the right reason. Even before complaints about homosexuality enter into it, it would be outrageous to “sexualize” the characters at all.
But why is it that sexuality and race are the only topics that set off our natural revulsion of social engineering? Indeed, all of the fretting and foaming about gays in children’s programming Spongebob Square Pants, Tinky-Winky, etc is that it tends to crowd out the larger philosophical issues of moral relativism in the popular culture. The social engineering on display in the negation of Cookie Monster’s identity is no less sweeping than it would be if they declared Grover a transsexual.
In fact, that’s what makes this decision so hypocritical. Sesame Street normally drenches kids with “be true to yourself” pap and identity politics. In one episode, Elmo and Whoopi Goldberg (no relation) have a long talk about how they’d never want to give up, respectively, their skin or fur color because that would be changing who they are. Well, the hue of Elmo’s fur is less essential to his identity than Cookie Monster’s gluttony is to his. Rosita, the Hispanic Muppet, is often told not to be ashamed of her accent because that’s just a part of who she is. Maybe they should ditch it, in the name of good diction. Heck, maybe the kids in wheelchairs should get up and walk next season because we’re all in favor of kids being able to walk.
(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services