Autistic Julia joins Bert, Ernie and Abby Cadabby in championing Muppet diversity | Television & radio

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Any adult who watches children’s television can see that diversity is never far from the programme-makers’ minds. Nor will it be a surprise to hear that an autistic character, Julia, already a feature of Sesame Street magazine, will be joining the TV show proper next month. Young children will notice the way she does not make eye contact, but see how other Muppets play with her regardless.

It can be difficult to turn an act of social duty, no matter how admirable, into a real, creative spark. But if anybody does this well, it is Sesame Street, which was launched in 1969 with a mission to be educational and progressive, yet fun.

Which is not to say that the Children’s Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop) always got it right first time. While it is relatively easy to represent blindness by introducing a character such as Aristotle in 1982, who teaches Big Bird about braille, race is more of a challenge. Determined to present children with a varied cast, including Muppets, the show featured, for the early part of the 70s, Roosevelt Franklin, an African-American child in a mostly black school. Though amiable as always, and well intended, his jive talking was essentially a black stereotype rendered in pink felt and was discontinued in 1975.

The show also took time to find a route through gender. For many years, the most important Sesame Street Muppets, including Kermit, Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, The Count, Grover, Cookie Monster (probably) and, latterly, Elmo, were virtually all male. Attempts to balance this with a token Countess, an Alice Snuffleupagus, and a Grundgetta (a female grouch) were never really good enough, so in later years Elizabeth, Zoe, Rosita (bilingual in Spanish) and Abby Cadabby began to fill more airtime.

Of course, the greatest Sesame Street taboo – or supposed taboo – surrounds Bert and Ernie. The gayness of these two cohabiting male puppets is so often presumed that the New Yorker used a picture of them embracing to mark America’s legalisation of same-sex marriage. Later, a cake with their image became the subject of a famous legal battle over gay rights and free speech in Britain. In fact, Sesame Street has repeatedly denied outright that the characters are gay. “Bert and Ernie are best friends,” the Sesame Workshop said in a statement in 2011. “Even though they are identified as male characters … they remain puppets and do not have a sexual orientation.”

Click to view the original article on The Guardian.

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